By Dean Cummings
Flying to Valdez, Alaska, in 1991 over the 300-mile long, densely glaciated Chugach Range to compete in the inaugural World Extreme Skiing Championships, I had an epiphany: The most vital skill for descending is assessing snow pack from the top down. This skill enables you to select your routes, ski safe zone to safe zone, maintain visual and verbal communication with partners, and reassess snow pack on the go at various elevations and aspects.
That was the genesis of Steep Life Protocols—a terrain management system to manage risk, avoid avalanches, take control of your destiny, and become a better, safer skier. It’s helped me mitigate risk during 25 years of guiding, and hundreds of first descents, like The Tusk, in Alaska. It's a principle that helped H2O Guides open 4,000 square miles of vast and burly Chugach terrain—so anyone can access the goods in a place where immeasurable snow falls every season in the high alpine terrain, and 98 percent of the mountains and glaciers remain unnamed on USGS maps.
The trend of avalanche incidents and accidents is rising, despite advances in safety equipment and gear, greater knowledge of snow science, and increasing skier/snowboarder ability. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported 35 avalanche fatalities in the U.S. during the 2014-15 season and numerous other backcountry goers were injured.
Continuing to place faith in safety equipment and digging isolated snow pits will not turn the tide. The ultimate goal is zero avalanche fatalities. So creating your own forecast to select the correct terrain, with the ability to do on-the-go snow assessment from the top down, is crucial. Realize that every ridge, summit, and valley at various elevations and aspects demands a new forecast.
Understanding snow science, digging snow pits, and conducting isolated column compression and shear tests are very important but inadequate, since tension propagation is so critical, and digging full pit profiles every few hundred feet down the mountain is unrealistic. So here are some tips to prepare for a safe winter of steep skiing.
Before winter, visually examine the topography in mountains where you recreate before they're buried by snow. You can also use Google Earth or Bing Maps to zoom in on terrain where you plan to ski. Identify concavity: places with obvious consistent natural erosion processes like landslides, rock falls, mudslides, and smooth slopes/rock slabs that provide no anchoring—many of these places have likely already claimed lives.
Inspect all of your ski and snowboard gear to ensure proper function. Equipment malfunctions can end your day and could lead to serious injuries or worse.
Practice with your transceiver by having someone hide a transceiver in leaves or spread out several old t-shirts or pillow cases in a field with a transceiver hidden in one. Get proficient with transceiver searches.
Skiers and snowboarders share commitment, passion, and desire for experiencing mountains. We love the moments when time stands still, the challenges, the health benefits, and the camaraderie. I believe that we all have a vested interest to mitigate risk, protect access to mountains, and respect wildlife and the environment. This is The Steep Life, and I've dedicated my whole life to it.