Snow, cold temperatures, wind, and long nights are the normal ingredients of any satisfying winter expedition. They are also the normal ingredients of serious winter accidents and fatalities, with avalanches and hypothermia being highest on the list of concerns for winter travelers.
Backcountry snowshoers and skiers venturing into the high country, especially above treeline, may be taking exceptional risks in areas where the snowfall is unstable and likely to avalanche. Likewise, backcountry travelers only out for a day tour often overestimate their abilities and underestimate their ability to travel efficiently in deep snow, and may find themselves trapped in the backcountry after dark, with no choice but to spend the night.
Any trip into the backcountry during winter’s peak season shouldn’t sacrifice safety. When going solo, you take your own risks, and are responsible for your own actions. Certainly, the solo winter traveler’s most effective tools are not only self-rescue gear, but the ability to make conservative decisions so he doesn’t find himself in life threatening situations for himself – or a search and rescue crew – in the first place. The solo hiker’s greatest responsibility is to those he leaves behind if he were to be killed, so skip your narcissistic desires for self absorbed winter adrenaline and take it easy out there if you’re alone.
If you’re hiking with a group, however, you owe it to your partners to take gear that can be used to help them if they get caught in an avalanche. Remember, you are not only taking a transceiver for your benefit (so they can find you if you’re buried), but for their benefit, so you can find them if they are buried!
The purpose of this article is to provide a very brief introduction into three key skills that are must-haves in the quiver of any backcountry traveler:
- Snow stability assessment.
- Avalanche transceiver use.
- Surviving a cold winter night.
This article does not, by any means, address any of these skills in great depth. Rather, we hope to provide brief introductions to the skills using multimedia: video, audio, and photography, to make an important point:
The ultralight philosophy has its limits: go light on safety gear, but don’t eliminate it.
1. Snow Stability Assessment
Evaluating risk is an essential skill for the ultralight traveler, allowing you to collect data that will help you make informed decisions about your actions in the context of your environment, your skill, and the equipment that you are carrying.
The ability to assess the stability of a snow slope helps you plan safe routes through steep terrain. Digging a snow pit and studying the various layers of the snowpack, and how they are bonded to each other, provides valuable information about snow stability.
Generally, the information you want to gather includes the depth of the snowpack, slope angle, character and size of snow crystals, the character and location of various layer boundaries in the snowpack, and the relative shear force required to cause the snowpack to collapse under weight, or slide along those boundaries.
Digging a snowpit and making this assessment requires less than ten minutes and precious few tools.
For example, Ryan’s snow study kit is comprised of the following items:
- Carbon fiber avalanche probe (6 oz)
- Aluminum snow shovel (15 oz)
- Inclinometer / snow crystal reference card (1 oz)
View the following video to see how these tools are used to collect information about the snowpack during a tour of the Brighton, Utah backcountry on January 26, 2007:
2. Avalanche Transceiver Use
Even the most experienced avalanche instructors emphasize the need to continuously practice your skills with an avalanche transceiver. Understanding how signals are received and interpreted by your transceiver, practicing various types of search strategies in different scenarios, and just realizing how hard it can be to sort out search signals in a multiple-burial scenario is worth its weight in gold when the rubber meets the road in a real avalanche rescue.
On our tour, one of the authors (we’ll call him “The Big Unit”) hucked a transceiver high in the air and let it nosedive into the snow about 25 meters from our perch on a 31 degree snow slope. Another author (“Hooch”) then switched his transceiver to “receive” and set out to find our tiny buried, and hopefully transmitting, friend.
Listen to the audio of this very simple and short search, which required four minutes of purposeful searching by a single rescuer, and you may understand the wisdom behind going into the backcountry with several buddies.
Avalanche rescue of a buried victim requires only one additional item not already on our gear list from #1 above: a transceiver. The lightest ones are only about five and a half ounces (such as the Mammut Barryvox with lithium batteries), and offer both digital (best for quick location of a victim at short ranges) and analog (which may be more effective at longer ranges) modes of searching.
3. Hypothermia Management
The final skill we talked about on our Brighton tour was that of surviving the onset of hypothermia, and possibly, spending a night in the mountains if we couldn’t make it back to our car, while on a day tour.
The obvious skill that can be put to use here is that of building a snow cave. Snow caves are warm and wind proof, and offer the best chance of getting out of a storm. Unfortunately, they require quite a bit of time, effort, and physical ability to construct, and you get quite wet in the process.
The trend towards soft shell apparel for “done in a day” activities means that you may not be taking waterproof raingear into the backcountry. Digging a snow cave in soft shell clothing almost guarantees that you’ll be soaked to the bone by the time you’re done.
In addition, snow caves are relatively time-consuming, and thus, impractical, for use as temporary shelter if you simply want to get out of the wind, or spend an hour or so reviving a mildly hypothermic victim.
So, we brought along a bothy shelter (a.k.a., bothy bag), an invention from our friends in the UK, that amounts to nothing little more than a stuff sack for human beings. Our bothy bag was a two-person version from Terra Nova that weighed about 12 ounces, offered a ventilation hole for fresh air, and clear windows for light and stormwatching.
The application of a bothy shelter is simple:
- Dig a two foot deep and two-foot diameter hole.
- Stand (in our case, the two of us) in the hole.
- Pull the bothy over your heads.
- Sit on the edges of the bothy and lean back – the structure thus supports itself.
Refer to the images at right for bothy shelter use. When we were testing the Terra Nova Two-Person Bothy, one of the authors (Martin) commented that the climate inside the bothy “was surprisingly warm, especially with some sun.” The intimate bothy environment brought chuckles from Lipsey, while Martin warned that you “should choose your bothy partners carefully”. Martin and Jordan had little personal space inside the bothy (they were able to thumb wrestle), but that is its greatest strength: the sharing of body heat for comfortable warmth. Jordan has spent many lunch hours and a few nights with partners in bothy bags, and finds them “well worth the weight” relative to mylar bivy sacks. “They give you tremendous refuge in foul conditions, allowing the entire party to warm up at mid-day without going through the rigamarole of pitching a tarp, building a fire, or constructing a snow shelter.
Other skills important for hypothermia management focus on minimizing sweating (by regulating your thermal balance via pace and clothing layers), seeking rest in areas protected from wind, and maintaining adequate hydration and nutrition throughout the day.
In combination with some type of emergency shelter (such as a bothy bag or bivy sack), we always include a few other safety items on winter day treks, including a good navigation system (with a map and compass as the bare minimum, and a GPS can be useful for getting back to the car in a whiteout) and a stout firebuilding kit containing solid fuel tablets and firestarters. Virtually anybody can survive any type of storm below the treeline with the protection of a warm, well-fed fire.
Outdoor Retailer is so focused on gear – its features, colors, and styles, as well as its claims about performance – that we sometimes forget why we buy all this gear in the first place. So, we hope this very brief tutorial inspires you to get outside with your gear and explore the backcountry.
Especially in the winter.
Be safe, and stay warm –
– Ryan, Mike, and Vic
1. Ryan Jordan
2. Mike Martin
3. Vic Lipsey
4. Ryan measuring slope angle using the inclinometer from a Brunton Avalanche compass, aligned with a probe sitting parallel to the snow surface. Slope angle = 31 degrees.
5. Measuring depth of snow pack with an avalanche probe. Probe: Ortovox Carbon.
6. Digging the snow pit. Shovel: Backcountry Access. Holes provided by author.
7. Measuring the size and analyzing the morphology of snow crystals with the G3 inclinometer/crystal analysis reference card.
8. Analyzing the resistance of various layers in the snow pack to penetration by fingers and hands. Here, Ryan inserts his hand into a layer of sugary, poorly-bonded snow underneath an ice lens, about 15 cm from the surface.
9. Using a ski to cut a column away from the snow pack, in preparation for a column failure test.
10. Using a snow shovel and light force exerted in a downward direction to induce snow pack collapse. Here, the snow pack collapsed approximately 2 cm at the ice layer buried 15 cm below the surface, and approximately 15 cm (with an audible “whoomp”) at the ice layer buried 60 cm below the surface.
11. Failure of the column at the 60 cm ice layer. Here, Ryan is inspecting the poorly consolidated snow that runs from this failure point, all the way to the ground surface.
12. Preparing a site for the bothy shelter, stomping a flat surface for sitting.
13. Digging a pit for our legs, in preparation for sitting in the bothy shelter.
14. “Hunkered down” in a totally fake mountain storm, Ryan and Mike share the intimacy borne of a desire for authentic gear testing. What exactly are they doing in there? (Answer: thumb wrestling)
15. Vic Lipsey and Mike Martin enjoy untracked Brighton backcountry on snowshoes and skis.
Photos 14, 13, 1 by Ryan Jordan (Olympus E-400). Other photos by Vic Lipsey (Nikon D200).