The term "backcountry" is probably over used in the Australian context. There aren’t many snow covered places here that are more than a few hours walk/ski to the nearest human settlement or road in fine conditions, especially in summer. For the purposes of this site the term ‘backcountry’ refers to areas outside of patrolled ski resort boundaries. So what’s difference between the resort and the backcountry?
- There's no snow preparation in the backcountryand routes and hazards aren't marked;
- There are no services in the backcountry;
- There are very limited number of formal shelters and for all intents and purposes it should be assumed there are none; and
- There is no ski patrol, no medical centres and medical assistance may take days to reach you (if help can be contacted).
In summary, in the backcountry you’re responsible for the safety and well being of yourself and your party. You have to carry your own gear, food and water, be able to assess snow conditions and terrain, navigate in all types of weather and know how to administer first aid and take shelter in an emergency situation.
Whilst skiing in the backcountry ill prepared can be very dangerous, with some preparedness, the necessary skill set and the right equipment it isn’t much more dangerous than skiing in the resort. Buying the right equipment is the easy part. However, good equipment is not a substitute for skills and experience. Its no point having the best GPS on the market if you’ve got no waypoints in it and have no knowledge of potential terrain traps that it may be leading you through.
So how do you get experience and the necessary skills before you get out there? In reality you can’t. However, it is said that it takes a combination of things to go wrong or a combination of poor decisions for you to end up in real shit. If you can keep the number of things that could go wrong to a minimum early on you can gradually build your skill set and experience until you’re ready to handle most situations. Small steps you can take which will build up your skill/experience set are listed below:
- Practice skiing/boarding in the resort to improve skiing skills and fitness. Make sure you can handle all types of snow conditions. You don’t have to ski like a pro but you want to be sure you can get down any slope in any snow condition, even if you have to sideslip your way down;
- Learn about the weather, how to interpret a synoptic chart and follow the various weather forecast charts (these are a skiers best friend). Anyone can access advanced forecasting tools on the web for free and you can pick up some additional weather knowledge by scanning various weather forums. Live weather data, including satellite pictures, Doppler radar and weather gauging data is available for the whole of Australia at the Bureau of Meteorology website. Correlate various synoptic charts set-ups with on ground conditions to get a better understanding of what kinds of weather prevail in the mountains under various synoptic regimes;
- Before using unfamiliar equipment ask the retailer or someone with experience for some tips and/or read the manual. Even the simplest bits of gear have features that may not be obvious to the novice that make them perform better;
- There’s no rule about using touring gear in the resorts. Get the hang of unfamiliar touring equipment in bounds before heading off into the backcountry. Learning to use touring gear and fitting skins can be a little difficult and painful at first. Be sure to try touring gear on varied surfaces to get an idea of its (or your) limitations. Practise climbing steep slopes and learn how to perform a kick turn on a steep slope. Restrict early backcountry trips to fine weather windows;
- When first venturing out of the resort be sure to go with others. Start close to resort and venture further afield once you’ve learnt a few lessons and know how to use your gear. Consider taking a guided tour or hooking up with more experienced folk until you feel comfortable;
- Understand your body and signs that you may need food and water and how a lack of both may affect your body’s ability to regulate your temperature. Tired dehydrated bodies are very susceptible to hypothermia;
- Overnight summer hikes will give you experience at carrying loads, planning meals, camping and will help you learn what you can and can’t do without in your pack;
- Summer walks to areas that may be on your ‘to ski’ will help familiarise you with terrain;
- Learn and practise how to set up a snow camp site somewhere close to the resort or your car before you attempt a trip to the far side of the main range (a valuable lesson learned early in the piece by yours truly!);
- Ski trips and/or walks in late spring are handy for identifying areas where large cornices or other hazardous terrain features form in the snow covered landscape. Record mental pictures along the way – you may have to negotiate a path through these areas in a white out. In spring you have the benefit of a few more hours daylight, warmer daytime temperatures and typically areas that are no longer covered in snow; and
- Learn how to read a topographic map and navigate using a map and compass - even if you own a GPS!
Skiing Outside Patrolled Areas
The idea of skiing outside the resort areas sounds fun, and it is, but don’t be fooled by the footage on your ski DVD collection. The Australian backcountry isn’t filled with endless slopes of forgiving powder. The combination of wind, exposure and relatively warm day time temperatures combine to make the Australian snowpack highly variable. In a typical Australian winter season you can find areas of light fluff, wind packed powder, boiler plate ice, spring corn and sastrugi all within a short distance of each other.
Whilst the Australian high country lacks serious mountain terrain and glaciated areas there are plenty of hazards out there that can bite you. Something as simply as crossing a partially snow covered creek can be extremely hazardous in the middle of winter, and in low visibility navigation can be extremely difficult, especially on the exposed treeless areas of the higher peaks. Its not just skiing and being able to walk back up hills. Negotiating your way up a 35 degree slope that’s getting icy as the mercury falls is challenging whether you’re in Australia or at the top of the Himalayas.
Our typically wet and heavy snowpack is relatively stable but avalanches do occur in Australia, the most notable destroyed Kunama Hut, formerly situated beneath Mt Northcote on the NSW Main Range, killing a skier. Unfortunately Australia recorded it's second avalanche victim in July 2008 when a skier triggered a cornice collapse and avalanche above Blue Lake.
Wet spring snow avalanches are also very common during warmer periods. There are several good publications around that detail conditions within the snow pack and terrain that may make slopes more susceptible to avalanches than others. Reading one of these may prevent you from becoming Australia’s third recorded avalanche victim.
Skinning or hiking is fairly risk free on flat or gentle terrain but add gradient and ice and you have potential to get into some sticky situations. Trying to hold an edge with a free heel or while you remove a ski can be very challenging and dangerous.