It happens every year. When the fall storms start rolling in, keen and motivated mountain enthusiasts decide to go into the backcountry or skin up their local hill for a few early season laps. Inevitably, people make bad decisions. Whether it’s because there just isn’t enough snow to shred, crevasses have not yet bridged or people’s excitement at the new snow get the better of them, rescue teams and ski patrollers tend to get busy this time of year.
I understand the enthusiasm. For those of us that love the snow, summer has been a long wait. Just seeing the fresh blanket of white low in the valley and covering the ski runs gets all of us stoked and raring to go. There was a time where my mates and I would dig out all our gear and hike/skin our way up to treeline to see if there was anything to ski. But even then, we tried to use our heads.
Accidents happen to anyone, but what kills me is the multitude of folks who head out there without the slightest idea of what it’s like in the mountains in October and November. Aside from those freak years where we get fifteen feet of snow by US Thanksgiving (and that has its own elements of risk), most of the time, there just ain’t much snow up there. Have you seen the ski hill or an alpine bowl in summer? Especially up high and in the trees, it’s not exactly grass out there, and even a metre of snow isn’t going to do much to cover talus fields, fallen trees or crevasses.
The mountains are a wonderful and terrifying place and deserve respect at anytime of year, but this is especially true in the transition to winter. Minimal snow means the hazards are just lurking under the surface. Early season snowpacks can be tricky and outright dangerous.
So what to do? Don’t get loaded with a few buddies and decide it’s a good idea to hike up with your boards and see if the 30cm base is enough to get down unharmed. Instead, get educated; find a friend who is a guide or a hotshot ski patroller and learn from them. Be careful; early season conditions are dangerous so go slow and maybe skip hucking that twenty footer until December rolls around. Skin up and ski down the grassy ski runs at your local hill. More importantly, be prepared for self-rescue. When a SAR or ski patrol team has to come get you, you’re putting them at risk. I can tell you from experience; trying to get someone injured off the hill or out of the backcountry this time of year can be a nightmare. So help us out and take the time to care for yourself or better yet, make decisions that will get you home to a cold one safe and sound.
Be safe, ski hard.