How to prepare your day in the mountains
As there seem to be growing interest in skiing out of bounds the knowhow of doing things safely gets evermore important. We all know that skiing outside the marked slopes can be dangerous but there are number of things you can do to mitigate the risk.
You do this by starting in steps that starts from day, or days, before your trip and continues as long as you're on the move. After the trip it's a good practice to have a little thought about what went right and what went wrong to gain more understanding about your actions out there. I've been moving in mountains 20 years, work as a ski patrol and give avalanche forecasts at my local area and I'm still learning everyday.
As the article might end up being a long one I'll spread this into sections so the reader will have time to chew things up and hopefully start to use some of these methods to make life easier out in the mountains.
So lets begin with the Step 1 - Pre-trip planning.
Having fun in the mountains is as twice as fun when you know you’re doing it as safe as possible. To have safe fun in the mountains, we need to have a systematic decision making process to make sure we make right calls. This might sound somewhat boring but it’s easy to do and it will even add your odds to find the best possible snow at your destination.
Remember that snow acts like people - it might get upset about sudden changes. This is exactly what happens on heavy snowfall. That’s why you should be obsessively interested about the avalanche bulletin and gathering as much information as you can to make following day a great one.
Your pre trip planning is part of the decision making system and it should include following information:
There are numerous weather forecasting sites on the internet but for Scandinavia you should check at least following websites that are recognised for giving a complete and reliable forecast:
yr.no (Norwegian weather site hosted by Norwegian Meteorological Institute)
smhi.se (Swedish weather site hosted by Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute)
ilmatieteenlaitos.fi (Finnish weather site hosted by Finnish Meteorological Institute)
It is of course often necessary to regroup the information from these different sources in order to get a good idea of what weather you will encounter the next day. Keep in mind that the weather can change suddenly and you should check the latest forecasts before you go.
The Avalanche Bulletin
The avalanche bulletin together with the weather forecast is a foundation from where you start to build your decision making process. Depending on where you’re heading you’ll find the bulletin from different sources (e.g. Norway: VARSOM, Sweden: SLAO, Finland: ILMATIETEENLAITOS). There are some places where you can get local avalanche bulletin such as in Ylläs in Finland so be sure to check out if you can find one for your destination.
Remember that the avalanche bulletins in Scandinavia may differ from the Alps because depending on where you’re at the information might not be as accurate as in the Alps where there are professional organisations updating the bulletin every day. Check the date of the latest bulletin and use it as a start up guide to estimate the overall risk at specific area.
Also keep in mind that there are some unpopulated vast mountain areas especially in Northern Scandinavia. If you’re heading deep in to the wilderness you might need to rely on other resources and gather the information by yourself since your point of destination might not be covered.
The avalanche bulletin includes the following for all the mountain areas covered:
· The risk of avalanche for the next 24h: with the European scale going from 1 to 5. Same scale is used in Scandinavia as well.
You should always try to cover following information for your pre trip plan:
· The accumulated snow conditions: Lower limits, average snow depth…
· The state of the snow cover: History of snow fall, description on the different snow layers (surface and underlying).
· A weather forecast
· The evolution of the snow cover: The expected changes in the snow layer and the effects on the stability of the layer, the nature and the intensity of the avalanche risk at the moment.
· In case you’re not getting information about snow cover from the bulletin at your destination you can make a rough estimate from previous weather (snowfall, wind direction, intensity and temperature) and the following weather forecast. Be ready to dig a pit or two on following day to double-check structure of the snowpack.
· Know your partners (travel and rescue skills, overall behaviour in slopes). Remember that this is not about discriminating some of your friends but an important part of your risk management :)
· Choose your following days destination based on previous information. Rule of thumb is to keep things easy when the risk is high and move into more dangerous terrain when the snowpack is happy.
· Confirm your information in the morning before hitting the slopes!
You can check the latest changes in snow cover in Norway from xgeo.no that is an excellent base of information on getting information about snow fall in specific area. Another great source of information covering Norway is skredkart.ngi.no where you’ll find topographic map of Norway with the colour graded gradient showing slope steepness on the map. This can help your route planning quite a bit.
To get information about snow cover in Sweden check smhi.se that gives you observations about previous days. You’ll find same information for Finland from ilmatieteenlaitos.fi.
Also the Google Earth is a friend of backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Sometimes you get amazingly detailed information about the area from its satellite pictures.
The call to the locals
Apart from these easy accessible sources for information it is always a good thing to give a call to a friend or acquaintance on the spot who can give you the latest update on the conditions. If you don’t know anybody where you plan to go don’t hesitate to give a call to the local Mountain Guide Office or ski resort and they will happily give you the latest observations of the day on the mountain.
Based on your pre trip planning you’ll get an idea on what kind of terrain is appropriate for next days powder fiesta. Now that you know where you’re heading you’re ready to pack your bag with appropriate gear.