How Do You Make Decisions in the Backcountry?

I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of days as we’ve made a a couple of questionable decisions. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I ski with John. So every Sunday night, Tuesday night, and Thursday night we have a conversation that often goes into the next morning. It goes something like this,

“Where are we skiing tomorrow?”

“Hmm, maybe x, y, or z?”

“Not x because of this.”

“Okay, how about z?”

“Let’s see what snow totals look like in the morning.”


“So there was a lot of South West wind, I don’t think Z is going to be a good option, let’s go for Y.”

“or what if we did A??”


“Okay, see you at 11:30.”

We decide where we ski based on a number of factors: the wind, snow, sun, slope angle, trees, type of avalanches, time, desire, etc.

Everyday what we’re really looking to find is the best snow, or to check off a line, without getting caught in an avalanche. We also try to avoid getting caught in traffic. Which even though I’ve skied 75+ days this season I’ve only been stuck in traffic for 10 minutes total. That’s a win.

So what causes avalanches, and how do we mitigate the risk? Well there are a number of factors that cause avalanches: the wind, snow, sun, slope angle, etc.

And there are several different types of avalanches that come in a variety of sizes. There’s storm slabs which are as big as the storm, so sometimes big sometimes small. There are wind slabs, which is where wind has loaded an area with extra snow which creates a slab like a storm slab. There are persistent weak layers (usually the most dangerous) which is a layer of snow in the snowpack that new snow can easily slide on. These often produce the largest and most destructive avalanches. There are wet loose slabs that are caused from rapid warming of the snow from the sun. I might be missing some, but that’s the gist of it. So with this in mind, we also make decisions. If the worst case scenario is a 6 inch storm slab with a clean run out (no trees, or cliffs below) then we’ll ski it even if it’s likely it will slide. But if the risk is a big avalanche, even if it’s not super likely we’ll avoid the area.

One mistake a lot of people make is that they make all of their decisions solely based on the Avalanche Forecasts. Utah avy does a great job, but at the end of the day it’s just people making decisions. It can give you a really good starting point, but they’re not always going to be right.

For example, the closest I’ve been to being caught in an avalanche was on a LOW (green) avalanche danger day when avalanches were supposedly “unlikely.” And we’ve had several days where the avalanche danger has been high, and we’ve found really stable snow.

It’s definitely worth reading the forecast, but in the end you have to get close up with the mountain and make your decisions.

Another tool we use to test snowpack stability is digging a pit. If we’re on a slope that we’re concerned about skiing, before we continue we dig a pit. And then we do a series of tests involving isolating a section of snow and hitting it with your shovel to test for stability.

As you can see, a lot goes into making decisions, and we’ve made a lot of progress this year after spending so much time on the mountains. It’s something that really needs to be learned by practice and experience.

Reading what other people have said will only get you so far.

Today we made a good decision. We skied a steep North facing, treed area, and it was all time. So deep. So good. It’s been a minute since we’ve had a day this deep. It was awesome. Here’s a video so you’ll believe me.

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