Check weather forecast: Make sure to check weather from at least 2-3 sources to confirm the forecast. General forecasts can be found on sites and apps like Weather Network and AccuWeather. Resort forecasts such as Whistler Blackcomb or WhistlerPeak are useful for alpine weather, temperature and wind data. Avalanche Canada has a great forecast for each of their regions and it’s also worth getting some experience with more power user weather websites such as SpotWx.com.
If you want to read a daily summary of several weather forecasts, current snow conditions and a roundup of local avalanche observations, make sure to check out the Wayne Flann Avalanche Blog. Wayne spends about 3-4 hours a day aggregating weather data and providing a 24-hour forecast for the Sea to Sky.
“I’ve been studying weather models since 1986 and I’m still learning things all the time. You have to have your head in it and study it. Most weather forecasters that are wrong 50 percent of the time still have their job. People just want to go onto a weather site and look at the little sun or cloud icons, but that’s not how the weather works.” — Wayne Flann, ski patrol veteran, SAR member and weather nerd
Check avalanche advisory: The Avalanche Canada website and app is where you’ll find a lot of the information you need to get in and out of the mountains; summaries of observed avalanches, snowpack data and weather forecasts. READ EVERYTHING. Don’t just glance at the colour of the Danger Ratings. Know where the problems are e.g. wind slabs, overhead cornices, deep persistent slabs etc. Try to take a few minutes out of your everyday scrolling and stay up on this information throughout the winter season. Much of the information in the avalanche bulletin has assumed knowledge of an Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course.
Make a Trip Plan: You know you want to ski in a certain zone. How are you going to get there and how long will it take you? Get the map out and plan your approach, ski options and exit options. What time will you turn around to make it back to the car before dark? What’s your emergency exit plan? What’s Plan B if you can’t ski what you wanted? These are all questions a guide would ask themselves when leading a group, so it’s good for all of us to do a detailed trip plan, especially when venturing into unfamiliar terrain. Be sure to text a quick summary to a member of your next-of-kin with parking location, skiing zone and expected time of return back into cell reception. The AdventureSmart Trip Plan app can streamline this process and automatically notify next-of-kin if the party is overdue getting home.
“Know where you’re going, make sure you have the skills and knowledge to go into that terrain and make sure you’re properly equipped. And practice. A lot of people take AST courses and just never practice with it. Anticipate the unexpected. People love to travel light, but will they be able to spend the night out if they have to?” — Peter Schimek, Pemberton Search and Rescue president and search manager
Pack your backpack: See Gear List.
Make your sandwich: Avoid too many wet vegetables the night before. Slice and add those in the morning, or leave them out altogether. If you’re serious about sandwiches, you can build yours fresh in the backcountry. For inspiration visit alpinesandwiches.com
Pre-trip check and load your sled. Is your crew interested in exploring the Pemberton area and making the most of your day? Pitching in for a guided trip with Broken Boundary Adventures will get you to the best terrain for the conditions and the ability level of your group.
Confirm your helicopter ride. If booking a heli-drop, confirm that the weather is ok to fly in the morning and your group knows what time to meet at the heliport. Make sure you’ve planned and allowed time to park the shuttle vehicle near your backcountry exit in order to get everyone back to the heliport at the end of the day. For more information on guided or unguided heli ski touring in the Whistler/Pemberton area, contact Blackcomb Helicopters.
Park with consideration: Park close to (and parallel with) adjacent vehicles so there’s room for more cars that day. Don’t block anyone in. If it’s busy that day and tight for room, pull your sled ramp up.
Parking on the edge of Highway 99 is not permitted, but as the flood of Joffre Lakes visitors have demonstrated in recent years, few people take notice of this rule. Parking on the side of the highway makes the Duffey Lake Road increasingly dangerous for both motorists and backcountry users. Winter visits to the Duffey have grown exponentially this year and while not on par with summer visits, there is less room for vehicles with the snow banks. Use your common sense when parking and don’t be afraid to walk a bit further to get to the trailhead from a safe parking spot.
“The primary challenge to road safety on Duffey Lake Road has been backcountry enthusiasts parking their vehicles on the highway. Vehicles parked across the road edge prevent plow trucks from effectively clearing two full lanes. This can result in pinch points and snow build-up that sometimes requires separate heavy machinery to regain full highway width.” — BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure
Transceiver check: Check send and receive functions for ALL transceivers.
Lock your vehicle and don’t leave any valuables in the bed of your truck. Thieves are around.
Don’t pee next to vehicles. Don’t poo on any vehicles (this has happened).
Don’t pee on the skin track, take the extra five steps and kick some snow over the yellow mini-crevasse you just made.
Don’t boot pack in the skin track. Duh.
Assess your surroundings constantly:
Ski guides have a list much longer than this that goes through their head when they’re on the skin track. For more insight on that list, take an avalanche course or book a refresher day with a guide.
“It takes a really long time to learn how to move through the mountains, safely. It’s easy to know how to use your beacon and know to read an avalanche forecast, but knowing how to travel while paying attention to snowpack stability, what the wind is doing, how the sun and temperature is affecting everything… That can take a lifetime to learn.” — Kye Peterson, professional skier and Pemberton local
“One of the things I do is I’ll use the snowmobile to test the snowpack on micro-terrain. If I’m riding in an area and there’s a little convex pillow, I might try to saw through the pillow with my sled to see if I can get the snow layers to pop and run. I’ll use that information as an indicator of the snowpack’s stability. I’m always looking around for signs.” — Tyler Kraushar, Owner and lead guide at Broken Boundary Adventures
This is the most important decision point of the day. Has anything changed since your approach? Does everyone in the group feel good about skiing the line? If not, is there a safe alternative for the descent and a safe spot to meet up?
As the group skis one at a time, look for islands of safety to pause and watch the next person ski down. Make sure there is at least one set of eyes on the descending skier at all times.
Have fun. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?
“Everyone who has spent enough time in the mountains has probably turned around from that rad line more times than they’ve skied it. For some of the bigger stuff, I can count the number of years it took me to even be ready to take the step towards it.” — Kye Peterson, professional skier and Pemberton local
Trust your sixth sense for the potential of human factors affecting decision making, especially for larger group sizes. Some examples of these heuristics are familiarity with an area, social acceptance, scarcity of desirable terrain and perception of certain group members as experts. Some examples of of how group decisions can be susceptible to these heuristics:
You’re back at the vehicle, fist bumping your mates and cracking a tailgate beer in celebration. After an arduous exit, this can be one of the most rewarding moments of the day. It’s also an opportunity to do what many backcountry skiers and sledders miss; having a proper day-end debrief. This is a chance to reflect on what the group observed that day, how those observations correlated with the expectations of the conditions and if those conditions are trending better or worse.
The day-end debrief is also a great opportunity to review the decisions made:
For a great summary of the post trip debrief check out Notes From a Pro: The Day End Debrief on the Powder Cloud blog.
Empty out your pack and let everything dry out. Top up your sled with gas and oil.
If you had any equipment issues or failures, now is the time to address them instead of leaving it to the night before your next trip, or worse, at the trailhead while your friends are staring at you, waiting.