Safety in numbers is one of the golden rules of backcountry riding; unfortunately, it is also one of the biggest causes of avalanche – through bad group management and slopes overloading. Mountain Guide Neil McNab shares some tips on how to stay safe.
Here are 10 simple tips for you to keep in mind when you’re venturing off-piste with your mates.
1. Watch your blind side
Remember that when you’re riding you have a blind spot on your heel side. Try to be aware of other riders in the group, and when passing people, give them room to manoeuvre on their heel side. This seems really obvious but is a common cause of accidents on the piste. In the backcountry – where everyone is charging or competing for the freshest turns– it can have very serious consequences.
2. One at a time!
The most common cause of slab release is external loading. When you make a turn in fresh snow you can exert up to six times your body weight on the snowpack. If two riders are descending at once, this pressure-loading is doubled. If you’re venturing onto a slope that has an element of avalanche risk (i.e. it is the right angle, rolling, unsupported or untracked) treat it as unstable and take the precaution of riding one at a time.
3. Use a spotter
Always have someone watching your ride from a safe vantage point where they can see all of the descent. If you’re riding one at a time (as you should be in this situation) the spotter can indicate when it is safe for the next rider to drop in.
4. Stop in a safe spot
Many avalanches are triggered by a group of riders stopping above a slope and overloading it from above as they examine it. A typical scenario sees one rider stop on top of a convex roll-over to check out the slope below. The next rider follows suit and so on until now all the group are standing on the ‘convexity’ –the point of most tension in the snowpack and beyond the shear point of the slab. Try to gain vantage points where you can look into a slope from the side.
5. Ride until clear and safe
At the bottom of a run, make sure you are clear of any danger from above before stopping. Ideally you want to be out of the path of any avalanche but close enough to offer assistance to riders still on the slope if anything was to happen.
6. Pitching and planning
On a steep or long slope it is wise to break the descent down into pitches; this allows everyone to keep in contact and enables you to gradually check out the descent. It also avoids anyone getting swept off the mountain by sluff created by the rider following them. Establish ‘stopping points’ which are out of the line of fire from above, and ride one at a time where necessary.
7. High ground is good ground!
In general, high ground is safe ground i.e. following ridgelines up or down is much safer than following gullies. Avalanches take the line of least resistance and so will flow down and be concentrated in gullies. Highpoints also have a point of lesser angle on the top, which is safer for stopping and makes a good vantage point for checking things out. Think ‘high ground is good ground’ when planning your escape lines and stopping spots.
8. Spread out when traversing or hiking a slope
Although turning down a slope exerts more pressure on it than hiking or traversing, you must be careful not to overload one spot on the way into a line. Simply spread out and keep moving as a team, and make sure that if one person stops you all stop – so as not to catch up and cause bunching.
9. Don’t follow gullies!
Many people get caught out following gullies. Gullies are streams in the summer and probably come to waterfalls or constrictions which are hard to pass and have steep sides. They are difficult to get out of, and once you’re in there they keep drawing you in until retreat is sometimes impossible. I’m sure there are many people reading this that know what I’m talking about here! Not really a group management issue but a pretty important rule and super simple.
10. Think ‘safety in numbers’
Make sure everyone has all the right avalanche survival kit and knows how to use it. Make sure everyone has the emergency phone numbers and a good idea of where they are and where you’re going. Tell a friend who’s not in the group where you’re heading and when you should be back!
Neil McNab is one of Britain’s most experienced freeriders. As a UIAGM High Mountain Guide, and an ISIA International Ski and Snowboard Teacher, he is also one of the only snowboarders in the world fully qualified to teach and guide in the backcountry. Neil lives in Chamonix, France, where he runs McNab Snowboarding – an independent company specialising in ‘The Fine Art of Riding Mountains’ since 1995.