For the vast majority of us enjoying days out in the snowy mountains is a hobby, albeit a sometimes all consuming one. So when planning for and executing your trip plans, you may not be approaching it from the lens of systemic rigor that those paid to work as snow and avalanche professionals do. But if you aspire to big days in the mountains, finding the best snow, and reducing risk while gaining reward, it’s worth looking at some of the big-picture practices that avalanche workers, ski guides, and other mountain professionals bring to the table on a daily basis.

Stay current on avalanche, snowpack, and weather conditions – even when you are not heading to the mountains

Avalanche workers and guides look at forecasts and observations for the same reasons as everybody else – to see what’s going on. The difference is that they already have a thorough understanding of snowpack layering, avalanche cycles, and weather patterns from the beginning of the season. This comes from referencing forecast and observation products on a daily basis whether the current pattern consists of storms, high pressure, or endless rain. They look for how things have changed in the last 12-24 hours instead of catching up on the days or weeks since they were last in the mountains. 

Why bother?  No matter how high the quality of weather products or avalanche forecasts, these resources will always make more sense if you already know the backstory behind current conditions. A deeper understanding of what is going on opens the door to a more realistic sense of what to expect and ultimately a better plan for the day . . . more rewarding.

The best way to stay up to date on the snowpack is of course to get out there, but when there isn’t time or conditions don’t align here are some ways to keep up to date on the snow conditions: 

  1. Read the forecast: Scan the forecast, or at the very least the Bottom Line every day, to get a sense of what the forecasters are thinking about. Jot down questions or make note of what tests you would conduct in the field to observe the day’s problems. 
  2. Read observations: Check the obs for the zone you frequent as well as nearby zones. Get in the habit of scrolling through NWAC obs the way you might social media, just to get an overall sense of what folks are seeing. 
  3. Follow NWAC on social media: forecasters submit observations to the NWAC obs page as well as Instagram and Facebook, which are often accompanied by photos and videos. 
  4. Sign up for the newsletter: NWAC sends the Backcountry Bulletin every Friday which includes a weather forecast for the weekend as well as a State of the Snowpack, a high level overview of what forecasters are seeing across our regions. 
Photo: Ashley Swanson

The Time to Act is When There is Nothing Yet To Do”

Most avalanche workers and guides have the intuition to anticipate unforeseen factors affecting safety, meeting objectives, and the overall experience for all involved.  But like most intuition, this comes more from practice than innate ability.

Professionals generally don’t wing it when it comes to terrain choice, from where in a range they’re going to a specific feature on the mountain. Instead, they meticulously study and internalize terrain ahead of time, including how avalanche, snowpack, and weather factors could affect proposed travel areas. Terrain choices aren’t made with a trailhead coin flip or postponed until it’s time to go left or right, or farther into the mountains or back towards the car. 

Of course, no one knows precisely how the day will pan out. Countless decisions will be made during everyone’s day whether it’s their first or 30th year of identifying, avoiding, or even mitigating avalanche danger. The difference is between knowing that a decision is coming down the pipes versus realizing too late you unknowingly made one. 

Professionals also strive to pre-emptively manage group dynamics and manage expectations instead of waiting until the last minute – or maybe well after the last minute – to work out their issues. Figuring out if a given ascent, run, or hill climb is on par with the skills, fitness, and comfort level of each team member is not something to sort out when the group is already half-committed. No matter your mode of travel, terrain is planned and discussed in advance in terms of avalanche risk, other mountain hazards, and also how suitable it is for each member of the group, not the agenda of the most motivated person.

“But tell me . . . how do you really feel?” 

Best practice among avalanche workers and guides is a recap at the end of the day – what went well, what could’ve gone better, where were we most at risk, and did conditions line up with expectations? It’s true that the answer to each of these questions is entirely relative. Perceived risk vs. actual risk can vary widely at an individual or even group level. Yet the only way to really improve our capacity to do our jobs, manage risk and have some fun along the way is to review the observations and decisions made each day. 

An afternoon tailgate talk over a beer (or another favored beverage) will help you build on each new experience and learn more about the mountains instead of just logging miles or vertical feet.

Photo: Ashley Swanson