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backcountry ski touring with Mountain Madness

Ski Touring Planning — Be The Observer”

Win­ter is near­ly here and with it longer days and a more sta­ble snow­pack. But, the haz­ards are not gone and its no time to get com­pla­cent — care­ful plan­ning still required. MM guide Stephen Heath shares some ideas here.

One of the more daunt­ing aspects of back­coun­try ski­ing is the art of observ­ing what’s going on around you and turn­ing those obser­va­tions into good deci­sions. Your morn­ing plan will set the foun­da­tion for your day, giv­ing you direc­tion and the key things to keep an eye out for. Some­times the key mes­sage in the avy fore­cast gives you a clear pic­ture of ter­rain to avoid and oth­er times the prob­lems for the day com­bined with the like­li­hood don’t add up to a clear deci­sion on whether to rule out cer­tain ter­rain or not. On these days it’s espe­cial­ly impor­tant to be in tune with what’s hap­pen­ing around us and spring back­coun­try trips are no excep­tion. To help with the plan­ning if you’re going out in the Cas­cades, the North­west Avalanche Cen­ter can pro­vide that key info when there is some uncertainty. 

Solo Sun
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Once you head out you should be ask­ing your­selves and your part­ners ques­tions about what we’re see­ing. Try to find small­er less com­mit­ting test slopes” on the same aspect as what you want to ski and feel what’s going on with the snow before lay­ing tracks into a more con­se­quen­tial slope. We need to pur­pose­ful­ly force or minds into the role of the observ­er so that we can attempt to base our deci­sions in what’s actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing around us and not the nar­ra­tive that gives us what­ev­er we want and the turns we desire. These prin­ci­pals apply to all sea­sons, whether its a big win­ter snow­pack or a con­sol­i­dat­ing spring snowpack.

I like to break obser­va­tions down into cat­e­gories to help me make a sound decision. 

Yel­low Flag obs give me pause, they put my spidey sens­es up and I’m look­ing close­ly at what’s going on, see­ing if it adds up to some­thing more. Yel­low Flags include tem­per­a­ture change, heavy snow­fall, evi­dence of wind-blown snow, snow melt­ing off trees and rocks, point releas­es, and changes in snow den­si­ty. The next lev­el, red flags, are enough to shut down a slope for me and look for oth­er ter­rain and aspects to ski. 

Red Flags include shoot­ing cracks, whoom­ph­ing, test slopes pro­duc­ing evi­dence of insta­bil­i­ty, large roller balls, evi­dence of recent slides on same aspect and ele­va­tion as what we’re plan­ning on ski­ing, and wind load­ing. It’s impor­tant to not only be look­ing for these things and aware of what they mean but be will­ing to change the plan and go ski the ter­rain that’s match­ing the con­di­tions you’re find­ing that day.


With new snow still fly­ing in the moun­tains, it may still seem like win­ter, but spring is here. Bet­ter access to the high peaks and good weath­er on its way be ready to shift gears if you’re head­ing out onto the glac­i­ers. Some of the best descents are on the Cas­cade Vol­ca­noes. Check out the options for ski descents, like Mount Bak­er, Mount Adams, or the For­bid­den Tra­verse; or take a ski moun­taineer­ing course to get dialed on the glac­i­er trav­el. But, what­ev­er you do, get out and enjoy there’s turns to be had well into spring and ear­ly summer.

Pho­tos by Arthur Her­l­itz­ka and MM collection