How to Use Avalanche Reports to Plan Your Backcountry Ski Day
Learn how to read between the lines of your local avy report with these tips from a backcountry ski guide
A successful day in the backcountry begins when you’re still in your pajamas. Reading your local avalanche report is an important part of most skiers’ morning ritual (along with an extra-strong cup of coffee), but it’s one that’s easy to rush through. Rebecca Yaguda, AMGA apprentice ski and rock guide and AIARE instructor in the Tetons, believes that a thoughtful and thorough morning routine plays a huge role in your success and safety in the field.
“Humans are actually really bad at making decisions,” says Yaguda. “We’re so influenced by outside things like peer pressure, social media, and deep powder. Having a morning routine helps combat those pressures before we even head out the door.”
Yaguda says a common mistake she sees her AIARE students make is rushing through the morning report and only checking the overall danger rating. Giving yourself an extra 15 minutes each morning to dig a little deeper into the forecast, past avalanche events, and weather for the day will help you build out a trip plan that you and your partners all feel good about. Here are a few of the key points Yaguda recommends you prioritize while poring over the morning report.
Want to learn more about navigating the backcountry safely? Outside+ members can access SKI’s Backcountry Basics They Didn’t Teach You in Avy 1 course here.
1. Danger rating
“I like to start with the big picture: What am I dealing with in general today?” says Yaguda of her morning checklist. When you pull up your local avalanche bulletin, the first thing you’ll likely notice is the danger rating. The overall danger rating ranges from low to extreme, with colors corresponding to each category. That will immediately help you get a feel for what kind of day you’re looking at. Is it high? That’s a great indicator that it’s a good day to avoid avalanche terrain altogether and will make the rest of your trip planning pretty simple.
While danger ratings are a useful way to get your brain warmed up to thinking about the conditions and possible risks you may encounter, Yaguda warns against getting tunnel vision with the danger rating. “Most avalanche incidents occur when it’s considerable, and the second-most happen when it’s moderate,” she says. “Skiers are more likely to step out and push it a little bit in those conditions. Don’t just check the color and head out for the day, because the danger rating doesn’t paint the full picture.”
2. Type of avalanche problem
Once you check the overall danger rating for the day, look at what kinds of avalanche problems you’re dealing with. There are nine potential avalanche problems, which include the location, size, and likelihood of a slide.
“Knowing what kind of beast you’re dealing with is going to give you a better idea of where and what kind of terrain you’re going to ski that day,” explains Yaguda. “This is where we start to zoom in to the specifics and think about terrain features.”
Matching up avalanche problems and where they’re likely to occur with the area you plan to travel is a good way to consider your exposure and plan alternate routes.
3. Recent avalanche events
The next thing Yaguda recommends looking at is the recent avalanche events page, which shows where avalanches have occurred recently. “I immediately check if there have been any avalanche events in the last 48 hours, then figure out what aspect, what type of avalanche, and how large the recent events were,” Yaguda explains. “If there have been a ton of natural avalanches in the last 48 hours, that tells me the chance of a human-triggered avalanche is quite high. Maybe it’s a day to step back.”
While the lack of any avalanches in the last 48 hours can be an encouraging sign, it’s important to recognize what new factors could potentially disrupt that pattern. Avalanche events are a helpful piece of the puzzle, but you have to put the pieces together within the larger context.
4. Weather conditions and forecast
“Now that we know the danger rating, problem, and what past events have happened, this is where we start to think about what’s going to happen in the future,” says Yaguda. “Is it storming? Will it dump two inches an hour? Is it going to get sunny and warm?” These factors all contribute to how the avalanche conditions can change throughout the day. Thinking about how incoming weather can affect your travel plans is another factor to consider when planning your route.
Once you’ve gone through those four steps, use the information you’ve gathered to check in with your partners. “Figure out what your partners’ risk tolerances are for the day,” says Yaguda. “Everyone has a different risk tolerance; some are willing to step into bigger terrain and some are not. If you’re not on the same page, maybe that person is not the right ski partner for the day.”
As a guide, Yaguda will often “close” a piece of terrain for the day, meaning she commits to not traveling through that specific area. Setting those boundaries early on from the comfort of your warm living room (not when you’re looking down a steep, dreamy powder run) will make it easier to set boundaries and stick to them.
“It’s important to be up front about those things and match up risk tolerances with your partners so you’re both happy with the decisions you make when you’re out there.”