Backcountry Skiing – The Safety Blog

Our Approach to Backcountry Safety
Our Approach to Backcountry Safety    by Chad Brackelsberg

With the dangerous start to the Wasatch winter, our touring group has spent a lot of time talking about what has happened and what we think will happen over the next several weeks.   As we discussed this, I thought it would be good to document some of our processes around decision making.

With the first snow each winter, our touring group starts to get excited for winter.  We get out during the early snow so that we can get a feeling for what that snow is doing.  At this point of the season, we are interested in things like how much there is, where it is, any faceting that may have started, slides that are already occurring existing snow structure, any week layers that are present of are forming, and other factors.  This information becomes very useful as some of the basis for our snowpack evaluations later in the season.  We also use these early season days to do a lot of beacon drills since it is harder to spend time doing drills once there is great powder.  By the time winter is really here, we feel comfortable with our gear and understand what the snow against the ground is doing. 
Our group considers ourselves fairly risk adverse.  We all enjoy skiing big, steep lines, but we are also happy meadow skipping.  We will ski tour on most all days, but make conservative choices of locations based on a variety of information including
·         UAC avalancheforecast rating
·         Other conditions posted from people who skied the previous day(s) (TGR and Tele Tipsforums, Bob Athey and others)
·         A significant amount of discussion within our group
Within our group, several of us are very interested in the snow science factor.  Because of this, we spend a significant amount of time digging pits and talking about the snow and snow structure, what has been happening, what we think will happen, and dozens of other topics that have tendencies of driving people less ‘snow geeky’ crazy.  We feel that it is because of these continual discussions that we are able to make good decisions, stay out of trouble, and maintain good group dynamics (we are usually all on the same page since we spend so much time discussing these item).
For the past 3 years, the Utah Avalanche Center has put on the Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop (USAW).  As part of the UAC Observer Program, we are able to attend the morning professional session as well as the afternoon public session.  The UAC does a great job of putting together a full day of workshops bringing together professional experience, new research, and presentations from accident survivors.  This workshop is a great early season refresher for our group and is a chance for us to learn about some of the latest snow/avalanche research that is taking place. 
Each year, Ian McCammon presents information from his research (which is based on his analysis of existing data).  Ian typically focuses his research on looking at creating processes that the ‘average’ backcountry user can incorporate into their backcountry decision making.  Ian has presented to key concepts

1)      Analysis of 5 structural parameters in the snowpack to determine a relationship between these parameters and human triggered avalanches.
2)      Introduction of ALPTRUTh and FACETS to analyze Situational Awareness and Psychological Distractions. 
Our group uses both of these methods as part of our backcountry decision making.  In this discussion, we will focus on how we use ALPTRUTh and FACETS methods as part of our decision making.
ALPTRUTh – Situational Awareness
Avalanches in last 48 hours
Loading from new snow, wind, etc
Known avalanche Path
Terrain Traps
Overall avalanche Rating
Unstable snow signs (cracking, whoomphing, etc)
Thawing (warm snow on top)
Our touring group has always informally used the ALPTRUTh scale.  This winter, we have decided to start formalizing our use of the scale.  We each have a laminated copy of the ALPTRUTh scale below in our cars and we use it as part of our discussion as we drive to the trailhead each morning and on our ski approach.  To use the ALPTRUTh scale in your evaluation (either before you start skiing or during your approach), you assign 1 point to each of the factors that exist in the area you will be skiing.  Ian’s research has found that ~98% of accidents had a rating of 3 or higher and ~92% of accidents had a 4 or higher.  There was also a surprisingly high percentage of accidents that had a rating of 5 of higher.  Our group considers any rating of 3 or higher to be a reason for careful analysis of the decisions we will be making.  The use of ALPTRUTh is just 1 of your decision criteria you should use to make your decisions. 
·         The ALPTRUTh scale incorporates what are considered the standard avalanche red flags: recent avalanches, heavy snowfall, wind loading, cracking, collapsing, and rapid warming.
·         Ian’s data used for his study was from 622 recreational avalanche accidents (fatalities and not) involving 1,180 individuals in the US between 1972 and 2001.
Printable table we use for ALPTRUTh analysis
FACETS – Psychological Distractions
Familiarity (with terrain, location, etc.)
Acceptance (not wanting to stand out in group, etc.)
Commitment (we came here to ski this so we have to)
Expert Halo (not speaking up when feeling other people know more)
Tracks (fresh line syndrome)
Scarcity (we may never be able to ski this spot again)
To incorporate Psychological Distractions into your decision making, use the FACETS acronym.  The psychological distractions are more subjective, but should be used as you are making your decisions to help ensure your decisions are not being adversely impacted by these distractions.  Most people have been in a situation where they are talking themselves into skiing a particular line.  This is a perfect example of a psychological distraction.  There is something telling you that you should not ski the line and you are telling yourself why it is ok.  You should pay attention to make sure that you are not getting impacted by these psychological distractions while you make decisions.
Self (or group) Analysis of Decision Making
You can use the ALPTRUTh and FACETS Scale together to help determine patterns that you (or your group) may have in their decision making.  To perform this analysis, look at 5 or more days (the more the better) that you skied and felt things were not perfect (bad decisions, close calls, group dynamic issues, etc.).  For each day, add up your ALPTRUTh score and plot that with a dot next to each of the FACETS components that existed.  Do this for each of your days and you will create a scatter plot.  Most people (groups) will start to see a pattern over time.  This pattern makes you aware of which psychological distractions that you are most influenced by.
                     Printable table we use for ALPTRUTh/FACETS graph

The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States
Ian McCammon
Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop,
October 2–6, 2000, Big Sky, Montana, pp. 37 – 45.
Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents
Ian McCammon
Presented at the International Snow Science Workshop,
Penticton, British Columbia, Sept. 30 – Oct 4, 2002.
Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications
Ian McCammon
Avalanche News, No. 68, Spring 2004
A Field Method For Identifying Structural Weaknesses in the Snowpack
Ian McCammon and Jurg Schweizer
Presented at the International Snow Science Workshop,
Penticton, British Columbia, Sept. 30 – Oct 4, 2002.

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2011 – 2012 Tahoe Backcountry Vertical Challenege


Last winter via the interwebs I became aware of a backcountry vertical gain contest called Tahoe Vertical.  I enquired about competing even though my daily skin tracks were decidedly deseret, not blue lake, and Brendan allowed me to join in on the fun.  The competition is put on by what I can only imagine is the best ski shop in Tahoe – AlpenGlow Sports.
With great sponsors like Clifbar, G3 and Scarpa, this is actually a community fundraising event for the always underfunded local avalanche center – Sierra Avalanche Center.  I am an Observer for the Utah Avalanche Center.  Simply put, these organizations save lives.

It couldn’t be easier to join in on the fun.  After skiing every day you just log onto the website and record how much vert you ski that day.  Even though my thighs are technically high speed quads, the vert you get from riding the real high speed quads does not count, human powered skiing only.  Their database driven website allows you to see who has the most vertical gain overall, the biggest single day, etc.  With a little bit of sweat and lot of luck you can win some awesome prizes.  Just yesterday my bounty for winning a couple categories in last years competition arrived.

Overall Winner Most Vertical Gain for the Season:    Dynafit TLT Mountain Ski Boots

Dynafit TLT Ski Boot

Most Vertical Gain – Single Day:    Pieps Tour Shovel

This year there was supposed to be a Wasatch version of the contest, but it unfortunately fell through.  And they understandably tightened the rules to be local Tahoe skiers only.  Boohoo.

Use discount code MattHartCE to get 10% off SFH Omega 3 Oil

UltrAspire Isomeric Race Hand Bottle Holder Review

Reviewed By:  Chad Brackelsberg

I was happy to be able to test out the new UltrApire Isomeric Race hand bottle strap.  After seeing a lot of UltrAspire products are races this fall and hearing great feedback of them online, I have been anxious to try several of the products including the Isomeric Race, Kinetic Pack, and Impulse waste pack.  I used the Isomeric Race on a Nathan water bottle as I like these bottles better than the Specialized bottles as they are a little bit smaller in diameter and fit my hand better.  The hand strap installed easily no the bottle with the bottom being very snug and therefore not able to slide up.  To get the strap adjusted to my hand, I had to work the bottom up a little bit to make room.  The strap provided a tight fit over my hand which is something I look for in hand bottle holders.  I do not like to “grip” the bottle and instead let it hang on my hand.  This is only possible with a strap that offers a tight fit on my hand.  During the run, the holder performed perfectly. It was tight on my hand so I was able to let the bottle hang without gripping it, the bottom strap did not shift or move, and the top adjustable strap did not loosen.  This bottle holder will be a perfect holder when a person wants to go minimalist.  My only concern is that over time, will the bottom of the holder stretch out and become loose on a bottle.  My only recommendation is to have a small elastic loop to hold the extra length of the adjustable top strap.  I was able to tuck the strap under itself, but this took a little bit of effort and does not easily allow a person to adjust the strap on the go.


Nutrition in 60 Seconds

My thoughts on nutrition, said better than I could have…

I eat real food – fresh, natural food like meat, vegetables and fruit.  I choose foods that are nutrient-dense, with lots of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, over foods that have more calories but less nutrition.  And food quality is important – I’m careful about where my meat, seafood and eggs come from, and buy organic local produce as often as possible.

This is not a “diet” – I eat as much as I need to maintain strength, energy, activity levels and a healthy body weight.  I aim for well-balanced nutrition, so I eat both animals and a significant amounts of plants.  I’m not lacking carbohydrates – I just get them from vegetables and fruits instead of bread, cereal or pasta.  And my meals are probably higher in fat than you’d imagine, but fat is a healthy source of energy when it comes from high-quality foods like avocado, coconut and grass-fed beef.

Eating like this is ideal for maintaining a healthy metabolism and reducing inflammation within the body.  It’s good for body composition, energy levels, sleep quality, mental attitude and quality of life.  It helps eliminate sugar cravings and reestablishes a healthy relationship with food.  It also works to minimize your risk for a whole host of lifestyle diseases and conditions, like diabetes, heart attack, stroke and autoimmune.

Thanks Whole9Life for putting it so succinctly.

Disapointment on the East Side

Well I spent 9 hours running hiking with a 20lbs pack through New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail. I knew it wasn’t going to be a great run on the drive to the start in Hanover, NH and the Vermont border. Why?  First we were rerouted about an extra hour because of a major road washout.  Second, well the car would periodically hydroplane. Turns out the flood watch warnings were real. I won’t bother with all the details, but this video is a pretty good example of what I was dealing with. The basics: I ran out of time to wait for a weather window.  I went for it in the middle of some serious nasty weather.  By noon I had to put all my cloths on to deal with the storm and the low temps.  I knew then that traversing the Franconia Ridge or Mount Washington, just wouldn’t be very smart.  So I bailed on Route 25 after about 48 miles. This trip East was an absolute disaster caused by horrible weather.  I did however get to hang out with some very dear friends who I haven’t seen in a long long time.  Silver lining. 

On to the next one.

2010 Tribute to the Trails Calendar

washington ultrarunner and photographer glenn tachiyama has once again put together a stellar tribute to the trails calendar.  there are some great shots in there.  the cover shot above is washington runner kathleen egan, and there is a cool shot of the white river 50 miler start as well as many others.  you can flip through all the photos here.  i’ll be picking up a few of these as christmas gifts.  and you can feel good about it too because all proceeds from the sale of the calendars benefit the washington trails association.  head down to my favorite local (to seattle area) running store, the balanced athlete to pick one up or buy it online from hal koerner’s rogue valley runners store.

iPhone Pictures

i now own and am addicted to my iPhone. it makes life easier. it’s pretty crazy how many light years ahead this phone is to any other phone. lots of my friends work at microsoft. they keep you in a cocoon at microsoft surounding you with inferious windows powered phones and products. each one of them has been blown away by the functionality of my iPhone.

the 2 megapixel digi cam built in is quite nice.. if only because it’s always in my pocket, at the ready. here are some of my latest favs.

transrockies trash


a ride in slc

at the park with frank

classic slc

franks life vest


jenny and noah (who is almost always smiling)

lil’ colin running

puyallup fair is interesting

5:30am workout with cory fraser – it’s dark still

cats puke

the family copson

my downhill from crystal mountain

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