If you’ve been out there you know – a day in Jackson Hole’s backcountry is akin to heaven itself. It’s just you, a few friends, and the mountains at the tips of your skis. The act of casually skinning a fresh track through the woods, up a ridge, and onward in search of a specific line, has a way of bringing nature in up-close and personal. With each step you gain familiar knowledge of the terrain, as you listen to the trees creaking around you, heavily laden with snow.
A gust of wind might pick up and swirl glistening snow crystals around you as you hike, step by step, further into a majestic backdrop of pillowy mountaintops. Aside from the crunching of your skis as you glide forward, silence permeates the scene, as you cross over ice covered creeks and forward into the woods. Ascending into steeper terrain, each step takes more energy and more thought, as you get that much closer toward your goal – and closer to extreme danger, lurking just underfoot.
And then, the reward — swiftly skiing down a glorious empty canvas that’s just begging for you to slash some turns in it. Bottomless, blower, deep, illustrious powder. It is a unique feeling: indescribable, total bliss. But this idyllic scene can be easily interrupted with abruptly shedding snowpack that can take you with it, powerless against its sheer magnitude. Skiing is not worth dying for, which is why avalanche avoidance is absolutely necessary. Not just for your own safety, but for those around you, and others who may be traveling in the surrounding area.
Jackson Hole’s backcountry offers marvelous accessibility — much of it is easily seen from the highway. It has a way of beckoning you, particularly after a recent storm. However, as we have learned this winter, and every winter before, the thing we love with reckless abandon can be deadly, and when we least expect it.
When it comes to backcountry safety and staying alive in avalanche terrain, sometimes a little restraint can go a long way. Avoiding the obvious pitfalls is incredibly important, such as staying home during high avalanche danger, steering clear of sketchy terrain, and making sure you’ve got a partner. Never travel alone.
Because rest assured, when you enter a backcountry zone, you are taking your life into your own hands, which is why it’s imperative to be aware of the risks before you go and mitigate them the best you can. While skiing is a lifelong passion for many of us, it’s profoundly tragic when our beloved sport ends a life. It’s always best to attend an avalanche course (or two) before you delve into the backcountry, and find a mentor who can help you along.
Jacob Urban, Owner of the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute and Deputy Advisor of Teton County Search and Rescue, gave us a few wise words to consider:
As an educator and rescuer, I think it is important for aspirant mountaineers to get a formal education, for example, AIARE Level 1 and Wilderness First Responder. Many students underestimate the amount of experience one needs to successfully apply that gained knowledge. Education balanced with personal experience over the course of several seasons is normally needed to develop competency, and it takes much longer to master such concepts and skills.
Avoiding avalanches requires a thoughtful balance between technical knowledge and good decision making. Multiple steps must be followed through methodically. It’s not just about checking weather conditions and the avalanche report before you head out, or whether your transceiver has fresh batteries. It takes deference equaling that of religion – practice with your beacon regularly, know how to dig a pit and read the snowpack, be aware of where you’re traveling and where avalanches could happen.
Attune yourself to your surroundings at all times. If there is any doubt, don’t go. No amount of untracked powder can compensate for a lost life. Because it’s not just about you, or the line you’re skiing, or that immensely satisfying sensation of arcing from one perfect turn into the next. It’s about making sure you don’t hear that sickening whoomp sound as you drop in, or witness a deep crack running out ahead of you before the snow detaches from the mountain and takes you with it. Staying out of harm’s way might mean skiing the mellower line, but those steeper shots will still be there another day, and so will you.
Avalanche safety is a basic courtesy to yourself and those around you, and should be taken seriously. Know the terrain, know the risks, and know how to use your gear. After all, we want to see you back here next year, when there will be more snow, more peaks to ski, and another day to get after it.
Resources for Avalanche Safety in Jackson Hole
For more info on courses:
Images © Taylor Glenn