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Friends on a Powder Day

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Many of us have lost a friend or friend of a friend (the degree of separation hardly goes further). Too many to count. Winter is coming, and for the first time since I was a child, I am not all consumed by giddiness. Instead, a trickle of dread has crept in. Preparing for winter also means preparing for what might happen.
Think long and hard about this.

There was a phrase once used: “No friends on a powder day.” I’ve said it. It may help amateurs believe they are pro. But when I worked at Alpenglow Sports, a guy rushed in to buy a beacon (something that should be a long and thoughtful process). I explained that owning one doesn’t do any good if you don’t know how to use it, so he huffed out. He didn’t have time for me. I assume he’s okay, but this attitude is dangerous for our entire community.

There are more people in the backcountry. Whether you resent or revel in it, we all must do our part. Notice who’s above you, and what’s below. Understand snow conditions for yourself and encourage your friends to do their homework. Just because there’s a skin track doesn’t mean you’re following a genius. If you haven’t already taken an avalanche course, sign up. There are endless resources in our area, most notably Sierra Avalanche Center. SAC offers great online refreshers and lists providers of courses that cost between $400 and $500 (the price of a college course, which is essentially what it is). SAC also has a free 1-hour video online called Know Before You Go about “how you can have fun in the mountains and avoid avalanches.” If you plan to enjoy the backcountry this winter, start preparing no matter what season we’re in.

Practice these habits well before the snow flies:

1) Be a Trip Planner — Dedicate a notebook as your trip planning book and answer these questions: What’s the weather like up there? Is there already snow on the ground? Is it new? Is it windy? Are temperatures warm or cold? How’s visibility? How high are we going? Who’s going with us? How long will we be out? What’s our objective?

Answering questions like these the night before allows you to assess conditions and make informed decisions; it ensures your partners are on the same page and creates a clear plan for others to know where and when to expect your return. Meeting your friend for coffee the morning of and asking, “Where to?” leaves too much room for error and oversights. Purchase an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) book with comprehensive lists of pertinent questions.

2) Practice Using Your Gear — In case an avalanche or injury does occur, be confident in yourself and your partners’ abilities to handle the situation. Pack, unpack, and assemble your probe and shovel; hide avalanche transceivers around the yard, positioning them at all angles to mimic various body positions. Understand how your beacon works, as practicing these movements now can save precious seconds later. If you ski with an airbag, put your gloves on and practice pulling the handle. (With reasonable notice, Alpenglow Sports will refill your canister for free.) Store your beacon in a dry place and remove the batteries. Even if you’re going out the next day, remove your batteries and replace them with well-charged or new ones. Bad movies start with sentences like, “30% battery power is enough, let’s go!”

3) Read — Snow Sense is a $10 avalanche safety refresher. Get a copy and read it every time you think of snow. The Avalanche Handbook is a more comprehensive and detail-oriented study guide worth reading. Complacency is a killer. Just because you successfully skied a line last year doesn’t mean it will be the same. Skiers, like climbers, should check their smarts and gear every single time. No matter how skilled you are, stay vigilent and take precautions; even the best climbers have gotten complacent, finished the best climb of their life, then belayed off the end of their rope. Tie a knot at the end of your rope by studying for winter now.

Whether you’re new or a veteran to backcountry skiing, feel confident asking questions like “Want to practice with our beacons and then plan tomorrow’s trip tonight?” Or insisting, “this looks dangerous, let’s turn back.” Or stating, “I don’t feel comfortable. I’m going to drink hot chocolate today instead.” All of these sentences should be easy to say. All of these should be easy to hear.

If you see something foolish, or hear irresponsible talk at the bar, remember those people might be dropping in above you. Kindly ask if they’ve renewed their avy course lately, practiced with their beacon, shovel, and probe? Encourage SAC’s Know Before You Go mentality, because thinking for yourself could save you and your friends. I recommend the phrase “no friends on a powder day” become extinct in our mountains. We are a community and must act like one before and after every storm. Be the person who plans ahead of time and encourage your friends to do the same. Because in the backcountry, friends are all you have.

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dave@tahoemount... | Tahoe Mountain Sports
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April 12, 2018