Avalanches are an inherent risk when skiing in the backcountry. Essential companion rescue gear including an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe offer a degree of safety, as do airbag packs and Avalungs. Technology, however, is no substitute for experience and sound judgment. Making good, safe choices in the mountains is critical to avoiding avalanches.
Chris Davenport, two-time world champion extreme skier and premier big mountain skier, understands the risks involved with skiing big lines in remote mountains.
He has skied from the Rockies to the Himalayas and has numerous first descents under his belt. Understandably, he has had a few close calls (like the one in the above video). As a pro skier, Davenport maintains a thoughtful approach and protocol to managing avalanche hazard. He shares his avalanche safety advice below.
Managing your expectations in the mountains is very important. Set broad goals and low expectations at the start of the day, rather than aiming for a specific goal with high expectations when the avalanche hazard suggests otherwise. Having fun is more important than maintaining unrealistic expectations.
Terrain and Exposure
Terrain choices are critical to safety. When you stand atop your chosen ski line, ask yourself, ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen if I ski this line? If it slides, is there a terrain trap or a secondary exposure hazard? Are you OK with the risk of the worst case scenario?’ If not, change your plan.
Human factors related to decision making receive a lot of attention, but honesty is often overlooked. You need to be honest with yourself and your group about your expectations and thoughts. Humility and a humble approach to the mountains are important to having fun. Listen to your intuition and communicate honestly with your ski partners about decisions.
Choose your ski partners wisely. Strong partnerships are the foundation to good communication and help overcome many common human factor issues. Mutual trust and understanding are critical as are compatible goals. A good ski partnership is like a good relationship with a spouse or an old friend where communication is easily understood and easy to facilitate. I’ve skied with many partners, and it is the strong partnerships that yield the fun and rewarding ski days.
Data is King
There is so much information at our fingertips today: avalanche and weather forecasts, trip reports and field observations. Use the information. People continue to make mistakes in the mountains when even the data paints a clear image of high avalanche risk. Use the data available to note red flags and obvious hazards when planning your day.
Video footage: Tom Day for Warren Miller Entertainment / Chris Davenport
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