If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

When mountains move, how can we stay safe?

Lee Lazzara photo

Story by Liza Kimberly

Snowflakes are flying, and snow enthusiasts are flocking to the hills. The season of snow sliding has arrived at Mt. Baker. But as these falling snowflakes undergo temperature changes, morph under pressure, and change their crystal structures, the fluffy snow-stars that stick to our eyelashes can become destructive, unpredictable slabs and slurries of snow. And each year, an increasing number of skiers and snowboarders are venturing into the backcountry in search of untracked powder fields. Whether we’re backcountry novices or veterans, it is crucial that we all take the time to refresh our avalanche knowledge and rescue skills at the start of every season. I had a chance to pick the brains of four local avalanche professionals about avalanche preparedness and education. Lee Lazzara and Andrew Kiefer are the two Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) forecasters for the Mt. Baker region; Zack McGill is a backcountry ski guide and avalanche educator with Bellingham-based guiding outfit Baker Mountain Guides; and Maya Hunger is a professional ski patroller with the Mt. Baker Ski Area.

Here’s what they said.

The winter environment is complex and ever-changing. Folks getting into backcountry travel for the first time should ease into it. “You’re unconsciously incompetent (you don’t know what you don’t know),” McGill said.

Whether jaunting to Artist Point for a picnic on snowshoes, dipping right outside the ski area boundary for just a few turns, or skiing a couloir on Mt. Shuksan, having basic rescue equipment and the know-how to use it is essential. Lazzara and Kiefer note that backcountry travelers also need to be able to identify avalanche terrain, make and relate observations of instability, and comprehend an avalanche forecast. Level 1 avalanche courses are the most common way to introduce these fundamental skills, but it’s only the first step in a lifelong pursuit of avalanche education.

“I think folks think that taking an avalanche course or two will give them the golden ticket to get out there and send it in avalanche terrain,” McGill said. “In the U.S., if you take both recreationist level courses, that's seven days of professional level education. That's nothing. Would you trust a pilot to take off and land a massive airliner after seven days of instruction? Courses are meant as a framework to introduce and formalize a decision making process for you and your squad so that you can go out and gain good experience.”

What does good experience look like?

For the NWAC crew, it’s actually clocking time in the mountains and moving through avalanche terrain while minimizing risk. An avalanche course might teach you the concepts of wind-loading and rapid warming, but it’s impossible to see how snow conditions change from one slope to another and through time without experiencing it for yourself. Those just coming off their first avalanche course should start simple: Go out on days with less avalanche danger and stick to areas that have easy to identify avalanche terrain, Lazzara and Kiefer recommended. And regardless of your experience, it’s paramount to find partners you can trust and clearly communicate with as you assess risk and make decisions.

McGill warned of the various cognitive biases and social forces that can cloud judgment in the backcountry.

“All avalanche fatalities occur because a human chose to be in avalanche terrain,” he said. “We talk ourselves into the darnedest things when the reward of deep pow and face shots is within sight. Knowledge of avalanches and how they work is important, but knowing yourself and your team and how you make decisions together is the most important thing.”

“Please remember that there is no ski run in the world, no powder, no feature, that is worth dying for,” Hunger added. “Your safety is not ever guaranteed but you should always be conscious of the level of risk you are exposing to yourself and others (including rescuers, if it comes to that).”

Characterized as a “wicked learning environment,” the backcountry does not offer immediate feedback to its students without significant repercussions – you either trigger an avalanche or you don’t, and you rarely know if you narrowly avoided one. That risk amplifies the importance of debriefing each day you travel through the backcountry. What did your group do well and what could have been done differently? Where did you put yourselves in the most risk, and how can you mitigate that next time? Did we make the right decisions or did you just get lucky? Learn from the day instead of making the same errors next time.

It is also worth noting that unlike other popular backcountry zones, the majority of the Mt. Baker backcountry is within, adjacent to, or in the run-out of terrain where avalanches can occur. There are very few places to backcountry ski that do not have the potential to slide — popular spots like the Shuksan Arm, Table Mountain, Mazama Bowl, Hemispheres and Mount Herman are all considered “prime” avalanche terrain. Their slopes are the ideal 35-45 degrees (the slope angle where most avalanches occur), they’re unsupported, and they have long run-outs, often with hazardous gullies and cliffs (i.e. “terrain traps”).

Maya Hunger photo

“We often get complacent in the Baker backcountry with where and how we travel because, most of the time, we get to ski or ride in avalanche terrain,” McGill said. “Some of the most used skin tracks in our area are in avalanche terrain.”

Some misconceptions about avalanches and backcountry travel

Lazzara and Kiefer: “One misconception would be that a high level of skiing/riding ability or fitness is an indication of a high level of avalanche savvy. Another is that an airbag pack is a golden ticket out of an avalanche. It turns out they save some folks, but plenty of others have been killed wearing avalanche airbag packs when caught.

“One mentality that sneaks up backcountry travelers is having simplified rules about danger ratings and terrain. It’s a fallacy to take the avalanche danger rating for a day and make your terrain choices based solely on if it’s ‘yellow or orange.’ The best practice is to understand the nature of the problem and where it is in the terrain.”

Hunger: “In general, our community no longer gives the snowpack a day to settle before we push it. I’m not always seeing partners ski slopes one at a time, frequently a very experienced party will go ski something they’ve skied literal 100 times and a novice group will follow their tracks without much idea of what they’re getting themselves into.

“I worry that the complexities of wind loading aren’t being considered and I’m fairly certain that lots of backcountry travelers are not thinking hard enough about the entrance point they choose when they decide they are skiing a slope.

“I think it’s imperative that people know that if NWAC is forecasting a reactive layer in the snowpack, or your snow pit shows a reactive layer, and you see someone ski a line on the arm or Mt. Herman that should have slid and nothing happened, that does not mean the weak layer doesn’t exist, and it also doesn’t mean the person who skied that line knows what they’re doing.”

All four agreed that books, podcasts, avalanche course materials, and videos are great resources for refreshing your backcountry and avalanche knowledge at the start of every season. McGill recommended reading “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper. The Avalanche Review (TAR) is another great publication that compiles the latest and greatest research and perspectives in the field.

“Get mentorship from professionals,” McGill suggested. “At Baker Mountain Guides, we offer all our avalanche course alumni affordable scheduled tours ($50) where folks get to take the lead and get feedback from their peers and a professional on their process.”

NWAC hosts a slew of classes, workshops, and events as well, including the highly anticipated “Laying Tracks Workshop.” This 4-part series will focus on the fundamentals of backcountry travel in the winter, and it will take place through Zoom meetings with NWAC staff. More details can be found at nwac.us.

Lazzara and Kiefer also describe a mighty sharp tool to keep at the top of your mental toolbox.

“The biggest mindset shift I’ve had over the years is remembering I can always shift to terrain with less exposure to avalanche danger,” they said. “If something isn’t adding up or it just doesn’t feel right then it's time to stop and fix it. Just because you think your chosen route is reasonable doesn’t mean you have to keep going that way once you make the plan. If your observations are different from what you expected, or it just plain feels wrong, then make a change. It’s amazing how easy this is to say yet how difficult to do.”

Here’s to a safe winter filled with powder, alpenglow, and an abundance of the simple giddiness that is so unique to linking effortless turns through powder, in the mountains, with friends. x

When Liza Kimberly isn’t teaching geology at WCC, you can find her seeking alpine powder turns, winding through forests on a bicycle or writing in a notebook and drinking kombucha.