Skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry can bring unrivaled mountain views and powder. However, it can also bring a substantial amount of risk — specifically avalanche risk. Therefore, backcountry riding and avalanche safety go hand in hand.
The risk of an avalanche is influenced by a variety of conditions — snow pack, terrain, weather, and human interaction. Some days pose more risk than others. It’s up to you to decide when, where, and how your play in the backcountry. Like most outdoor adventure sports, avalanche safety is life-long process.
Avalanche Safety Begins with Education
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional avalanche safety courses — it is intended to provide awareness, begin the conversation, and provide resources to find the proper safety courses near you.
- In the U.S., avalanches kill 25-30 people per year and injures many more
- Every year, avalanches kill more than 150 people worldwide
- Backcountry skiers and snowboarders represent the most avalanche fatalities
- Snowmobilers and climbers are 2nd and 3rd, respectively
- 90% of avalanche accidents are caused by the victim or someone in the victims party
- Avalanches can travel as fast as 120 mph
- There are 7 types of avalanches
We love to make fresh powder turns on mountains with a 30 to 45 degree slope. Unfortunately, that is also the prime slope angle for avalanches — 90% of avalanches occur at this slope angle . While there is inherent risk in all outdoor recreation, there are steps and tools you can use to mitigate that risk and have a fun day shredding the pow.
Slopeside Chat with The Powder Panda – Larry Banks
To learn more about avalanche safety, we caught up with Larry Banks from Panhandle Backcountry. He has been riding the backcountry for 25 years and started an avalanche resource site for North Idaho. He has made it his mission to educate his local community about safety in the backcountry and avalanche terrain.
How did you get into backcountry skiing and splitboarding?
About 25 years ago, I started by just hiking out-of-bounds up on Mt Hood on foot. Boot-packing past ropes, with no avalanche gear let alone education. I did this for a few years until I took my first Level I avalanche course.
Then, about 10 years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to splitboarding. He was sure I would like it, so I bought my first board off eBay before I even tried the sport. Like most people, I started with the Voile binding adapter kit. Just a few tours of that, I procured a set of Spark R&D bindings which got me even more hooked into riding without lifts due to their ease.
What are your credentials/experience in avalanche safety?
About twenty years ago, I took my first, non-AIARE avalanche safety course. I then continued to educate myself through books and online tutorials as well as in the field.
When I was introduced to splitboarding there were no more snowshoes or boot-packing which allowed me faster access to avalanche terrain so I knew I needed to up my avalanche savvy.
I re-took the Level I under the new American Institute for Avalanche Research (AIARE) guidelines. After spending a few years digging pits, learning about snow & weather, I prepared myself for and took the AIARE Level II certification. Additionally, I update my CPR/First Aid annually as well as backcountry first aid training. My next step will be the Wilderness First Responder course.
I also do volunteer work for Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center (IPAC) through the winter by digging profile pits for the weekly avalanche conditions bulletin posted twice a week to organizing fund raising events.
What are your winter backcountry essentials (beacon, probe, shovel, etc.)?
Obviously, I have my backcountry accouterments of avy transceiver, probe, shovel — just as important keeping my eyes and ears open. Then, the rest of the basics, light puffy (down jacket), thin gloves for skinning, thicker gloves for warmth when digging pits, first aid, snacks (KIND bars), water, ACR ResQLink/SPOT Personal Satellite locator, two-way radios, snow study kit (for snowpack evaluation/documentation), cell phone with apps such as GAIA and are useful in case of emergency. I feel these are essential. One can find the right balance of what they feel is additionally needed along with keeping weight in mind.
How does using a two way radio help you on backcountry adventures?
They are truly a convenient and safety device for use when in snow, or any backcountry environs. Walkie talkies become imperative for groups to stay in contact. Much of the time there is wind, which makes it hard to talk to someone even a paltry 15 feet away. When the first rider drops down to cut a slope for safety, the radios allow the lead rider to call back and give a report on what they’re finding on slope. Then there is tree riding, where riders get separated easily in the trees and need to have contact to determine the correct line that needs to be maintained, or the lead rider may have found a rocked out section to warn the next rider. Not to be forgotten, when filming, to get the photographer set when the rider is dropping into the line.
I could go on with the benefits, I think the point is made, they’re a valuable tool.
What are your favorite avalanche safety resources (i.e. apps + websites)?
To start, the IPAC website (or the avy center closest to you) for the most recent avalanche bulletin.
If you’re skiing in the Inland Northwest, then Panhandle Backcountry is the resource for you. The site offers:
- Pin point forecasts
- SNOTEL reports – snow and weather data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)
- Satellite & radar images – all of which can be located for specific geographical areas
I also use several cell phone apps:
Panhandle Backcountry takes out the work if you’re going into the backcountry in the Inland NW, however all these resources are also available (with some research) for every location across the country.
What is the number one mistake you see people make in the backcountry?
Several things fall in line here. Group dynamics and mentality combined with the desire for Instagram Fame comes to mind as a top mistake. It’s an ego thing where people want others to see how rad they are. There is significant recent research on this and how it plays against backcountry users.
Another mistake I’d like to mention is complacency. People get complacent after going to the same area many times and never had an issue or seen avalanche activity. If there is snow and the right angle, then all it takes are the right conditions and trigger to create a slide.
What are your recommendations to someone who wants to get into backcountry riding?
First and foremost, get the knowledge – aka Know Before You Go. This should begin with an Avalanche Awareness clinic with your local avalanche center which gives you an understanding and base before going for your Level I Avalanche Certification.
Next, get the gear — avalanche transceiver, good avalanche specific snow shovel, lastly of course is a probe.
Now comes practice with the tools and what you’ve learned.
One thing I think is important is finding a mentor. Your mentor should be someone who understands snow, has spent considerable amount of time in the mountains on snow, and knows when to keep things conservative. It’s important that a mentor does not let ego get in their head when touring, they listen to the group & dynamics, and understand that not everyone has the same risk factors.
You are quite involved with the backcountry skiing community. In fact, you teach avalanche awareness classes in your community. What fuels your passion for avalanche safety?
A bit after my touring partner, Mike Brede, and I started Panhandle Backcountry, we were touring in a well-known area of North Idaho/Montana border. I observed a few guys following our skin track up the ridge, at which point I held back as it appeared they had no avalanche rescue equipment. I conversed with them and indeed they did not, additionally found that they had gotten the tour off of our website. I gave them a safer option, advising them not to follow any further due to avalanche terrain.
This was an eye opener for Mike and me.
We felt an obligation to help get avalanche awareness and education out to our website members. As Panhandle Backcountry expanded, a “Know Before You Go” link was added to the site to provide videos and links to further help members become educated with backcountry basics.
It was about this time that Inlander publication reached out to us. They asked for Panhandle Backcountry to present avalanche safety at the annual Snowlander Expo. Soon after that the Inland NW SheJumps group contacted us to present avalanche awareness clinics specific for women. Since we already had a working relationship with Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center, it made sense to bring them in, which also gave the Friends of IPAC, a 501c3 group, a portion of the raffle sales to help with further educational needs. This cooperative connection was the beginning of a local annual event that brought in sponsors from throughout the ski and snowboard industry.
What’s more exciting is helping IPAC expand! When Panhandle Backcountry started, IPAC was not a very well-known entity. Now, IPAC is growing with a recognized brand and function. IPAC is on the cusp of elevating to a new level. Until last year, they only provided an avalanche bulletin once a week. They are now at 2 times a week with a goal of getting to 5 days a week within the next few years. This requires a lot of volunteer work for the Friends of IPAC to create fund raising events — such as the movie showing of Yūgen. Panhandle Backcountry and Friends of IPAC used our industry connections, sponsorships, as well as an agreement from my friend, splitboard athlete and creator/director, of the film, Rafeal Pease, to bring a showing of the film to Spokane. Rafeal also made an appearance at the event, and gave an “Ask the Creator” segment for the audience. The event brought in record funds for Friends of IPAC.
What is your favorite aspect of a backcountry ski trip?
Powder!! Ha, seriously though, powder is great, however there are many wonderful aspects about being in the backcountry, from being with friends to enjoying the quiet of nature.
This sounds corny, yet being one with nature or the mountain is so very true. It’s very spiritual, I don’t think I could put into words the feeling of looking out across the mountains, feeling infinitely small in comparison to the world. Also for me, I think of those that have passed, I feel closer to them while standing at the top of a line, asking them to look over me while I spend my time in their presence.
With that said, let’s not forget the challenge, getting out and riding lines that only a few people in the world get to experience. By reviewing Google Earth and topo maps, we’ve found access to new terrain that we didn’t realize was accessible before.
Any last thoughts on avalanche safety?
In closing a thought from my avalanche mentor, Kevin Davis of IPAC, who once told me when I asked about getting an expert to talk at a function exclaimed “Larry, all the experts are dead.” He did not relate this in a mean or disrespectful way. It refers to not forgetting we are always learning. Each time we get out in the wilds of the mountains, we get some education. If you think you know it all, you have closed your mind to unknown potential risks. Be safe, slide safe!