I’ve been going into the winter backcountry all my life, and it’s been a little tough to admit that I don’t know squat about avalanche danger. Finally I attended a free REI class, feeling sure I would just be verifying my ignorance and finding out how many thousands of dollars worth of gear and classes it would take to rectify the situation. To my surprise, I found that the most effective actions I can take to avoid avalanche danger are cheap and easy!
- Check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center report for the day! By dawn these guys have already dug and analyzed snow pits all over the state, and they combine this with weather conditions to give you a very good idea of avalanche danger before you leave home. This alone is a huge difference from just venturing out into the hills with no idea at all what conditions are out there. I had no idea.
- Slope Meter, $2-20 – A card with some angle marks and a plumb line. There’s very little chance of a slope under 35 degrees sliding. That might be too limiting for snowboarding, but I imagine I could find plenty of terrain to challenge me on cross-country skis that fits this bill.
- Shovel, $40+. I always avoided digging snow pits because I thought of it as an arcane science that required highly specialized tools and knowlege. Our instructor pointed out that no matter what your experience is, just digging a pit and playing with the snow layers a bit gives you infinitely more information than simply looking up at the hill and saying, “Eh, looks alright…” Break off the top layer in your pit, imagine that happening to the entire hill, and you can at least base a decision on something.
- Beacon, probe, and certification, $500+. It’s rescue ability that’s expensive and requires training. If you know you’re not prepared to respond to an avalanche, factor that into your decision. I think it’s worth the investment, and I’d like to do it, but I also think it’s possible to continue to enjoy the backcountry responsibly until I can afford the time and money.