We all bail without hesitation in our social lives. We’ve perfected the last minute cop-out. A cozy night at home is only an apologetic text away. “Just bail!” chides the lazy, pajama-clad devil on our shoulder. It’s no big deal, aside from the occasional strike of FOMO. Your friends understand; there’s always next weekend.
But once we head into the mountains, our mindset changes.
The stakes skyrocket once we’ve spent all day breaking trail after a pre-dawn alarm, planning sessions, and days or weeks of anticipation. There’s deep powder out there waiting to be skied, and it won't last forever. The fever strikes. Our partners are feeling the anticipation too, creating momentum that may spur us into the trap of bad decisions, and, if all goes awry, major consequences.
Knowing when to bail in the backcountry can absolutely save your life. Wise decisions to back down show a true depth of skill in evaluating and avoiding unnecessary risk. Making the call can be easy enough during a gnarly whiteout storm, but sometimes the “no” the mountains offer us is much quieter. The expertise is in picking up on the subtleties.
For the stubborn among us (myself included) putting effective and honest judgment into action can be a bigger challenge than setting a 2,000’ bootpack. It doesn’t feel good in the moment to bail—it can feel like a failure, like giving up, like you’re not good enough, not “rad” enough—because we don’t always see the consequences we avoid.
As a guide, the stakes can be even higher yet. It’s entirely on you to make the decisions and properly interpret the nuances of the snowpack, weather and conditions. Moreover, those guests have paid a lot for the experience and don’t want to feel like they wasted their money and time to not succeed in their objective.
Earlier this season, I unexpectedly remotely triggered a large avalanche on a pitch I intended to ski. I was out recreationally with three friends; all of whom know the area well and each have about a decade of backcountry skiing experience. Spurred on by powder fever, we mistakenly reasoned our way through several glaring red flags by convincing ourselves that we were skiing “mellow” and familiar terrain. If I hadn’t triggered the slide remotely, I would have been skiing the pitch when it avalanched. It would have been nearly impossible to escape a burial. We should have taken the lowest-angle bail option right away when we started to observe cracking and collapsing—but we didn’t.
Last season, there were 36 deaths from avalanches in the United States alone, the highest in over a decade, not to mention all of the other deaths associated with backcountry travel from trauma, cold injuries, and getting lost and benighted. Reading these accident reports, it’s easy to say from an outside perspective that, sadly, often these accidents could have been avoided. Usually the biggest mistakes can be traced back to simply a lack of good communication.
That remote triggered avalanche caused me to pause and re-visit some practices that have helped me recognize when it’s time to bail. These are a few techniques I use, both in guiding and personal skiing, that you may want to mindfully incorporate into your day out. Sometimes making smart decisions means leaving that enticing powder slope unskied and saved for another, safer day.
As a community, we must accept, and maybe even applaud, that bailing is a large part of sustainable backcountry skiing.
Setting boundaries before you even leave the parking lot can help streamline your decision making process, and close off terrain objectively based on the hazards you know you’re likely to encounter. It forces you to think critically about your terrain choice before temptation is part of the equation. Some days, steep terrain is simply off the table, and knowing that before you head into the mountains helps prevent off the cuff decisions to ski a run simply because it looks like fun. Often in the professional realm, we select an operational mindset for the day that helps inform these boundaries, which helps us to “open” or “close” certain terrain for the day. Discuss what might be off limits for that day with your group, and why. Get on the same page with everyone about your intentions for the day.
SPEAK UP AND LISTEN
Don’t ever be afraid to express your concerns to the rest of your group. Part of being a good partner is not only creating space for everyone to voice thoughts and observations, but also speaking up when you see an obvious red flag, or even if you have a bad gut feeling. Go beyond making these apprehensions known; take the time as a group to pause and discuss how they might affect the practicality of continuing. Intuition alone should never be a reason for pushing into bigger terrain, but it’s a great tool to fall back on for stepping back. If something doesn’t feel good to you, heed those internal warnings. Ideally if everyone makes these thoughts known, it can help facilitate discussion and ultimately better decisions.
Work agreed-upon landmarks into your tour plan where you will pause and re-evaluate weather, avalanche conditions, and your timing on your ascent. Having these conscious stops to reassess can create the mental space to recognize that you need to shift your objective, move faster, travel differently, or turn around. Creating checkpoints also ensures that you know your intended route well, and won’t make random decisions that lead you into terrain traps or get you lost. Make sure to have a GPS map downloaded on your phone, as knowing your location can be invaluable for this aspect of your tour. These stops can also double as snack breaks, which is of course a win-win.
While it’s an essential piece of the planning process, don’t just check the avalanche forecast and call it good for the day (although that’s a great first step). You have to continue to make field observations to corroborate the forecast in real time. While avalanche forecasters do an awesome job at providing daily bulletins to help us decide where to travel in the mountains, they are forecasting for impossibly large areas, and cannot possibly capture all of the nuances of a vast and varied zone and how conditions may unexpectedly change. You can find a high amount of spatial variability on one slope, let alone in an entire valley. It’s on you to notice this in the field and apply it to what you plan to ski.
WATCH FOR RED FLAGS
There are a handful of especially potent red flags to keep an eye out for throughout field snowpack and weather observations: Rapid snowfall more than an inch per hour, significant new overnight snow, high winds transporting snow (especially near ridgelines), rapid temperature rise, cracking and collapsing in the snowpack, and rain on snow. These factors can all contribute to dangerous and quickly changing conditions and should immediately cause you to pause and reflect.
BE RIGIDLY FLEXIBLE
While plans are helpful to keep us on track, sometimes the mountains swiftly shut down those plans. Having an exit strategy and a plan B (and C and D and so on…) to fall back on if conditions are not what you expect is incredibly important. Avoid ever getting yourself into a situation where feeling like descending a particular line is truly your only option. Ideally, you should have a backup exit plan that is straightforward and avoids avalanche terrain, if possible.
QUIET THE EGO
Remaining humble in the mountains is crucial and can be very challenging, especially as you gain more experience and begin to expand your personal level of risk tolerance and expertise. It’s important to be honest with yourself and your partners about where you’re at on your journey with backcountry skiing, and choose objectives that are appropriate for your skillset. Your Instagram photo may not look as cool when you opt for the safer, low-angle descent or decide to turn around, but remember that the number one priority is always coming home. Letting a performance mindset sneak into your decision-making is incredibly dangerous. It is a constant battle to not let your ego win. Try to recognize when you are under the influence of how others might perceive you or your desire to capture the moment.
Beyond all of this, you need to make sure that you have the proper gear for your objective, tools to carry out a full rescue, a medical kit, emergency communication devices, and the proper training to put all of the above into action. Outside rescue is not always possible, especially during a storm or late in the day, and it’s important to be self-sufficient if someone in your group is injured or buried. Broken gear, too, can easily strand you. Having a few tools to fix things enough to ski out can be the difference between a harrowing and potentially deadly night spent in the snow, and a tricky ski back to the car and a good story over beers. Taking the time to make sure you have key rescue equipment and emergency items in your pack can make all the difference in your day. (For more information on this, check out our first blog post).
INCORPORATE A DEBRIEF
Often, we don’t know if we made appropriate decisions or if we just got lucky. Having a debrief with your partners at the end of each tour can help you track your decisions through time, and keep you honest about how each day progressed. Here are a few questions to ask:
“When were we most at risk today?”
“What were some good decisions that we made?”
“Did we make any poor decisions? Why?”
“Was what we skied appropriate for the conditions?”
I’ve found debriefing to be a great tool to help keep me honest, and to facilitate open communication with my partners throughout the season.
Your mind is unquestionably your greatest tool in the mountains. Your powers of decision-making, positive attitude, collaboration and ability to adapt are by far your most powerful weapons against unnecessary risk and consequences. Try to incorporate a couple of these techniques with your ski partners on your next tour. It takes constant work to discover your own process. Backcountry skiing is so rewarding largely because it forces us to continue learning and evolving for as long as we pursue it. None of us will ever be perfect.
If you’re looking to level-up your backcountry decision-making toolkit, and hone in on route finding, tour planning and navigation, reach out to us at Mountain Trip. We’re an AMGA-accredited guide service, and provide ski touring, avalanche education and instruction in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, the Alaska Range and around the world. Keep an eye out for some ladies backcountry seminars this spring, too. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy bailing (and succeeding) to you all.
SheJumps is an inclusive organization. We welcome all women and girls (transgender and cisgender) as well as non-binary people who identify with the women’s community. SheJumps strives to be an ally in the fight against racism and acknowledges that our events and programs take place on traditional, unceded Indigenous lands.