Brain Freeze

Sure, you know how to find a beacon in a parking lot and dig a pit, but there’s a lot more to avalanche safety than simply carrying the mandatory rescue gear and looking at snow crystals. The most important thing to carry? It’s in your head.

Harold Huckjam and three friends leave the parking lot for a ski tour on a bluebird day. They carry with them the requisite safety gear and they even know the danger rating issued by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC): moderate or yellow. They reach the top of Jonny Gnar Couloir, dig a quick pit, pound out a compression test—25 taps and their block slides into the pit: a “hard” score.

Moderate danger and a hard compression test! They are good to go.

Not exactly. Moderate danger means human-triggered avalanches are possible, while a test pit only gives you a snapshot of a single spot on a variable snow-slope. If someone said to you, “It’s possible you’ll start an avalanche by skiing this run”, would you do it? With so little information, you should think twice.

Remember, while the danger rating and a test pit are useful pieces of the puzzle, they won’t give you the full picture. So, with the best turns of the year still ahead, expand your skillset and hone your decision-making process by learning a few new tricks.

The CAIC ( issues a morning and evening bulletin each day of winter. They give a danger rating, as well as a comprehensive analysis of terrain, weather and snowpack factors related to avalanches. The danger rating (low, moderate, considerable, high or extreme) is certainly a starting point, but the wise folks at the CAIC also give you insight as to what terrain features, aspects and elevations are most affected. A danger rating, without that full context, isn’t all that useful. So read the whole bulletin and discuss it with your team in relation to where you’re skiing that day.

    Buried Alive: Outdoor Retailer’s Kenji Harotunian volunteers to be buried under the snow for an hour using only a Black Diamond Avalung to breathe at last winter’s trade show demo at Snowbasin, Utah. Researchers monitored his vitals. The Avalung works not by supplying air but by diverting carbon dioxide so that a buried victim won’t suffocate.
Buried Alive: Outdoor Retailer’s Kenji Harotunian volunteers to be buried under the snow for an hour using only a Black Diamond Avalung to breathe at last winter’s trade show demo at Snowbasin, Utah. Researchers monitored his vitals. The Avalung works not by supplying air but by diverting carbon dioxide so that a buried victim won’t suffocate.

You’ve seen those posters with the word “Teamwork” printed along the top? A maudlin aphorism usually follows, scripted to transform your burned-out colleagues into ideal teammates. I offer this considerably less sentimental backcountry version: “Teamwork: Because Who Wants to Die Under Ten Tons of Snow?”.

A bit dark perhaps, but the point is, the folks you choose as your ski posse may just save your life.

“Create a team, not just a group of guys you ski with,” advises Tim Brown, a ski guide with more than a decade of experience who trains instructors for the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).

“You want to be with people with a ‘shared mental model,’” says Brown. “That just means ski partners with shared goals, similar levels of risk acceptance and similar plans in terms of communication—what you’re looking for, what information you’ll gather and how.”

Think about your ski buddies and notice who shares your vision of backcountry fun. If you’re running Dukes and looking to land your first back-flip this year, then maybe the 40-something guy with crotchety knees and a kid on the way isn’t your ideal partner (that’d be me).

Your solid team will help mitigate the “human factors” involved in backcountry decision-making. These factors can be any number of insidious behaviors or habits that lead us towards dangerous situations on snow.

“The biggest one I see here in Colorado is the idea, ‘Hey, it’s got tracks on it, therefore it’s safe,’” says Brown. He goes on to explain that the variability of the snowpack and the presence of “trigger points” on a slope doesn’t mean that just because the first guy got away with it, you will.

Other human factors include “powder fever,” the mad rush to get first tracks; “familiarity,” or being lulled into a false sense of security simply because you’ve ridden there before; and “consistency,” or the tendency for people to keep doing what they’re doing. This last one is devious in ski terrain, because after an hour skin uphill, who wants to make the call to turn away from an epic line?

Your A-team should discuss which human factors affect your group and consider taking an AIARE avalanche course (see below). These steps will facilitate a good group dynamic and keep you safer for years to come.

“I also see poor understanding of terrain,” continues Brown. “Most people are kinda ‘over’ the resort; they’re looking for steep and deep in the backcountry. Rollovers, or convexities, and dropping cornices onto thinner snow—these are the features that are fun, but can also be dangerous.”

Terrain assessment and hazard recognition are two areas critical to expert decision making. Any part of the landscape that amplifies the consequences of an avalanche—cliffs, tight trees, a narrowing gully, even a lake below a couloir—is a danger zone and has to be taken into account when deciding to green-light or back off. Miss one of these features and the results can be tragic.

“You’ve got to learn to see terrain differently in the backcountry,” Brown explains. “You don’t need much of an avalanche to get swept off a cliff. I see people crossing above others, or a group skiing one at a time then bunching up at the bottom of an avalanche path. Outside the (ski) area, you might not get away with that stuff.”

These are just a few examples of ways to expand your decision-making repertoire in the backcountry. An AIARE avalanche course will get you started in the avalanche game. Brown runs the education program for Alpine World Ascents (, which offers AIARE level I and II classes, as does the Colorado Mountain School ( The truth is, even going through the three-level AIARE curriculum is no key to unlocking all the mysteries of snow science and backcounry travel. It’s a lifelong journey. You should never stop learning. Sign up, get dialed and play safe. •

A Boulder-based freelance writer, Rob Coppolillo has completed his rock, alpine and ski courses with the American Mountain Guides Association and AIARE level I, II and III avy courses.

The Forgotten Hero—Your Shovel
The Forgotten Hero—Your Shovel

Avy beacons are sexy, but the real hero during an avalanche rescue is your shovel.

Most avy courses neglect to focus on “strategic shoveling,” but research shows disciplined digging greatly reduces burial times. Uncovering a buried victim in less than 15 minutes is the key to a rescue, taking much longer to dig someone out runs the risk of turning a rescue into a body recovery.

A well practiced rescuer should be able to locate a buried victim with his beacon in two or three minutes. That leaves more than ten minutes to dig and stay within the 15-minute window, but keep in mind, a burial of just one meter requires moving more than a ton of snow.

Backcountry Access (BCA) has done extensive testing with the CAIC to determine the fastest digging strategies with one, two or three shovelers—a realistic scenario for ski-touring groups.

Conduct your (quick, efficient, well practiced) beacon search, identify the victim’s exact location with (methodical) probing and then it’s time to dig. Determine the burial depth of your victim. (If your probe’s depth markings have rubbed off, reapply them with a marker or nail polish before you head out.) If it’s less than one meter, start digging immediately below the probe—the focus now is getting to the victim quickly and establishing an airway for her. Be careful not to collapse the victim’s air pocket while digging.

If your burial is greater than one meter, take a deep breath and get strategic. Take 1.5 times the burial depth and begin digging that distance downhill from the probe. For example, if the person is buried two meters deep, go downhill three meters and begin digging. Dig at an angle downwards, throwing snow to the sides as you go. Once you are lifting snow up to your waist (the hole is now thigh-deep), then it’s more efficient to throw it behind you. If you have two shovelers, then work side-by-side. If you have a third shoveler, she or he can clear snow as the two primary diggers move it rearwards.

Don’t get bogged down by the numbers and configurations, just spend a few minutes on your next ski tour practicing. Bury a pack 1.25 m down and dig it out using strategic shoveling techniques. It will be immediately obvious, especially with a deeper burial, that starting downhill and digging at a downward-horizontal angle into the victim, rather than straight down, saves precious minutes. Get dialed with your crew and if the worst happens, you’ll be ready.

For instructional videos on BCA’s strategic shoveling techniques, visit
Now that you know how to use your brain, take stock of the tools to complement that grey matter.

BCAFloat30_clip_FIX_2 copyBlowing Up
The latest safety innovation beyond beacons is a backpack with internal bladders that inflate during an avalanche. After the wearer pulls a ripcord-style handle, the bladder deploys, helping to keep a person atop an avalanche. BCA’s Float ($499; is by far the least expensive. Though not widely used in US, the results speak for themselves: over 90 percent of test dummies end up on top of avy debris. I haven’t ponied for an inflatable pack yet. I do use my tried-and-true Black Diamond Avalung ($130; It’s light and effective … if you get it in your mouth during an avalanche. Practice with it and keep it ready!

S1_scan_overview_FIX_2 copyBeacons
The best new transcievers use three antennae to locate victims more accurately, particularly in deep burials. But remember, no matter which beacon you choose, it is essential to practice with it and know its quirks and functions. The newest and most anticipated is BCA’s Tracker2 ($335; It has the fastest processor of any beacon, a super-simple interface, but won’t “mark” multiple beacons as you search. Relatively inexpensive and straightforward. The Barryvox Pulse ($450; employs a clear display, allows you to mark beacons as you find them (simplifying multiple burials), and many guides use it. I just got a Pulse this season and I’m loving it so far. The Pieps DSP ($450; marks for multiple burials and claims the best range. Ortovox’s S1 ($499; is the future of beacons, using a flip-phone design which automatically goes into search mode when opened. The LCD display locates your victim in space and the pinpoint function is the best out there. The processor suffers with multiple burials, especially once your battery voltage drops.

34501 XLC 490 10_clip_FIX_ copyLess Is More
CAMP is an Italian company known for its super light gear. In addition to a carbon probe (125 grams, 240 cm), CAMP makes pared-down packs (2.2 pounds for 30 liters of storage), a featherweight ski helmet (7.4 ounces), as well as ultralight hard goods like crampons (their XLC aluminum is under 14 ounces).

A carbon probe is another quick quarter-pound off your back, too. Bruce Edgerly at BCA says of his probe, “I carry a…BCA Carbon 260 and apply (the) weight savings to a better shovel…”

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