Education, planning key to safe backcountry skiing

A backcountry skier skins up a mountainside earlier this year at Lake Tahoe.
Bill Rozak/Sierra Sun

TAHOE CITY, Calif. — Late at night a cell phone lights up, its ring alerts one of several volunteers from Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue — a lost skier is in need of help.

Though always at the ready, the call to local search and rescue teams can be preventable and with a series of storms set to drop more snow on the Sierra Nevada, experts are offering a word of caution to those with an eye on the backcountry.

“There are a number of ways it can go wrong, whether it’s not doing your homework and watching the weather and reading about the snowpack, or not bringing the right gear or not sticking to your plan when you’re out there,” said Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue volunteer Slater Stewart.

The all-volunteer team in the Truckee and North Tahoe areas has remained active this winter, recently rescuing a pair of lost skiers near Sugar Bowl Resort, while also taking the time to talk backcountry awareness and education at local elementary schools around Tahoe.

“If you decide to go after some of those things in the backcountry, make sure you are prepared and aware of the risks,” said Stewart.

The Sierra Nevada has seen more than 400 inches in cumulative snowfall thus far, or 33 feet, attracting skiers and snowboarders from various skill levels. As potential lines down a mountain become more tantalizing, Slater stressed the importance of preparation.

“It becomes really important to watch the weather every single day, because the conditions when you’re out in the Sierra with a lot of snow and warm temperatures will change pretty rapidly,” said Stewart. “Minute by minute, hour by hour you’ll have changes in how the snow’s reacting, how the snow feels.”

Education is among the most important tools a skier or rider can have, and those seeking to travel into the backcountry are advised to take an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education course, which offers lessons in how to prepare for and carry out a backcountry trip. Courses give skiers and snowboarders an understanding in basic decision making and knowledge of rescue techniques required to find and dig up a buried person if they are caught in an avalanche.

“People are always drawn to go out there and sometimes they aren’t prepared or get into something over their heads. Always be super in tune with the weather and what the snowpack is doing,” added Stewart. “Make sure you have the right gear, and you’re with the right crew.”

Groups like Tahoe Mountain School, International Mountain Guides, Backcountry Babes, and Alpenglow Expeditions offer avalanche training for those looking to get away from crowds and resorts

Tips on heading out

For those planning on accessing the backcountry for the first time, perhaps the most important piece of advice, according to several experts, is to find experienced people to accompany them.

Goals and objectives for the day should also be set and achievable. Skiers should have the proper equipment like a beacon and probe and be proficient in using them. Knowing conditions and the forecast from resources like the Sierra Avalanche Center are key as well.

Fresh snow and wind, has currently created dangerous avalanche conditions in the region.

“New snow and strong winds will create slabs of wind drifted snow in exposed areas below ridges and gully features,” said the avalanche center in its daily forecast. “In areas that received the higher end snow totals, weaknesses may exist in the new storm snow which may prevent it from bonding and gaining strength.”

With plans made and forecasts checked, the appropriate gear is the next essential item skiers and riders need to account for before heading out.

New and experienced skiers are advised to create a checklist with everything needed for the trip from car keys to boots to a charged cell phone. Necessary items needed include a shovel, beacon, probe, and a backpack to carry it all.

In terms of what to wear, Backcountry Babes owner Emily Hargraves said bringing many layers is the best approach, along with extra gloves, and emergency clothes in case plans go awry.

“A lot of very first-time backcountry skiers I’ll see wearing their resort setup to go out touring and that can get really hot,” said Hargraves. “Most people start a little lighter … but actually have a ton of layers in their backpack.”

Before heading out, skiers should also have an idea of what they’re getting into.

Websites like offer a broad idea of terrain and aspect.

When an accident does occur, communication is key. Groups like Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue and local law enforcement are often able to locate lost skiers by a cell phone ping. In instances where there is no cell service, such as the rescue that took place near Sugar Bowl, law enforcement is able to establish a general search area based on the last known ping of a phone. Experienced backcountry skiers often use software like Gaia GPS to help navigate the area, and in case no service is available a physical map is another important tool to bring along, according to Hargraves.

Skiing in the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada brings along an inherent risk, but having the proper knowledge and equipment can help prevent local search and rescue teams from having to answer that late night call.

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