By Rob Coppolillo
Cop flicks, foil-cap conspiracy theories, and Tom Clancy novels—seems there’s always a dude snapping pics from across the way with a telefoto lens. Chances are he’s gathering intel, building his case, getting ready to throw down. This time around, though, you’re the one clicking away and getting ready … to send!
Backcountry tour planning has changed tremendously in the past five to ten years. Do you remember life before cheap digital cameras, Google Earth, and interactive guidebooks? The days of the map and compass?! I’m not getting senior discounts at Furr’s Cafeteria just yet, so I’ve tried to adopt most of these innovations and I gotta say—they make touring safer, easier, and more productive.
Yeah, they’re really smart. Whatever techno-acrobatics I’m describing here, chances are you can incorporate your phone into the mix. Bring maps, photos, photos of text descriptions, and screen shots into the field with you, so you can refer to them whenever. And if you’re not using your phone as a GPS, you’re missing out. The interfaces on Gaia, ViewRanger, and Backcountry Navigator blow the dedicated units away and they’re way more user friendly in the field. Check one of them out and use your smartphone for all the trickery below. We also recommend the newly released Avanet app – which let’s you route plan, view real time observations in the field and submit your own while touring. Like Gaia you can download a variety of topo maps beforehand of your objectives and reference where there’s no signal.
You should be snapping pics of terrain, in summer, in winter, any time you’ve got a moment. Try and be disciplined and organize the images when you get home, especially if you’ve got pics of out-of-the-way places. Chances are you’ll be back there someday, or one of your posse will, and you’ll be psyched you have photos to help you plan.
Over time you’ll eventually amass what professional operations call a “run atlas.” It’s just a visual catalogue of all the terrain they ski. Images like these can be invaluable for not only playing safe, but also for sniffing out private stashes. As more and more people get out there, secret spots are ever more valuable.
If you can’t snap pics yourself, then do the next best thing: poach ‘em off the internet. Check out hiking sites like 14ers.com and summitpost.org; you never know when a hiker unknowingly posts a pic of an epic (unskied!) couloir, not to mention you’ll get summer shots of terrain that interests you. Trigger points? Rocky rollovers? You can’t see ‘em once the snow flies, so ferret ‘em out however you must.
Another fantastic resource is Google Earth. When I’m prepping a tour I’ll bounce between a topo map, hillmap.com, a guidebook, and Google Earth, comparing terrain, uptracks, descents, and slope angles. You’re probably more dialed with the program than I, but rotate the terrain, shift between different dates on the tool bar, and get as much of an impression of your terrain as you can. It will also help you become absolutely expert in visualizing terrain from looking at a topo map. If it helps, don’t hesitate to snap a screen shot out of Google Earth for a particularly important point or area, then email it to yourself and save it in your phone’s photos.
For most areas, old-school guidebooks still rule. Take the time to pencil in routes on your maps, but you might also consider snapping pics of the images and text descriptions. Crude, but it helps and it works.
The future, though, is upon us and if you want to see what’s truly possible, visit Geobackcountry.com. The brainchild of a visionary ski guide in Canada, Douglas Sproul, this interactive guidebook (and there’s a print version, too) contains all the information of a traditional guidebook, plus high-res images of all the terrain (as individual jpgs you can transfer to your phone), topo maps with routes drawn in (which you can save to your phone), AND a .kmz file (a Google Earth file) with all the routes indicated.
And get this—you can upload the .kmz file to your smartphone (Android only, for now) and then locate yourself in your GPS app. You’ll have uptracks and descents highlighted in your app, with your blue dot located real-time in the terrain.
Awesome. It’s cheating. Insane. Really.
Anyway. That’s the future, but you can simulate some of that by starting to build your own run atlas in pics and a .kmz file, too.
Now What? The Backcountry Basics:
Get the Gear
Get the Training
Get the Forecast
Get the Picture
Get out of Harm’s Way
So here’s how it works, you “Get the Gear and Training” before you consider going into the backcountry. Beacon, shovel, probe, and how about a balloon pack? Done your AIARE 1 with your crew? Check! Having the right gear and training is the bare minimum; you expect it of your buds and they expect it of you, too.
Now, each day, stick to your routine, “Get the Forecast, Get the Picture, Get Out of Harm’s Way.”
Get the Forecast
The Forecast describes the current avalanche problem pattern in the zone where you’ll be skiing. What flavor of avalanches are possible, where they live, and how big they might be. Read the bulletin every day, even on the days you’re not riding. Click on particular problems to read about them, how they tend to behave in the field, and how to avoid them.
Get the Picture
With your crew, plan what terrain to avoid and where to go on the “feature scale,” or on the actual slopes you’ll be skiing. Literally and figuratively, “get the picture.” Take that general advice from the bulletin and drill it down to right where you want to go on one of your terrain images, from your private run atlas.
Imagine the bulletin says they’re a windslab problem on the day, for example. Use terrain images to move the conversation from the forecast’s generic “avoid NE facing slopes with recent wind loading,” to the real conversation that’s going to save your ass—“Usually when the wind blows out of the southwest, this section of the bowl gets a windslab, but this zone over here is protected from the wind, so let’s plan to go to there so we can avoid the problem and get better riding conditions. Can we all agree to avoid everything right of that rib of trees, even if it looks good?”
This notion of identifying and avoiding “no-go terrain” is critical; it’s essential to help protect us from letting our stoke get the best of us in the field. If you and your crew says you’re not skiing NE-facing steep terrain, then it’s off limits for the day, period!
Get out of Harm’s Way
So here we are, standing at the top of the line. We’ve taken every preventative step to get the picture, now let’s make it real and get the goods by staying out of Harm’s Way. We’ll use that terrain image to support the conversation in the field and give ourselves two perspectives on the terrain as we identify exactly where on the mountain we do and don’t want to be: “go” and “no-go” terrain.
Whatever we do, we can’t overrule our earlier terrain-to-avoid, “no-go” plans, as it’s often easy to talk ourselves into something that looks delicious, despite knowing it’s potentially deadly. We’ll pick the best line within our safe terrain, and verbalize exactly where on the slope we want to go with a nice margin of safety or buffer between us and the expected avalanche problem. We’ll talk about where we’ll regroup in an avalanche-proof location, and which direction we’ll try to head in case we’re wrong. Lastly, we make sure we have a communication plan, both visually and verbally within our crew.
Don’t Outsmart the Problem
Armed with all these images, just remind yourself to stick to the fundamentals: appropriate terrain, no terrain traps, good communication within your team. Use the photos to supplement and enhance your process, not shortcut it. If it’s a high-hazard day, all the Google Earth and high-res imagery in the world won’t do anything to change the snowpack or the weather. It will, however, help you choose appropriate terrain and stick to it—and that’s key to staying alive in avalanche terrain.
Rob Coppolillo is an IFMGA-licensed mountain guide and writer based in Boulder, Colorado. He owns Vetta Mountain Guides.