Avalanche Essentials: A Step by Step System For Safety and Survival
There’s no shortage of books on avalanche safety, and Utah Avalanche Center Director, Bruce Tremper, is the author of one of the best, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. One thing books like Staying Alive and others lack, however, is a readability and first person approach that appeals to readers with a less technical background or approach. This readable, first person approach is exactly where Tremper’s new book, Avalanche Essentials – A Step-by-Step System for Safety and Survival, excels.
Rather than focusing on snow science and the technical aspects of slide dynamics, Avalanche Essentials offers a more accessible approach by asking broader questions like: How dangerous is the brain? How dangerous is the terrain? How dangerous is the snowpack?
Tremper, one of the most widely respected snow professionals in the biz, goes on to address these questions with a big-picture common-sense approach that could save your life.
The book still touches on fundamental snow dynamics and avalanche awareness topics, but it focuses on easy-to-use systems and decision-making aids to drive your field awareness and decision making process. From the highlighted “Take-Home Points” highlighted in every chapter to the “Ten Commandments of Low-Risk Travel” in Chapter Five, Tremper uses a mix of personal anecdotes and decades of field experience to present and simplify safe backcountry travel.
It's been a wild February and March for avalanche footage and imagery from around the world. There have been many high profile slides around North America and Europe including slides that have hit homes and ski resort infrastructure.
In case you have any question as to the destructive potential of an avalanche, here's a collection of footage from around the interweb:
Big wet slide in South Tirol Italian Alps: (worth watching to the end)
Softshell Ski Jackets - Patagonia Knifeblade and OR Enchainment
Having trouble regulating your temp on the up track? In addition to wearing too many layers or simply too warm a layer, too many backcountry skiers wear waterproof/breathable shells (top and bottom) for touring. I'm here to tell you that less is more and, more often than not, a fully waterproof/breathable shell (Gore-Tex pioneered the fabric, but there are many varieties) is more than you need for ski touring.
What, how do I stay dry, you ask? Well, unless it's actually raining - and hopefully you can pick and choose your days enough to avoid the rain - most softshell jackets (rated water resistant vs waterproof) will keep you plenty dry, especially if you are moving like one does on a ski tour. Even here in the Pacific Northwest, where the white rain is all too common, I never wear a waterproof/breathable coat when touring. They just don't breathe well enough. Softshells minus the waterproof membrane are the way to go. You can better regulate your body temp without fussing over layers at every transition. Choose your touring shell for its breathability, not its waterproof qualities; you will be drier in the long run.
The Outdoor Research Enchainment and Patagonia Knifeblade jackets are great examples. Check out our reviews on both:
The Knifeblade uses Polartec Power Shield Pro to deliver a very functional jacket for the alpine environment. Designed as an alpine climbing piece, it crosses over to backcountry skiing nicely and simplicity is one of its greatest assets; the Power Shield Pro fabric is its other.
The lightweight yet burly stretch-woven Power Shield breathes like a champ and is as close to stormproof as you need for midwinter ski touring. It also happen to have a windproof membrane adding storm protection without compromising breathability or its soft feel like a waterproof membrane. Thanks to factory taped seams and a robust DWR treatment, the Knifeblade has proven to be very stormproof. The fabric yields a great feel and range of motion. Arm swing is excellent, and there is a slight stretch to the material for ease of movement.
Alpine minimalism dictates you only get three pockets: two vertical chest pockets big enough for today's wide skins and high enough for easy access with a pack or harness, plus a smaller chest pocket for your phone or other small necessities.
Layered correctly, you can leave the car or the hut in the morning and never take this jacket off because it's so breathable. Add an insulation layer over the top at rest stops or for the last run of the day, and the Knifeblade jacket has you covered for the up and the down. Fans of the old Patagonia Readymix jacket will appreciate the simplicity, breathability and performance of the Knifeblade. It's available in men's and women's models as well as in a pullover style.
The Outdoor Research Enchainment jacket makes breathability and movement its top priorities. Using a mix of tightly-woven softshell and breathable Schoeller NanoSphere stretch panels under the arms, the Enchainment is designed for high energy output and extended range of motion. Outdoor Research plugs it for alpine climbing, but I think it makes a great touring shell.
Sure, it’s not waterproof, but it features welded construction and handles snow just fine. Fit is athletic. The feel is lightweight, yet tough. It’s highly wind resistant and, thanks to its NanoSphere DWR technology, it sheds snow well.
There’s no question the Enchainment is designed with alpine minimalism in mind. There's no powder skirt or features that have you scratching your head to understand. It’s a functional and practical ski touring jacket. The Enchainment will treat you right all but the wettest days and its breathability reduces the need to adjust layers during the day.
Outdoor Research delivers a no-frills, git-‘er-done jacket for a hundred-plus bucks less than the competition. It’s available in men’s and women’s models.
Given the level of backcountry skiing and skimountaineering occuring today, few mountains in the lower 48 states have been left unexplored. Nonetheless, the Washington Cascades remain one of the more wild and raw ranges south of the 49th Parallel. Writing a guidebook to skiing Washington’s Cascade Range that represents the current level of skiing and exploration taking place is no easy task, but it’s exactly what Martin Volken, founder and owner of Pro Guiding Service, and his fellow ski guides have done. Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes Washington offers a diverse collection of tours and traverses that speak to today’s aggressive ski scene while still offering classics that should make the to-do list of any backcountry skier.
Three years in the making, the book includes 81 tours in six regions – the Olympics, North Cascades, North Central Cascades, Central Cascades, Mount Rainier and South Cascades, plus a final bonus tour, the Spearhead Traverse, north of the border in British Columbia. From the easily accessible slopes of Mt. St. Helens to aggressive modern descents like the North Face of Buckner and the Cascade-Johannesburg Couloir, Volken and crew offer something for everyone.
Understanding the task to write this book was a large one, Volken enlisted the expertise of his follow ski guides to ensure local knowledge and know-how would permeate the book. The routes are well researched and easy to read, with contributing authors noted for each tour. The included maps are nice for reference, but you’ll have to establish your own gps coordinates if putting together a tour plan. All routes include overall difficulty ratings as well as specific ski skill ratings based on slope angle of descent and an overall commitment rating related a route’s remoteness.
Though Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes Washington shares some common routes with Rainer Burgdorfer’s original (and revamped version of) Backcountry Ski Washington’s Cascades , Volken’s new book looks at the Cascades with an eye for aggressive, modern routes and traverses, where snowmobile access, steep midwinter descents and multi-day adventure define the sport. Volken’s book has plenty of options to keep you inspired, and it lays out 11 multi-day traverses including the classic Ptarmigan and more recently pioneered North Central Cascades traverses.
The Washington Cascades encompass 15,000 square miles. In Volken’s words, it’s the area’s “no huts, no help, no heli atmosphere” that defines it. Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes Washington offers a diverse collection of tours, descents and traverses that showcase this very atmosphere.
It's not always easy letting go of an old, favorite piece of gear in favor of a new replacement, but strapping on the Black Diamond Alias ski pack has been an easy transition this season.
Redesigned for 2013, the Black Diamond Alias offers a clean, simple interface reflective of BD’s alpine climbing packs but with added ski features. It’s a traditional top-loader with a large main compartment, dedicated avalanche tool storage on the front panel plus a floating top lid with zippered pockets. It’s available with or without the Avalung component. The Alias provides a tidy 35 liters of storage – well matched to day touring and perhaps more if you have a strong light-is-right streak. The standout characteristic for the Alias is its minimalist styling.
That’s not to say the pack is short on features. First, there is the Avalung (if you choose the version so equipped), an added piece of mind for many skiers and a feature exclusive to BD packs. Next, the pack cloth is lightweight ripstop nylon, including 210d Dyneema side panels for added durability without a weight penalty. Borrowing from their climbing pack designs, the ice axe attachments – BD pickpockets – provide secure axe storage with minimal loose straps. There’s also a rope cinch strap and a top skirt to accommodate expansion. The avalanche tool storage compartment is in line with the pack’s tidy design. Shovel, probe and handle fit securely in the front zipper compartment. There’s enough room for larger shovels and a saw, but not necessarily your skins.
There’re plenty of small details to appreciate: insulated hydration sleeve, nice pull-tab on top skirt, good buckles. We’re luke-warm on the vertical zipper entry for the avy tools pocket, and the compression straps are a little finicky to keep tight when A-framing skis (female buckle end is sewn tight to pack seam) but, ultimately, the pack works well. The suspension system drops last year’s pivoting hip belt in favor of a much simpler design that worked great, too.
If you're looking for a clean, well-executed top-loader ski pack, look no further; BD has refined the Alias to meet the needs of skiers who prefer a lightweight, traditional loading and functional pack. It’s available in two torso sizes to help dial in the fit.
Favorite Feature: Less is more with this pack’s clean, simple design.
Least Favorite Feature: A-frame ski carry was finicky to keep tight when skis don’t lay flat.
A second area of growth and innovation of note at the trade show is in tech bindings - the alpine touring binding originally designed and popularized by Dynafit and noted for its lightweight, efficient design. The Dynafit design concept is now thirty years old and, a handful of years ago, the patent was allowed to expire. Ever since, new players and innovation have been driving the binding forward. Well, it's clear this year that tech bindings have some serious momentum in the backcountry ski world. Dynafit maybe the "Kleenex" of tech binders, but Black Diamond debuted the new Fritschi Vipec 12 and G3 their new ION tech binding. Both bindings appear to be solid designs with wide appeal.
Following the questionable success of their Onyx tech binding, G3 went back to the drawing board to create the new ION tech binding. It's appearance is more inline with that of the Dynafit, in fact, some aspects are quite similar. G3, however, adds numerous subtle features and innovations that help the ION stand on its own. Perhaps the most remarkable, given our short tour of the binding, is the heel unit. Though it looks familiar, it includes a unique dynamic tension (fore and aft) that is designed to maintain a fixed position for the heel pins during normal ski flex. The Vipec 12 has a similar feature. The ION also moves to a spinning heel, like that of the Dynafit, to switch between modes. The bottom line is G3 is trying to limit the movement of the pins in the boot heel to further improve binding retention and variability in release. Like all tech bindings at this point in the game, the ION is not yet DIN certified. Word is that the DIN world is in process reviewing the ION as well as the Vipec and various Dynafit models. It appears that, in the not too distant future, there will be a DIN cert for tech bindings. The brake system looks beefy and the brake self locks as you step into the binding, regardless of tour or ski mode,; a nice feature. The ION is a clean and easy to use binding. It has a sweet crampon attachment system that appears to allow much simpler attaching and removal of a ski crampon than the other systems.
The new Fritschi Vipec 12 is the other strong new player in the AT binding market. Fritschi took the established tech norm and focused on improving the reliability and continuity of the release mechanisms. The toe is the only tech binding to offer release adjustment (Trab actually has a binding with toe adjustment, but it's a whole new beast and I'll wait for that evolve). The Vipec also features a heel unit that slides fore and aft to switch between ski and tour modes - much like the G3's original Onyx binding. Lou Dawson over at Wildsnow.com has loads of info on the new Vipec if you would like to read more specifics. In the big picture, it looks like a nice viable binding. It also happens to available to consumers now in limited numbers.
Not to be outdone by the competition, Dynafit debuted five new tech binding models including the Radical ST 2.0 featuring a new pivoting toe platform to improve the bindings overall retention elasticity. In addition, the 2.0 has a beefed up heel plate and lifters plus a new brake with updated locking mechanism. Among the other new bindings in the Dynafit line, which now features 11 models, are the Beast 14 and a crazy carbon fiber racing model. The price of the Beast comes down from its lofty 1k this season to something like eight hundred and is available in 14 and 16 DIN varieties. Of more interest to most of us though, is the new Radical ST 2.0 and the Radical ST, which carries forward to next season.
As mentioned the new 2.0 version features a pivoting toe. Basically, the toe can rotate five degrees left or right to improve the overall elasticity of the binding. In other words, it's not all or nothing for retention, the binding is theoretically more dynamic. The design adds a little weight to the system. Another addition is the Speed Turn, essentially a basic TLT from a few years back, and the Speed Radical remains in the line, too.
There's no shortage of Outdoor Retailer (OR) trade show beta on the interweb, but I'd feel amiss in my duties as Editor in Chief if I didn't add a little something on what we saw while walking the halls at OR.
In the big picture, I'd say the two biggest themes for backcountry skiers were avalanche airbag packs and tech bindings. I'd say sweet lightweight powder skis, the category most near and dear to me, was a close third with some great looking news boards from Voile, Sportiva, Black Diamond, G3 and Volkl. This post will focus on avalanche airbag packs. I'll take on the tech bindings second and skis third.
The trade show featured a significant increase in airbag pack offerings. There are several new players including Osprey (featuring ABS technology), K2 (featuring BCA Float technology) and Black Diamond (featuring proprietary Jet Force battery powered technology) as well continued refinement and improvement of the offerings from the usual suspects Backcountry Access, Ortovox and Mammut.
The ABS brand airbag system has now been picked up by numerous pack brands including Dakine, North Face, Arva, Osprey and Ortovox, no to mention ABS offers their own line of packs. Interestingly, the ABS system uses compressed nitrogen and an explosive charge in the trigger - seemingly more complex than the compressed air and mechanical trigger of the BCA Float or Mammut's Snow Pulse systems. I'd guess the proliferation of ABS brand components is due to the fact that ABS offers a zip-in unit that pack manufacturers without in-house airbag tech can simply design a pack to plug and play so to speak. The zip-in unit also means that the user can, in many cases, zip in a non-airbag back for use when the added safety of the airbag is not required.
Even more interesting in airbag tech is Black Diamond's still-in-the-works Jet Force airbag system that relies on a battery powered fan to inflate the airbag. Though not yet ready for the market, the new system (co-branded with Pieps - owned by BD) is sure to shake things up a bit. The simplicity of an electronic system has its appeal, but with a forecast price tag of over $1,000, lower price is not one of the benefits, yet. Here is a video demo of the Black Diamond Jet Force pack in action. Arc'teryx has a similar battery powered fan system in the works for an airbag, too. In fact, I saw a functional prototype of the Arc'teryx battery powered system last winter. Arc'teryx was not offering demos at the trade show, but the patent for the Arc'teryx battery powered system is well documented online, and the prototype i saw last year was operational.
The bottom line is airbag packs are becoming fixtures in the avalanche safety world. Pack designs are nicer than ever and the technology is obviously evolving toward user-friendly and functional designs that speak to users of all levels.
The term backcountry skiing has evolved over the years to represent a broad category of skiing from descent-focused big mountain riding to light-duty rolling hill touring. But, for many, it still conjures images of lightweight, touring-friendly gear that's adept on the uphill and the down - the quintessential roots of backcountry touring.
Interestingly, a few companies are bridging the descent-focused world and the light-duty touring world with skis that turn and float like modern fat skis but offer the weight and fish scale bases of lighter nordic skis. Voile Equipment in Salt Lake City is leading the charge in this category with the BC editions of their popular Vector and Charger ski models (read reviews of the Vector and Charger BC in our annual ski review). The Madshus Annum also has metal edges and fish scales, but is decidely more nordic in its design.
I was able to test a new ski that bridges the nordic and backountry worlds, the Kōm from Altai Skis. The ski measures in at 124/98/119. The dimensions may put it in the downhill, touring-for-turns category, but its lightweight construction and fish scale pattern base give it many of the advantages of a more traditional nordic ski. Think a blend of downhill and nordic DNA.
Nils Larsen and Francois Sylvain, veteran ski industry folks, are the minds behind Altai Skis. They've incorporated modern design ideas like tapered tip and rocker into the Kōm while preserving more traditional attributes like a tall tip and pattern base.
On snow, the Kōm is smooth and predictable. Its personality is remeniscient of a nice round turning tele ski that responds easily to turns of all styles. I skied it with a three-pin binding and two-buckle palstic boots - a perfect match in my opinion. Given soft spring corn snow, I chose to climb without the aide of skins, though it can easily be used with skins, too. The pattern can't match the climb of skins, but the bases climbed great in damp spring snow.
The Kōm is only available in a 162cm - arguably short in many people's minds. But don't let the modest length dissuade you. You might just find yourself questioning why we ski on longer skis - especially in this category. The Kōm is a great bridge between traditional nordic backcountry and the more downhill minded backcountry worlds. It gives folks with nordic roots a taste of downhill skiability and those with a downhill bias a taste of the freedom associated with lightweight, skin-free touring. Learn more at www.altaiskis.com