Tips for Safe Early Season Backcountry Skiing

Tips for Safe Early Season Backcountry Skiing

a cornice collapse in the Lake Tahoe backcountry

Large cornice chunks below a ridgeline near the Sierra Crest on November 9th, 2022.  Photo: Zeb Blais.

As the backcountry ski season lunges forward with some quality skiing in early November, here are some tips to stay safe while exploring the backcountry.  

Tips for Safe Early Season Backcountry Skiing

1. Check your gear before you go out.  The classic error for the first ski tour of the year is forgetting your skins, avalanche equipment or other critical items like footbeds.  Do a full run through of your gear at home and make sure everything is up to snuff.  Put fresh batteries in your avalanche transceiver and check the battery terminals for corrosion - this is a common failure point for avalanche beacons!  Hopefully you remembered to store your beacon without batteries over the summer and stored your skins in a cool place over the hot summer months.

    Add fresh batteries and Check your beacon battery terminals

    Add fresh batteries and check the terminals for corrosion!

    2. Bring your Wilderness First Aid Kit and Repair Kit!  I bring my wilderness first aid kit and basic repair kit on every tour I take.  I used my repair kit in the parking lot of my second tour this year to help someone reattach their front bumper after ramming into a snowbank!  You never know when that will come in handy!

    wilderness first aid kit contents

    A typical wilderness first aid kit for backcountry skiing.


    3. Expect hazards to exist!  Early season snow coverage is soft and weak, and even if it is deep, it's easy to punch through to the hazards below.  Common hazards that cause early season backcountry skiing injuries are branches lurking just below the snow.  It's easy to hook a ski tip under one of these and have the branch bring your ski to an abrupt stop, and your season to an early end!

    hazards below the surface in the backcountry early season

    A lightly covered tree can snag skis or break a leg on the descent. Nov 9, 2022. Alpine Meadows Backcountry.

    4. Take it easy!  Early season isn't the time to give it 110%.  Build your ski legs with a few mellow tours to get your muscles up to speed. Your body will appreciate a bit of time to get used to having ski/snowboard boots on, lugging heavy skis uphill and not crashing into the thinly covered hazards at high speed!

    5. Aim for low angle terrain and avoid roll overs.  Steep terrain may look great with a coating of soft, fresh snow on it, but it's also the terrain that is easiest to scrape the snow off of.  Look for consistent, low angle slopes with few roll overs to minimize the chance that you'll scrape the snow off and ruin your skis or get injured.

    6. Avalanches Still Exist!  Just because the season is just starting, doesn't mean that there is no avalanche hazard. In fact, as we kick the season off it's actually more dangerous in a lot of areas based on the fact that:

      1. The Sierra Avalanche Center has not started with daily forecasts yet, so it's more difficult to gauge the hazard and make decisions.
      2. There are less options to ski - not everywhere has enough coverage for good skiing, so you're limited to what you can get to.
      3. Much of the terrain is steeper now without the seasonal snowpack that flattens out steep pitches near ridges. We found this out near Grouse Rock, where skiers triggered a 2 foot slab that propagated about 200' across the slope.  
    Slab Avalanche Nov 9, 2022 Lake Tahoe backcountry
    The crown of a significant avalanche on Nov 9, 2022 near the Sierra Crest in the Alpine Meadows backcountry.

      7. Tell your friends where you're going and ski with partners.  Given the increased hazards of early season skiing, and the potential to wreck your season, go out with friends to help you choose terrain and respond if you have a gear failure or injury.

      What else do you do to make your early season backcountry ski tours fun and safe?  Drop us a line - we'd love to hear what tips you use to stay safe for early season backcountry tours!

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