Before heading off-piste there are a few unwritten rules of backcountry etiquette worth noting. Yes, there are ‘no friends on a powder day’ as the old cliché goes, but the reality is that you want your mates right there with you – so you’ve got each other’s backs and can enjoy the whole experience more.
From Whitelines Basics 2013
Hiking in fresh snow is difficult, tiring and sometimes essential. If you’re leading the line and putting tracks in fresh snow, you’re doing what is known as ‘breaking trail’ or ‘boot packing’. This is usually done in a single file formation to make it easier for the person behind to conserve energy, so agree with your buddies to alternate who breaks trail at the front.
Respect each other’s pace
Everyone hikes at different speeds. Some like to steam up the mountain and work up a sweat, while others like to take their time and enjoy the process. Often though, it’s just down to how fit you are. So if you’re out hiking and there are other groups or people going solo and a person comes up behind that is faster, simply step aside and let them go past you.
Take off the phones
If you’re listening to music when you’re hiking to pass to the time, just have the occasional check to see if someone is behind you waiting to pass, as sometimes it’s easy to zone out and not know what’s happening around you. Plus, it’s good to take in the beautiful scenery every so often as you go.
Clean up after you
Its common sense but leaving the backcountry in the state you left it means the next group of people won’t run into empty food and drink cartons. There’s nothing worse than enjoying the clean air and incredible panoramas, then clocking an empty crisp packet out of the corner of your eye. Take it with you.
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 (and probably spread out onto more of the snowpack due to you taking slightly different lines). 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.
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 (who may be behind you) 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.
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Use a spotter
If you’re riding off-piste in areas where you’re making decisions about the avalanche risk, 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.
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.
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.
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 slough 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.
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. High points 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.
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.
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.
Think ‘safety in numbers’
Make sure everyone has all the right 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.