by Tom McKean

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A cold sweat chills me from under my backpack straps. The rhythm of my ascent up the clean white mountain side hypnotizes me. Slide-clack slide-clack. My skis cut a new climbing track up the wind-drifted slope. I climb up along a sub-ridge with a friend, past twisted sub-alpine fir trees barraged by wind since germination. It’s a struggle to keep grins off our faces despite the steep grade and wind-hardened snow. It’s a bluebird day in the Rocky Mountains and that is hard to beat.

Exploring backcountry terrain in winter is inherently risky, so there are a few things I bring along in my backpack and in my brain to try to minimize that risk or avoid it altogether.

  • backcountry traveling 2Shovel – a light and sturdy aluminum shovel is absolutely essential for a good winter backcountry kit. Not only is it necessary for digging test pits to evaluate potential avalanche hazard, but shovels are great for digging out tent pads, fire pits, and are even great to sit on if you want to stay out of the snow.
  • Cord – bringing a length of nylon cord (4-6 mm thick, at least 10 m long) is a great idea. It’s a necessary part of proper test pit procedures, can be useful in rescue scenarios and has a host of other uses.
  • Probe – it is really important to continually check the depth of the snow pack you’re traveling across. Probes are collapsible, graduated aluminum tubes that can be poked down through the snow to measure its depth. They are also essential for a successful rescue in the case of an avalanche burial.
  • Avalanche beacon – always be wearing your beacon and have it turned on from the time you leave the trailhead to the time you get back. Make sure every member of your party knows how to use their beacon, and make sure to practice with them (and the rest of your safety gear) before you get into potential avalanche terrain. Keep in mind: beacons will not guarantee your safety. Do not rely on them.
  • Small repair/survival kit – you never know when gear is going to malfunction. Bindings, boots, and snowshoes can break. Bringing a small bag with a multi-tool, knife, headlamp, extra batteries, ski scraper, lighter/matches, and thermal blanket can really be a life saver–especially if you’re a worrier like me.
  • Avalanche forecast – always, always, always check the avalanche advisory from your local avalanche center before you decide where you’re headed, or even whether you’re going out at all.
  • Knowledge and common sense – the best way to survive an avalanche or exposure in the backcountry is not to get in a bad situation in the first place! Be up to speed on safe snow travel, route-picking, avalanche avoidance, and snow science, and know the area you’re going to play in. If you’ve never been there before, go out with or talk to someone who has.
  • A Plan – make an itinerary for your day. Write down notes or thoughts after you read the advisory, map your route if you’ve never been there before. Record what you see while you’re out for future reference. Let someone know about your plan back home. Talk about your plan while you’re out with your partners. I have found that this helps me maximize my experience in the backcountry. I don’t waste time deciding where to go, and it helps me make more confident safety decisions.

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We crest the main ridge. We’re entering the slope a few hundred feet east at a safe entry point that’s not too wind drifted.Wind blows snow into our faces. One last safety check. Boots tight, bindings secure. I watch my friend descend onto the face, a sheltered slope still clinging to some good snow. He makes arcing turns as he paints a portrait of sheer bliss.

Butterflies fill my stomach and the sun-laden snow seems even brighter. He makes it down and signals for my descent from a safe location. One last check of the boots and I roll over the edge.

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