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Proceed With Caution in the Early Season: A Close Call with John Buffery

John Buffery Talks of Being Prepared in the Early Season

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

Snow has already started to fall, and it’s time to prep for the season. If you're planning on heading into the backcountry this winter 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

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You can never be too prepared for the backcountry.

Words: John Buffery

In my keen youth, one Halloween's eve, a couple of my buddies and I went on an early winter adventure to ride high in BC's Purcell Mountains, on a long, slivery snow patch. I was kicking easy steps into the Styrofoam-like snow and crested out of the gully onto the ridge, when a crack shot out from my feet.

As I turned to follow the fracture line, it opened up into a hard slab avalanche that swept up my friends Vlad Lamoureax and Davey Alexander, accelerating at blinding speed down a steep couloir. They submerged once with their feet pointed downhill and returned back to the surface as I yelled "Swim!" Fortunately they were both able to escape laterally before the rocketing slide pulverized into shards of rocks.

We got away unscathed, but for the shards in our shorts and a better understanding to the exposure we hiked into with a small avalanche. I say small, because when rating avalanche sizes, this was classed as "relatively harmless to a person."

Avalanche Safety

Chris Coulter does a beacon check before headed out. Photo: Andrew Miller

This time last year, Canada's first avalanche fatality occurred under similar circumstances where a small slab avalanche took a worker through a rock face and over a cliff.

In the early season I think of myself and the mountains as both unfit. At this time of year, it's very possible to encounter what's called mechanically pressed snow, formed as cold wind creates a brittle bond in the snowpack, which can lead to wind-slab avalanches. At the same time, new loose cold snow avalanches can create easy point-release slides.

Also, riding through early season unconsolidated snow may reveal a fairly uniform surface lightly covering boulders and stumps. Before you throw yourself into the air, consider the penetration of your snowboard and suspect every bump as a hazard that could rip your board, or your face, apart.

Think of your pre-season backcountry excursions as your physical and technical training. Observe and assess the snow characteristics and distribution as it relates to the avalanche threshold on your first tour. Afterwards, write down these observations of the basal layer in the winter's mountain snowpack and track it as the succession of storms lay on top of each other. This is the crucial first step in analyzing a snow profile and keeping yourself, and your friends, safe in the backcountry.

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Read more from John Buffery here. 

Watch what it looks like to be ill-prepared in the backcountry and how this lucky guy made it out of an avalanche unscathed.

Find more stories from the Backcountry here.