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Are You Ready to Ski the Backcountry Abroad? AIARE Program Director Ben Pritchett Let Us Know

AIARE educators dig a snowpit. Stefan Olsen photo. 

It's a dream of every skier and snowboarder to head into deep powder in a foreign place. Whether you're thinking of heading to Japan, Canada, Switzerland or planning to chase winter to the Southern Hemisphere, you'll need to collect information about where you're going to ski and what the snowpack looks like there. 

Often this information is harder to get than you anticipated. Many of the storied foreign ski destinations you've been dreaming about your whole life don't have avalanche forecasting centers or resources. In this interview with AIARE Program Director Ben Pritchett, he weighs in the skills you should have and how you can get the beta you need before you head into backcountry in a foreign country.  

If someone is traveling out of country to a place without avalanche forecasting, please talk about how AIARE would recommend they locate reputable sources of beta for backcountry travel?

If there's not a formal avalanche forecasting center, there are other options for collecting on-the-ground beta. Stefan Olsen photo. 

Often local guides, park rangers or industrial avalanche forecasters (i.e. for roads, mines, and railways) will be great on-the-ground sources of info about current avalanche conditions. I'd also look for any skiing or climbing operations in the area. 

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Historical accounts from prior expeditions to the area could also provide valuable information, although any information would need to be interpreted in light of current conditions.

And how should someone go about verifying the snowpack information they get?

Taking time to explore a new zone while taking conservative routes will help you get a handle on where recent avalanches have slid. TGR photo.

Building an avalanche forecast from scratch is complicated business that years of experience and training, and the discipline to not be overly swayed by any one piece of information. The observer has to weigh the quality and quantity of information and do their best to estimate their uncertainty. The easiest information to interpret is avalanche activity. 

Building an avalanche forecast from scratch is complicated business that years of experience and training, and the discipline to not be overly swayed by any one piece of information. The observer has to weigh the quality and quantity of information and do their best to estimate their uncertainty. The easiest information to interpret is avalanche activity.

If possible, spending an extra lap or two flying around a new zone can provide invaluable information on the recent patterns in avalanching. Take lots and lots of photos. Given a good baseline of seeing recent avalanches, then you can begin to target what information is needed and what terrain might or might not be appropriate.

What specific skills does AIARE recommend backcountry skiers and snowboarders have before they travel to unforecasted areas?

If you want to shred complicated terrain in any area with few avalanche information resources, ultimately, it's going to take a lot of skill building. TGR photo.

Skills and experience go hand in hand. In areas without an avalanche advisory, it's not just about the skills, but whether or not you have experience working through the forecasting process. 

The list of competencies for traveling in remote backcountry areas is a long list. It might start with the ability to choose the right partners and objectives suitable for your experience level and risk tolerance. If you have great terrain recognition skills and the desire to avoid exposure to avalanches, that can be a good starting point alone. But for most of us, we're not travelling with the goal of confining ourselves to simple terrain, so we need more advanced skills.

The list goes on to include sufficient movement skills to match the objectives. You need planning skills to organize what choices need to be made, based on what information, where and when. 

If you hope to manage the hazards, you'll need the experience, observation skills and technical knowledge to make sense of what you're seeing, and assessment the current and changing conditions. Without excellent communication and group management skills there's little chance you'll be able to enact the plan or evaluate the risks at critical decision points. You'll need the situational awareness to recognize when things are falling off the rails. And don't forget you'll need the rescue skills to handle any accidents along the way.

If you hope to manage the hazards, you'll need the experience, observation skills and technical knowledge to make sense of what you're seeing, and assessment the current and changing conditions. Without excellent communication and group management skills, there's little chance you'll be able to enact the plan or evaluate the risks at critical decision points. You'll need the situational awareness to recognize when things are falling off the rails. And don't forget you'll need the rescue skills to handle any accidents along the way. It's a long list, and no wonder most all of us start travelling to remote areas with an experienced mentor.

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