Spring Skiing Considerations

Spring conditions last week.
Its spring here in the Sierra Nevada. Truckee and Tahoe City are melting out. The corn season is in full swing at all elevations, and a lot of people are talking about going out-of-bounds for the first time in their lives. They perceive springtime as the "safe-time" to ski beyond the ski area. After all, if there's no new snow, then there's no danger, right?

Not exactly.

Last week I went out on a fun run of Outer Outer Limits with some friends. We were ready for what was least likely: we had avalanche beacons, probes, and shovels. But only one of us - me - had anything more (like a first aid kit). And that - I have to admit - was because I was still packed from my AMGA Ski Mountain Guide Course that I've been writing about.

Our greatest hazard? That someone was going to hit a tree or wrench a knee in the breakable crust we found in places on the way down to the road.

On the chairlift, people see my randonee bindings and start asking for directions, wanting to "check it out" for themselves on that run, with nothing more than their boards and a cell phone.  On a local online forum, one poster said he planned on "following the tracks out and figuring it out as we go."

Please think again. Dead-cell zones are common in the mountains.  Often you have to be on a ridge or summit to get any signal at all, an unlikely scenario in most avalanches or accidents.  It really sucks to discover this for yourself when you pull out your phone to call 911. If you're skiing the "slackcountry" or "sidecountry" of a ski area, it is still the backcountry.  Ski patrols are not obligated to provide assistance, and even have the right to refuse assistance if they are too occupied within the ski area. Regardless, I can tell you that it will be at least one hour before anyone will reach you. If someone is badly injured and laying in the snow for that entire period of time, the shock from the trauma and exposure to the environment alone could make what would be a routine evacuation inside a ski area into a major, major emergency.

Please consider having the following with you:

1.  A SMALL first aid kit. Just enough to patch up one hole in one person. I carry the Ultralight 0.3 from Adventure Medical Kits for just these kind of days. I also add a small roll of duct tape (also for sale from Adventure Medical), 5 long plastic ski straps (like these from Brooks Range Mountaineering), and 18' of 6mm cord.

left / 24" plastic ski straps / photo brooks-range.com
right / a truly minimal medical kit / photo adventuremedicalkits.com

2.  Avalanche equipment. Yeah, it's spring. Yeah, it's unlikely. You're more likely to get knocked over by a pinwheel, or washed over a cliff, then get buried. Still, a shovel is an invaluable tool. Your avalanche probe, doubled or tripled up, can be used for splinting material.  Just a few weeks ago in Colorado an experienced mountain guide was buried and killed in a surprise early climax event as she toured across the deposition zone of a clear avalanche path. So it really can happen.

3.  A partner. Sometimes its fun to ski by yourself. I do it quite often. No, my mom does not aprove of it, but PG tolerates it, even when I fall into a lake.  But one of this winter's highlights was skiing every Thursday with my friend Sander.  I think you should consider inviting someone - or someones - to join you if:
  1. you're going out to ski advanced terrain, or
  2. you're going to new terrain you're not familiar with, or
  3. you're going someplace where evacuating will be problematic or impossible to do if anything (equipment or human) breaks.