The human factor and gear
In alpine terrain you will encounter many factors you cannot control. Good freeriders always stay alert and keep an eye on their surroundings for possible dangers. Do not stick stubbornly to your original plan, but stay flexible and open-minded. The beautiful thing about hiking is that it sometimes only takes a five minute hike to access awesome new slopes most off-piste skiers and snowboarders do not even touch.
1. Choosing your route
Keep in mind that you want to stay in avalanche dangerous terrain as short as possible. Do not be tempted to walk a straight line up. That is seldom the fastest route and often more dangerous. It is safer to hike on ridges or crests. These terrain features are often flatter with less snow (because the wind has already blown most of it away). Try to avoid large open slopes, especially when they are located below larger avalanche paths. Here the risk is simply greater. Also, the leeward side is riskier than the windward side.
The bootpack or track
Setting a ‘bootpack’ or a nice track using skins is more complicated than it looks. A nice track will lead you as quickly as possible through the terrain gaining as much vertical as possible with the least amount of effort. Of course following the route that is the least risky. The track heads smoothly through the terrain without too many sudden turns. This is not always possible, but it is what you strive for.
Below you can see three examples of a proper skin track and three less successful variations.
2. Point of no return
Sometimes the route you have chosen has a point of no return. Once this point is passed it is difficult to turn back and you will have no other choice than to finish what you have started—or if situation is very dangerous and rescue services are available, have them pick you up. Decide with your group beforehand where these points are located on your route. And as you pass this point discuss whether your observations match your expectations.
Keep enough distance when hiking. On flat slopes keep at least 20 meters distance, but more is even better when the terrain becomes steeper. Especially when your group needs to pass below avalanche dangerous slopes. Remember, you are in big trouble if there is an avalanche and everyone in your group is caught. Cross these dangerous passages one by one. Do not hesitate to turn back or find a new route if you feel you will be exposed to avalanche risky terrain for too long of a period.
Hiking is not a competition
Among men, with a need to prove themselves to the rest of the group, hiking can become a competition. Because everyone is trying hard to be first to the top, the safety tactics get completely ignored. No distance, just stopping at random locations and watching out for the rest of the group. It is better to have everyone hike at their own pace, that way natural distances are being created. Not everyone hikes the same; some hike faster, others hike more slowly. Let Speedy Gonzales hike in front and let the rest hike behind him with proper distance.
Distance is also important when walking on a crest with a cornice on one side. Remember that such a cornice over hangs. It shows the elasticity of snow in the most remarkable way, but the weight of a single skier or snowboarder can be enough to break it. Keep your distance here!
The same applies to the slope. Too many people too close together creates unnecessary tension on a small surface. In the first module you have learned that hiking up causes tension on the snowpack equal to one or two times your own bodyweight.
4. Keep eye contact
Visual contact is the core of comradeship off-piste. If there is point on the slope where you lose visual contact, then you need to regroup at a safe spot.
5. Safe spots
Always keep an eye out for ‘safe-spots’. Also when hiking, never stop in places where the risk is higher. A safe spot is definitely not in the middle of the slope, but rather under a rock or on a ridge. And this immediately shows why a theory course has its limits. There is no question you will need practice to recognize these safe zones on the mountain and to lead your group there. If you are able to see the slope you are about to ride down when hiking, determine where the possible safe spots are.
6. What is above and below you?
Always take note of what is above you, and also what happens below you. While you are hiking up, keep an eye out for the signals the mountain gives you. Do you see sastrugi, wind-drifted snow or old avalanche debris? This is all information that you will need to ride down as safely as possible.
When you are touring on skis there are two techniques you can use to make a turn:
- When the terrain is not too steep you make a regular turn. Just like you are used to.
- Kickturn: this is the technique when the terrain becomes steeper. More information below:
- You are standing in an angle of ninety degrees to the fall line.
- You put weight on your downhill ski. You kick your uphill ski around.
- Move your weight to your uphill ski and place your ‘uphill’ pole as far on the mountain as possible.
- Stay in balance using your poles and kick your downhill ski next to your uphill ski by bending your knee, rotating your heel to the ground. This all happens in one smooth movement.
When hiking you are in hazardous terrain for a longer period of time. For this reason, climbing techniques may be even more important than descending techniques. Staying too close together or making a competition out of it are not the best methods. But how should it be done? Like this:
- Choose the safest route
- Define the points of no return
- Keep your distance
- Keep visual contact
- Choose clear safe spots
- Always be aware of what is above you