When the snow looks as good as it does today it’s easy to throw caution to the wind and dive straight into the nearest patch of powder you can get to. But making sure you’ve got the right kit in your pack, and that you know how to use it (and read the terrain) is crucial to keeping safe in backcountry.
Avalanche rescue kit – the holy trinity – transceiver, shovel and probe. And most importantly, know how to use them skillfully. You must train and practice to have the best chance of being successful in a companion rescue. After all, you might have your best friend or a loved-ones life in your hands, and you do not have time to wait for help to arrive.
Transceiver – digital triple antenna transceivers with fast processors have set a new standard for this technology. Having reinvested and upgraded myself, the difference in ease of use and speed really is dramatic and well worth paying for. Simple good value examples include BCA Tracker 2, Ortovox Zoom, Mammut Element, Arva 3+. Go to www.beaconreviews.com for a breakdown and comparison of transceiver models and options. iPhone apps are definitely not an option!
Shovel – sturdy and reliable. Plastic is a big no no and will (literally) not cut it… Square topped blade can help with use of a ski boot to cut through particularly tough avalanche debris. A straight-edged blade will help to get a nice clean face on snow pits.
Probe – Alloy or carbon depending on budget, but carbon needs to be treated with care, whilst alloy will stand up better to tough debris. 2.5m is the usual standard in Europe, but you might consider 3m or longer if heading to Canada… Again, you want a reliable and quick assembling system. Wire cord is better as it will not stretch or fray. A pull-toggle ratchet is simple and quick, even with mitts on, compared to a screw treaded system. Ski pole conversions are not a viable option – they are fiddly and will waste valuable time.
All of this kit should be packed away securely INSIDE the pack… Never strapped outside, despite packs on the market offering this option. Eventually you will loose something vital (like a shovel handle), but most importantly, it will mark you out as an amateur in the lift queue. We’ve all been there.
Touring skins? Even if you are not actually touring but have the binding option, these could save you A LOT of time in a bad situation where you end up below a buried companion (also a good reason to ski in shorter pitches when in doubt).
Air bag system? If you can afford it and spend a decent amount of time in avalanche terrain, then this should be an investment. However, they are no guarantee and will not save you in big “un-survivable” terrain, so is not a substitute for education and training, or an excuse to simply cross your fingers and leave your brain at home. I have one, mainly because most clients do not have the skills to carry out a successful rescue if I were to be buried.
A fully charged and reliable mobile phone, in the opposite pocket away from your transceiver.
Helmet – personal preference, but seems common sense for any skiing. There are very lightweight models available, so the excuses are getting thin on the ground (unlike rocks this season…). About 30% of avalanche fatalities are caused by trauma, so a helmet will increase the odds, and if you remain conscious during the slide you have a better chance of fighting for the surface.
Spare layer – light down jackets pack away small, but offer big warmth. Spare gloves, hat, goggles and sunnies.
Other extras – not all essential, but the further afield you go, the more experienced, self sufficient and prepared you need to be.
Avalung – if you can get the mouthpiece in place during an avalanche, this could give you valuable extra time if buried. By moving CO2 away from your face, the rate of asphyxiation is reduced.
Head torch – for night touring or when things really go wrong, having a pee outside the refuge in the middle of the night, or skiing home from the pub (never do this…).
First Aid Kit – again, the further afield you venture, the more you need to carry. Painkillers could make a big difference whilst waiting for the chopper… A moldable splint is a lightweight, versatile and excellent addition. Know what you are doing and be trained.
Metal flask / water bottle (hot black current always goes down well, coffee if you had a late night…), fully loaded baguette, and of course, CHOCOLATE!
Navigation – map, compass, altimeter, GPS. Homing pigeon not required.
Repair kit – skins and light-weight ski touring set-ups are notorious for failing. Leatherman, wire, duct tape, cable ties, wax and scraper, essential spares etc.
Getting serious or thinking of a spot of ski-mountaineering…? Crampons and small ice axe. Harness, rope, slings, belay device, karabiners. Crevasse rescue kit if heading onto glaciated terrain. Emergency shelter, lighter and candle. Snow saw. Etc etc – the list goes on depending on chosen routes.
Most importantly, much of the equipment listed above is completely useless without proper training and experience. Make sure you know what you are doing, or ski with someone who does.
Two books that will have more than enough to get you started:
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. Bruce Tremper.
Regarded as the bible of avalanche education. In depth, but well written and readable (even for me…).
Free Skiing – How to adapt to the mountain. Jimmy Oden.
UIAGM guide Jimmy Oden has done the hard work for us. The book I wish I had read ten years ago – decades of professional experience covering everything you need to know in the big mountain environment. Very well illustrated.
If you’re interested in booking off piste or avalanche safety sessions with New Generation please give us a call on 0844 770 4733 to check availability and prices.