Backcountry Safety: My Learning Curve

By Tarah O'Connor 
Extended Column Test
The Author performs a snow stability test.
A lot of people probably think that hiking in a blizzard with explosives in your backpack sounds awful. For a small number of people involved in avalanche mitigation it’s what we love. It’s one of the rewards of years of avalanche education and time spent outdoors. “It’s better than coffee in the morning” as a retired patroller reminds me. It’s one of the reasons I love ski patrolling. Creating avalanches repeatedly helps you learn more about avalanches.
On a trip back to Vermont recently I stared up through the dense green understory of the forest in Smuggler’s Notch surveying the tight grouping of trees and large boulders. It was steep, it was rugged and it was where I started backcountry skiing 20 years ago. I walked certain sections of trail remembering the friends I was with and the tight lines we managed to ski with precision. I didn’t realize then that I would end up teaching Avalanche education and being a professional ski patroller for a living. I didn’t realize the fun we were having was the building blocks for a lifetime of learning.
Smugglers Notch
Where it all started:  photo courtesy of Smuggler's Notch, Vermont
Smugglers Notch is a unique area located along the Long Trail and adjacent to Mount Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont. The road closes in the winter and the southern part is home to Stowe and on the northern side is Smugglers Notch Resort. What is an hour drive in the winter is a 10 minute hike over the mountain and past Sterling Pond.
In between these two resorts I started venturing out and learning this new area with no maps or lifts. It felt like an adventure every time we ventured into the Notch. In between the ski school lessons I taught, my friends and I would seek out new zones and steeper terrain. We started hiking up at night to build small jumps. I had no idea yet what skins were or how to use them. But I knew that I really liked hanging out and skiing in the woods with my friends. I had zero concept of avalanches at this point, having only skied on the east coast. I heard of them occasionally from older, more experienced ski bums. They spoke of places out west. They told me stories of steep lines on huge peaks and avalanches that shut down roads for days. I was so intrigued and so I started planning my way west.
Loveland Pass Colorado
Loveland Pass: every east coaster's first stop for backcountry skiing out west. 
On the day I arrived in Colorado I met a group of much more experienced skiers and went for a moonlight ski on Loveland Pass. Someone lent me their beacon and even though I realized the size and scope of the mountains I was in I had no idea what kind of danger I was putting myself in. I had ZERO avalanche knowledge, had never used a beacon and knew nothing about my ski partner or his experience, knowledge and risk tolerance compared to mine.
As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. I remember how much I loved that night of skiing and also that I could barely breathe hauling my skis on one shoulder. These challenges and the fun of it all hooked me on the idea of pursuing bigger objectives in the future. I surrounded myself with people who had far more avalanche knowledge, or at least said they did. Truth is though, just about anyone had more knowledge than me.
A lot became clear one day when one of the people I considered an “expert” was involved in an avalanche on Loveland Pass that hit the road and had close to a 12 foot crown. All three men involved lived but it was a long time waiting in the parking lot to find out. That’s when I realized I wanted to make educated decisions for myself when it came to skiing in avalanche terrain.
I moved to Jackson, WY after that winter and was fortunate to settle in quickly with a grizzled group of men and women that had been skiing outside the resort for years. These people were mentors in all senses of the word. I was a woefully unprepared backcountry user slogging around in alpine boots and heavy clunky bindings. Every ski tour I was drenched in sweat as I worked to keep up with my group. Every day was an adventure in skiing but also a constant quiz: Where are the safe zones? Where’s it gonna start? Where do you want to avoid? What are the consequences?” 
Cody Peak, Wyoming
A grizzled skier eyes his line in the Jackson backcountry.
My eyes were starting to open to the things I didn’t know. Each year more people I knew died in the mountains and each year more people I knew were involved in accidents, including myself. My knowledge about terrain choices was slowly coming into focus. But, I started to recognize other gaps in my knowledge. Even though I wore a beacon every day I wasn’t very proficient at using it. I understood what made a good start zone for an avalanche, but not why some days or times of day that avalanche would be more likely to occur. 
The terrain in the Tetons was inspiring and this was another moment where I realized I had to continue my avalanche education to keep skiing the things I wanted to ski.
Ski Patroller skiing powder
A long way from green: The Author enjoying the perks of the job.
I knew through my friendships and mentorships that ski patrollers get to see more avalanches first hand than most people living in the mountains. Creating avalanches helps you study and learn about avalanches.
As a rebellious girl skiing through the trees in Vermont I could never have imagined where my love of snow and skiing would lead. My profession of being a pro patroller in the West and an avalanche educator seemed extremely out of the reach. The lessons from Smugglers Notch and the intimate relatively small area that we explored carried through to each step of my life.
Avalanche Education
The Author teaching an Avalanche Course
As an educator I openly admit my mistakes to people. I let them know that I have done everything wrong and I’m still here learning from my mistakes. I also advise them to find someone with more experience and a similar risk tolerance to show them the ropes. I recommend reading and watching everything you can find about avalanches as well as investing in avalanche education. 
Have fun and be safe.

1 comment

  • Wendy Brown Reilly

    Thank you.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published