Backcountry safety

Bothy Shelter, BSAR search and rescue training, JB Plain, Victoria
Avalanche debris, Gjuratinden, Norway

Travelling through difficult terrain and different snow conditions requires appropriate use of skiing techniques and the knowledge and judgement about when to use them.

For the novice, it is wise to practice basic turning and stopping techniques on slopes with a safe run-out before getting more adventurous.

Undertaking progressively more remote and demanding trips will enhance skills and minimise exposure to unnecessary or undue risks.

Some hazards that may be encountered during ski touring and backcountry skiing are listed below.

Steep slopes

  • South facing slopes are often icy in the southern hemisphere. North facing slopes are often icy in the northern hemisphere.

  • Avoid skiing icy shaded slopes. Soft spring snow can turn icy and dangerous in the afternoon when it is out of the sun.

  • Do not ski steep slopes with an unsafe run out (e.g. rocks or cliff below).

  • It can be extremely difficult to self arrest after a fall on a steep icy slope. A fall on a steep icy slope can be very dangerous, some have resulted in deaths.

If in any doubt, do not ski the slope.

Falling

  • Falling is tiring and can result in injuries.

  • Minimise falls by learning ski techniques and when to use them.

  • Ski conservatively in difficult snow conditions, use your most reliable turn.

Skiing with a heavy pack

  • Skiing with a heavy pack can increase risk of falls and injuries.

  • The centre of gravity is higher with a heavy pack on and there is more strain on knees and legs when turning.

  • The extra weight of a heavy pack can cause skis to sink deeper in soft snow, requiring more energy to break a trail.

  • Ski within your limits

Runaway skis

  • A fully detached ski can run downhill gaining a very high speed and travel for a considerable distance.

  • A runaway ski can cause an injury if it collides with another skier and it may get lost

  • If one of your skis runs away yell out "Ski" immediately to warn others

  • Causes include a binding release or failure or dropping a ski when taking skins off

  • Ski brakes may not prevent a detached ski running away on firm or icy snow

  • Safety straps can prevent runaway skis - but they have been known to fail sometimes during a big crash

Avalanches

  • Although not common in Australia, avalanches do occur and have resulted in fatalities. See Avalanche safety for more information.

Snow covered creeks and rivers

  • Beware of crossing snow covered rivers, creeks and tarns – the snow or underlying ice can collapse resulting in a fall into deep water or an uneven rocky creek bed. Extrication can be very difficult in some instances: skis usually need to be taken off to get out, but without skis on the snow surface will be much less supportive.

Skiing in trees

  • Skiing in trees can be fun, but catching a pole tip on buried branches can yank and dislocate a shoulder.

  • Ski with your hands out of pole straps.

  • Trees (e.g. Snow Gums) can collapse when they are heavily loaded with snow and ice. Avoid skiing near them or camping under them in these circumstances.

Rocks and obstacles

  • Hidden rocks and obstacles can be buried just below the surface.

  • Take care in both thin and soft deep snow.

Cornices

  • Cornices can develop where wind deposits snow on the lee side of ridges and other locations.

  • They can break off without warning. People have died in Australia when caught in a cornice collapse.

  • Do not approach a cornice from the windward side slope - it is impossible to know where it might fracture.

  • Don’t ski, walk or camp below a cornice.

Whiteout conditions

  • Whiteouts make navigation very difficult.

  • Obstacles, slopes, drop offs and holes may be very difficult or impossible to see.

  • Ski slowly with caution guided by a GPS or map and compass.

  • Dropping below the tree line (if possible) makes navigation easier.

  • Follow pole lines if they are available.

Difficult snow Conditions

  • Breakable crust is thin layer of icy crust on the surface of softer snow that makes turning very difficult and falling much more likely.

  • Uneven snow surfaces can result from the combined effects of sun, wind and snow.

  • Holes, troughs and small lips of snow can form where there is windblown snow.

Cold illnesses

  • Cold illnesses, including hypothermia and frostbite, can be a problem in alpine environments.

  • A sound knowledge of first aid is recommended for ski tourers and backcountry skiers.

Water intake

  • Dehydration can occur in a cold environment when exercising. Drink regularly.

  • Local water may be frozen. It is wise to take water with you, kept in the pack near the body.

  • The drinking tube of a water bladder can freeze in the cold. An insulated sleeve on the tube may prevent this.

Skiing near resorts

Some backcountry ski trips may start and/or finish in a ski resort. Hazards that may be encountered near or in ski resorts include:

  • Collision with downhill skiers and snowboarders – some of whom may be out of control and travelling fast. Exercise particular caution at slope and ski trail junctions.

  • Moguls on steeper slopes (large bumps created by skiers) may be difficult to negotiate

  • Groomed cross country ski trails may be available at some ski resorts. These can be used to get to backcountry skiing locations.

  • Follow protocols for cross country ski trails such as giving way to skiers coming downhill in tracks and keeping to the left when going up hills.

External resources