You’re waking up in your favorite mountain resort to see a cloudy sky from outside your window. Sleep still in your eyes, you're trying to make out the conditions for today. And guess what? The mountain is getting pounded with fresh pow this morning. While for some people this might be reason to explore the village, for you it is a clear sign to rush to the lifts and get first chair and set some first tracks. Perfect conditions for freeriding! But while getting out on the slopes doesn’t involve a lot of risk, going out of the patrolled area to score fresh tracks can be very dangerous and lead to deadly accidents. While going out on the slopes is just as risky as playing a match of football, freeriding can be just as dangerous as skydiving. You can trigger an avalanche, fall in a crevasse or get lost and get undercooled. So how can you minimize the risk out of bounds and what are the safety measures you should be taking?
Preparation starts at home: update your what’s in your head!
First step before you get out there and score some first tracks outside of the patrolled area is good preparation. But what is good preparation? To be prepared is to know what you can and what you shouldn’t be doing out of bounds and to have the right equipment.
Preparation means that you must score snow safety knowledge before you can score some backcountry pow. You can follow courses at alpine clubs that can provide you with the theoretical basics and a practical follow up to bring your snowsafety knowledge and experience up to a required level. By following courses (and reading some books) you will learn a decision making strategy that will help you decide if a route is acceptably safe or not. This decision making method is called the “3x3 Filter- Und Reduktionsmethode”. Invented by a Swiss mountain Guru, Werner Munter, that literally caused a big revolution in the way avalanche safety assessments were made in the 1990’s and gave skiërs, snowboarders and guides a practical way of making safety decisions.
3x3 reduction Method
The 3x3 reduction method basically states that you have to make and assessment on 3 moments and on those moments there are 3 different factors you have to assess continuously. Applying this method dramatically decreases your chances of getting caught in an avalanche.
The three moments you should make your assessment:
- At home (Your hotel / apartment)
- In the resort / area (when you access the slopes, from the lift, looking around you)
- On the slope / hillside
What you should assess on these three moments is:
- The weather & Snowpack
- The terrain
- Human factor: yourself, your group and other people in your vicinity.
If you continuously apply this risk reduction method you are able to decrease your risk of getting caught in an avalanche. SWISS MOUNTAIN GURU WERNER MUNTER
So how do you start at home or in your appartment when using the 3x3 method? Your starting point is assessing the weather & the snowpack.
Of course if it is snowing on the evening when you will make an assessment for the next day, that is a first indication of what the conditions are going to be like. Factors to pay attention to are wind, amount of snowfall and the temperature. Luckily, in Europe and a lot of places in America, this assessment is also made by professionals who write an avalanche report. This avalanche report is a specific and detailed weather report for your region. It will provide information about what the weather conditions were, what they are expected to be, information about the snowpack on various types of terrain and altitude and danger level. In Europe the danger level is based on a danger scale from level 1 low - level 5 very high. The avalanche report is leading in determining what routes, assents and descents you can take. You generally have an updated avalanche report in the evening and in the morning when you are still at home. So use both these moments back at your apartment or room to assess the weather and snowpack to decide what options you have for your routes. EXAMPLE OF PLUMES: WIND INFLUENCEYou continue your assessment at home by looking at the terrain.
What terrain details are mentioned in the avalanche report. Which one of those terrain types do you encounter in your selected routes? Do you need to make adjustments to avoid certain terrain aspects, do you need to find safe exits for your planned route in case you will encounter unexpected risks? To make an analysis of the terrain you need a mountain map and your lift plan. On the mountain map you can see what types of terrain and slope angles you will encounter. And with the help of your lift plan, you can see what places you can access with lifts. Finally at home you take a look at the human factor:
yourself and your group. Important is group selection. Does everybody have the right gear to go freeriding?
The right gear is an avalanche beacon, a shovel and a prope. Is everybody’s beacon on before you leave and working properly. Are there snowboarders in your group and do you expect long hikes in dangerous terrain? Are there steep descents in your route which are to hard for you or your group members? Do you have the number of the mountain rescue available in case something goes wrong? Do you have to change your plans accordingly?
As you can see a big part of the preparation that goes into freeriding already happens at home. Think about this preparation when you see tracks going into the backcountry. Don’t blindly follow the tracks, because they might be of a very experienced group that is also planning to abseil of a mountain ridge to access a good route from a place where you will be stranded. But only go off piste when you’ve done your homework first. In the resort
So you and your group have done your homework. You have made a really good plan with help of the avalanche bulletin, your maps and the use of your head. You are ready to go and catch the first chair. Here you go into the second assessment level of the 3x3 reduction method: the assessment in the resort itself.Again you start with the weather and snowpack.
The bulletin said there would be 20cm of freshies. Is that correct with what you see in the area? Do you see any signs of wind blowing: plumes on mountaintops or snowdunes forming on the snowpack? Do you see spontaneous avalanches, hear any whump noises or other alarm signs? These are all factors you should assess when you come into the resort and look around you when you are in the lift. If you see any signs that indicate the danger level is higher than what the avalanche report indicated, you should adjust your plans to that. EXAMPLE OF WIND INFLUENCE: DUNENAlso, you take a look at the terrain?
Are the terrain features the same as what you had expected from the map. Do you see steeper parts then expected? Do you see dangerous rocks or crevasses that weren’t on the map?And again you assess the human factor.
How high is the stoke? Are you still objective? Is everybody feeling alright? Does everybody have the right gear for the situations you are encountering? Can you do the hike needed to get up there and still have enough energy to descent without falling?
The evaluation goes on continuously. So when ever you are traveling through the resort, be aware of the things that are going on around you because there might be signs that you have to adjust your plans.On the slope / hillside
You’ve reached the slope you want to conquer with your group. Heavenly powder is waiting for you. Again the assessment goes on. You check the weather and snowpack
when you are on the hillside before you make your decent. Do you see ‘triebschnee’ or ‘driftsnow’ on the hill? (on any hill steeper then 30 degrees you avoid driftsnow) Do you see any other signs of wind like comet stripes or snowdunes? How about the weather? Is the weather clear or is a cloud drifting in causing limited view? Again, use this information to see if you can stick to your plan or if you have to change it.EXAMPLE OF ‚TRIEBSCHNEE’ or ‚DRIFTSNOW’
Again you assess the terrain.
Do you see terrain characteristics you’ve spotted on the map? Is the steepness correct? Are there places to avoid? Are there surprises? Where are the safety spots?Finally you also check the human factor again.
Is everybody’s equipment still fine? If the conditions are so that nobody can fall, is everybody’s technique well enough to make the decent? Is nobody panicking or feeling to tired to make the descent safely? Are you making rational decisions or is group pressure or the stoke taking over? Only take on account the things you can actually observe. Don’t make choices based on assumptions.
When applying the 3x3 reduction method you decrease your chances of winding up below the snow because you’ve triggered an avalanche. But do realize that even with all the homework done correctly, there will still be a risk of 1% that things do go wrong. The avalanche report: danger levels
One of the most important information sources you use for your assessment is the avalanche report. The avalanche reports also indicates a danger level. So what do these danger levels from 1-5 indicate?SOURCE: SLFLevel 1, Low danger level:
In this case the conditions are generally safe and the snow is well bonded. This still means that there is a risk. So you still need to know what you are doing when heading into the backcountry.
When the level is on 1, avalanches are generally triggered by a group without spacing or snowmobiles or other high loads on the snowpack in very steep terrain above 40 degrees steep. So this means you can minimize the risk. But don’t fool yourself. Small is still dangerous, cause these can push you of a cliff if you encounter them on the wrong place.
Level 2, Moderate Danger Level:
- Be carefull in extreme steep terrain (above 40 degrees and near ridges etc.)
- Generally safe conditions
in level two the snow is not ‘well bonded’ anymore, but ‘moderately well bonded’ on some steep slopes. (Steep slopes are all slopes above 30 degrees.) On moderately steep terrain (below 30 degrees) the snow is usually well bonded. You can plan a rout up until 40 degrees steep terrain. And by applying riding tactics you can minimize risk.
Level 3 Considerable Danger Level:
- Don’t go steeper then 40 degrees
- Careful route selection on slopes higher then 30 degrees
now it becomes really tricky. Most fatal accidents happen at level 3. So take this level very seriously. When reaching level 3 the snowpack is moderately to poorly bonded on all slopes above 30 degrees. (Steep slopes) Another big difference with level 1 and 2 is that a low additional load on the snowpack can trigger medium size avalanches. Medium sized avalanches also occur naturally in some cases and in isolated cases even large natural avalanches might occur.
In this level your options for staying safe become less than in level 1 and 2 because you can’t use riding tactics anymore to minimize risk because from level 3 even a low load is likely to cause an avalanche (a single skier or snowboarder). At level 3 you don’t ride slopes steeper than 35 degrees.
Level 4 High danger:
- Level 3 is the level with the most fatal accidents
- Don’t go steeper then 35 degrees
- Avoid steep slopes of indicated aspects and altitude zones
when the level reaches level 4 the danger becomes to high to head into the backcountry. You generally don’t go steeper than 30 degrees (which means you stay on the slopes). In some cases numerous natural medium sized and often large sized avalanches are expected.
Level 5 Very High:
- Don’t head out into the backcountry
- Stay in the patrolled area
at this level the resorts usually closes. Villages, lifts and open terrain are even at risk. At level five we’d recommend to watch a movie in a safe place far away from avalanche run out zones.
- Rent a good ski or snowboard movie and stay somewhere warm outside the danger zone
It is always important to study the avalanche report before heading out in the backcountry. In Europe the application of the 3x3 reduction method and the avalanche danger scale even provide the bases of assessing if you have taken all safety measures on account when you unfortunately still got into an accident afterwards by the authorities. If you haven’t applied the 3x3 reduction method and didn’t plan your route according the avalanche danger scale you can, if you are lucky and didn’t die, be held accountable for rescue costs or damages caused by the avalanche you or your group triggered. Gear
So what gear do you have to have when heading out into the backcountry. The holy trinity you have to have consists of a:How to do a beacon search:
Buy this before you buy anything else when going into the backcountry. Of course having these items is nice. But you also need to know how you can use then. So proper training is needed as well. If you don’t, than take a look what happens in this clip of an unprepared group that came into an avalanche and have shared their story so that other can learn from it.
Backpack with airbag
Next to the trinity you will also need a backpack to store your trinity in. These backpacks can come equipped with an airbag, which you can trigger when getting caught in a avalanche. Trusted brands that have an airbag system are ABS, Snowpulse and BCA. Airbags are very popular. They can increase your chances of survival when caught in an avalanche. But they do not replace the beacon, probe and shovel which are essential backcountry gear.
Another device you can use to increase your survival chances when you are caught in an avalanche is the Avalung
. This is a breathing device that directs carbon dioxide away from your air-pocket when you are under the snow, increasing the time window you have to actually be found by your friends. Helmet & Goggle
Always make sure you are waring a helmet and a good goggle when heading into the backcountry. If you have something in your head worth protecting use a helmet. There can be rocks falling down or you can hit a tree. A good goggle will make sure that under extremely bright conditions or during snowfall you can still see where you are going. Always take an extra pair of goggles with you when you head out. Gloves
Staying warm is also important. Having an extra pair of mittens or gloves with you isn’t a luxury you can do without. If your gloves become wet and the temperature is going down, painful hands can be very frustrating. First aid kit and thermos can with tea
Also be prepared that when accidents do happen, and you are lucky that you are still able to perform first aid, that you will need a first aid kid and need to know how to use it. A very important thing is to prevent that someone who was in an accident gets under cooled. So a thermos can with warm tea is also something wise to bring. Insurance
Finally, make sure you are insured properly. Check if your travel insurance covers freeriding. Because if you have to get rescued this can be very expensive.
Heading into the backcountry and scoring fresh pow is one of the most amazing things you can experience. The nature, the snow and sensation of drifting through the snow is unparalleled. But realize that when you are doing this you are taking risks and are practicing an extreme sport. Avalanches usually don’t form without you being there. You are most likely the thing that triggers an avalanche. So make sure you are prepared, know what you are doing and make sure that your safety knowledge is up to date. But above else, enjoy power but live to ride powder another day!
Have you followed an avalanche course?
This article does’t provide any alternative to a theoretical or practical course. This is an introduction to the things you need to know when you head into the backcountry. If you want to do backcountry skiing or snowboarding make sure you first follow a course or, when you haven’t taken a course, book a mountain guide with the proper certification who will provide you with all the safety equipment.