Winter Adventure Guide: Beware the slides of March
Early in the pre-dawn, you’ll hear the early-morning bombardment as patrollers shake things up at the resorts with explosive charges. They’re up early so you won’t worry. While you probably don’t even think about snow safety when you’re rocketing down the resorts, once you step into the backcountry, you should know how to stay safe. Sure, there’s just nothing like a day in the untracked Wasatch powder, where you’ll earn your turns by hiking up before you float down. But danger could be lurking beneath the sparkling crystals, where a changing snowpack can be triggered by a snow machine, a ski cut or even seemingly nothing at all. Just because you love the mountains doesn’t mean they love you back.
So, you’ll need to know what to avoid, what to look for and when it’s safe. There are times after a big storm cycle when no experienced backcountry traveler will head to the untracked, no matter how tempting. Because, when conditions are right (or wrong) the snow can thunder down a mountain, snapping trees, rolling over cliffs and knocking you off of your skis. If you’re lucky, you’re on top of the avalanche when it stops; if not, you better hope that one of your pals has a snow shovel and radio beacon to find you, ASAP.
The best thing to have with you is what’s in your head. Weigh the risks with the rewards. Learn how to “read” a snowpack. Know how to rescue yourself, or others. Releasing a slide might not endanger you, but it certainly can put the people below you in harm’s way, not to mention the rescue personnel who risk their lives to dig someone out. So, before you launch yourself off of that cornice into that deep powder pillow, think about what may lay beneath.
Stay informed about the snowpack. And luckily there are professionals on the job to help. The forecasters at Utah Avalanche Center (a nonprofit that makes forecasts and educates backcountry users) keeps track of the snow, how it’s changed by temperature and wind, and the chances that a certain exposure might slide. If it’s been sunny for a long time, and it just dumped, chances are that the bottom layers of snow are a bit weak, and unable to support the new weight. This usually sorts itself out within a day or so after a storm cycle, but sometimes not. Lots of skiers have the UAC number on speed dial. Reach them at 888-999-4019, or UtahAvalancheCenter.org.
Since your fate is in your own hands, take an avalanche class and understand the snowpack. This involves digging pits in the snow, and actually looking at the layers, the bonding, and even the structure of the snow crystals. Avalanches can happen at any time during the winter, from the early season snowpack through the late spring melt.
There are a couple of basic tools you should have with you if you’re in the backcountry. These include a metal snow shovel (snow sets up like concrete after a slide), a radio beacon that can help locate someone underneath the white chunks, and avalanche probes, or convertible ski poles to find buried skiers. A cellphone is a must, but reception can be sketchy. You don’t have a lot of time, and need to learn how to self-rescue.
When things go south, rescue teams often arrive quickly by helicopters, snowmobiles and skis. Your best friend will have four legs, not two, and a rescue dog’s nose is so sensitive they can detect buried skiers. They are all there for you if you mess up and take a chance that didn’t work out as planned. Make friends with some of these canines every Friday at the ski beach in Canyons Village at Park City Mountain Resort at 4:30 p.m.
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