Three Terrain Stages for Safely Riding in Avalanche Areas with John Buffery

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This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Transworld SNOWboarding and has been updated with photos and text. Subscribe here.

No need to wait for the snow to start falling to prep for your season. If you’re planning on heading into the backcountry this winter you can gather your gear now, refamiliarize yourself with it, and plan a safe and systematic approach to your journeys.

To give you a little motivation, we talked to John “Buff” Buffery, senior avalanche officer for the BC government. Buff’s been certified by the Association Of Canadian Mountain Guides since the ‘80s, he’s fought for the right of snowboarders like Craig Kelly to become certified guides, and has guided some of the biggest pros at Baldface Lodge. When it comes to the backcountry he’s seen it all.—Gerhard Gross

I once read on a church marque: Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail. Those words have been my credo for a successful career in the avalanche industry as a snowboard guide.

This upcoming season plan your adventures into the backcountry with a series of successes starting in simple avalanche terrain.

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More often the simplest type of avalanche terrain is in the slack-country (ski hill access backcountry). This is a good place to iron out equipment issues and develop efficient mountain travel techniques. It is very necessary to develop strong communication skills with your group as you identify and discuss potential hazards. The most experienced backcountry rider should direct group decisions. Before you go beyond the slack-country, spend lots of time getting comfortable with your self-rescue gear. If you ever have to use your avalanche transceiver to recover a buried rider, you’ll have wished you’d practiced more.

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The next stage of terrain is deeper into the backcountry. You will be stepping away from an area of higher rider traffic into avalanche terrain with less disturbed weak layers in the mountain snowpack. Break down the terrain you are thinking of riding into segments and consider the consequence of triggering an avalanche as you ride through that line. Build a strong posse that has researched current information about local avalanche conditions to make good decisions. Avalanche.org is a good resource to start with if you’re in the US as is avalanche.ca for Canadians. Learn to evaluate your own snow stability tests and compare those to your regional avalanche bulletin. Have a communications plan for rescue and an action plan for self-rescue.

Eventually when you are riding in larger mountain terrain, recognize that this requires looking at all the uncertainties in hazard assessments. In achieving your objective, you’ll need to learn how to manage avalanche threats by reducing your exposure in the lines you choose, making the risks reasonably acceptable.

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