by Cindi Lou Grant
[Editor s note: Backcountry snowboarders Cindi Lou Grant and her husband, Zach, live full-time in a remote cabin deep in Utah's Wasatch range, which they access by touring or snowmobile.]
I was 16 when I got caught in my first avalanche. I had just started backcountry riding I was learning about avalanches through trial, error, and a whole lot of luck and the heavy, gooping wet slide dragged me into the trees below. I was lucky to end up on top and in between trees. It was enough of a scare to get me to sign up for my first avalanche class, which took place over four days at Snowbird, Utah, and was led by Utah Avalanche Center forecasters Craig Gordon and Bruce Tremper. I took the course with my now-husband, Zach, and it opened our eyes to the art of snow pit tests, slope angles, and companion rescue.
For more than a decade Zach and I have shared intense moments and mourned the deaths of our friends taken by avalanches. Our riding is becoming more and more conservative because of it. Having the person I care about the most as my primary backcountry partner has led to some horrifying experiences. One particular accident early in our backcountry years stands out in my mind. We knew we were riding in high avalanche danger and that a buried surface hoar layer was highly reactive.
We decided to ride a ridge thinking that if something broke it would be at our feet. Zach dropped a bit too low and knew he had gotten into a spot that he didn t like. Will you watch me while I cross this slope? he called up to me and our crew. We all stopped to keep eyes on him, hoping he would cross the 50 feet and get back up on the ridge. Unfortunately, it didn't happen that way. As Zach crossed, he triggered a slide that broke out above him. The crown was only a foot from where I was standing. I remember time slowing down as I screamed his name, we locked eyes for a horrifying moment and then he scrambled to try and hold on to trees. When that failed, he was swept off a cliff with the avalanche. He landed on his board, which landed on a rock, snapping the board. He was partially buried but able to dig himself out by the time we navigated around the cliff band and got to him.
I've had close calls out there, too. While attempting to ride a 1,000-foot exit run to return to our cars at the end of a long Alaskan day, we stood on top and determined the run was probably okay. It was more northerly than we had ridden all day but our friend had successfully ridden the line 500 feet over from it only the day before. I volunteered to ride it first. Just to be safe, I put in a toe side slope cut from the top over to a spine and stopped.
The entire storm slab shattered below my feet, ripping out all the snow including the tracks from the previous day. I clung onto the ridge line as my partners watched from above. The slide ran full path, a couple of feet deep, leaving a heap of debris at the bottom. We picked our way down the thin bed surface in total humility. There are a few key tools and tips that have really helped me dial in my confidence to continue exploring the backcountry. Maybe they'll help you to avoid falling into the same traps that we have.
1. Gain Education. The hands-on experience you will gain from a course will most likely save lives. I have been fortunate to take avalanche level 1 & 2, wilderness first responder, anchor building, and glacier rescue courses. The knowledge, experience, and mentorship are worth it. That said, just because you have a certification doesn't mean you can't learn more. Cultivating a mindset of wonderment has changed my behavior. It is choosing to stay in a state of learning, no matter how much one thinks they know, we can always learn more.
2. Pack the right tools, especially a slope meter. When the snowpack is stacked unstable, I keep away from anything > 30 degrees. < 30 is too benign for most avalanches to slide on. However, avalanches are devoid of absolutes and have been documented at 25 degrees. With a slope meter handy, I can confirm my slope angle guesses and train my eye to see slope angles backed with solid data. I have had a series of them over the years, these days I primarily use my beacon's built-in meter.
3. Belay slope and cornice cuts. If no one is below, dropping a cornice onto a slope or putting in a heavy cut can be great stability testers. However, cornices grow from the windward side of a slope and can break much further back than expected. Falling off the ridgeline with the cornice is not fun. I prefer to be on belay for these kinds of tests. It doesn't take much to pack a webbing harness, a short thin rope, and a locking carabiner/belay device. There are numerous ways to anchor your belayer via trees, using the ridge, or building a dead man. If your test is positive, you will remain on top.
4. Practice often. It's easy to grasp the concept of beacon technology used with probing and shovels to find a partner buried in an avalanche. However, without consistent practice, this is all just conceptual information that won't kick-in efficiently if that horrible situation were to arise. Actively doing companion rescue drills is the only way to get good at it. Study the nuances of your beacon. Do you know how to flag in a multi-burial situation? Get proficient at picking up a signal, narrowing your search, and ultimately probe striking with precision. Awareness is key to drawing progression from our experiences. This season's persistent weak layers require persistent patience. So here's to many more years of awareness filled wonderment, mindful adventure, and backcountry exploration that ends with returning home again.