The Dangers of Early Season Backcountry Skiing

Clay Malott | BackcountryBackcountry | AvalancheAvalanche
backcountry
As fun as early-season backcountry skiing can be, it is important to be aware of the unique hazards that exist. Photo credit: Ascent Magazine

Early season backcountry skiing is definitely fun. Skiing in fall among the turning Aspen trees with untracked blower powder is a treat, but being aware of the dangers it presents is important to keep in mind.

Trees

backcountry, trees,
Early season tree skiing can be both fun and dangerous. Photo credit: Ski.com

Tree skiing is some of the best backcountry skiing out there, but early season snow coverage poses serious dangers. The shallow snowpack means large shrubs, rocks, or roots may be lurking right beneath the surface ready to ruin your skis, or worse, your knees. When doing tree skiing with shallow snowpack, assess the snow depth on the skin track up so you have an idea for the depth of the snow covering said dangers.

Rocks

Any area at the margins of gullies, wind slabs, and on rollovers where the snowpack is thin is composed entirely of depth hoar. The thin areas at the margins of slabs are the easiest place to trigger a large avalanche at the moment. 12-20-2016 (full) Any area ...
Rocks that are covered by just a few inches are never fun for your skis… or your knees! Photo credit: CAIC

In alpine terrain above treeline, the same dangers apply as in trees. You must be cautious of rocks lurking under the unconsolidated snowpack. Again, a good strategy is to test the snowpack on the way up. Another good strategy for super early season skiing (before there is uniform consistent snow coverage) is to use satellite imagery to your advantage to ensure that you are skiing only above perennial snowfields. Some good resources to do this are the Sentinel Hub Playground or the Sentinel layer on Caltopo.

Avalanches

Don’t let the thin nature of the early season snowpack fool you. Just because it’s thin doesn’t mean it can’t slide! Photo credit: Salomon Mountain Academy

Just like any other time of the year with snow, avalanches are a typical problem in the backcountry. Avalanches, especially in the early season, really depend on conditions, so there isn’t any “most common” avalanche in the early season. You can find a great rundown of the nine different avalanche problems and the conditions that they are correlated with from the CAIC here.

Early season backcountry skiing has a low snowpack, and many risks to be aware of. While there are things that can be done to mitigate these risks, the #1 thing you can do to stay safe is to always ski with a partner. Always educate yourself on the snow and weather conditions before going out ahead of time. This season will see many more backcountry skiers than usual who may not be able to take an official AIARE avalanche course. If this is the case, please educate yourself ahead of time. Some good ways to do this are by reading Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain or, at the bare minimum, familiarize yourself with hazards and mitigation techniques in the backcountry from avalanche.org.


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