Avalanche safety tip of the week
By Brandon Schwartzspecial to the actionTravel in the backcountry is one of the reasons that we flock to the mountains when the snow flies. For those of us with dreams of backcountry powder descents, uphill travel is an integral part of those descents. Safe uphill travel and setting a well protected skin track that is easy to follow is an art in itself, as much as the turns of the descent. A good skin track will use terrain to protect from avalanche exposure. Use of ridge features, where avalanche events will likely occur on the sides of the ridge and not on its crest, is common. Areas of thick, deep forest can also work to protect from areas of avalanche danger, such as steep terrain above you. If your skin track needs to cross through or below terrain that is steep enough for an avalanche to occur (steeper than 25 degrees), then travelers should move one at a time with spotters watching each individual move from one safe area to another. This is the same as you would do for downhill travel in the same area. If you have set a safe skin track, you should feel comfortable using it for uphill travel any day of the winter, regardless of the level of avalanche danger.Not all skin tracks are well placed or set by individuals who have solid winter backcountry travel skills. As humans we tend to look for a route requiring the least amount of physical effort. As a result, we tend to use existing skin tracks. This is not a problem, if we continuously evaluate the existing skin track for overall safety and protection from avalanche exposure as we travel along it. However, do not hesitate to break a new skin track if you feel that the existing one offers poor protection. And do not let the fact that others have safely passed before you lull you into a feeling of safety and subsequent complacency. It is sometimes the fifth or seventh person on a slope that triggers an avalanche, not always the first. As a matter of backcountry etiquette, do not boot pack (walk without skis or snowshoes) on existing skin tracks and do not snowshoe on tracks set by skiers if you are breaking through to a deeper snow layer. Skin tracks that are made uneven by snowshoes or have holes in them from bootpacking are very difficult to use by travelers coming behind you. If you are bootpacking or snowshoeing, please set a parallel track to the existing one. This helps to keep smiles on the faces of all of us.Brandon Schwartz is the Avalanche Forecaster for the Sierra Avalanche Center and U.S. Forest Service in the Tahoe region. Look for a new avalanche awareness or safety tip each week here in the action.
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