As a kid growing up in the foothills of the Chugach, I was always so excited for the first snowfall of the year. This inevitable blanket of white was the telltale sign of the start of my favorite season, ski season. When that first winter storm hit, I remember packing a snowball, dropping it in a Ziploc bag and stuffing it in the back of the freezer. Come mid-summer, I’d pull the snowball out of the deep freeze, sneak up on my unsuspecting older brother and pelt him with what is now a ball of ice. Running off and laughing hysterically, it was a small battle won in the larger sibling war.
Today, termination dust in the Chugach and the first flakes landing in the Anchorage Bowl still trigger these early memories. Though instead of premeditated snowball attacks, I use the changing of seasons to do a thorough once over on my backcountry pack. Pulling my pack from the top shelf of my shed (it’s been there since the start of sockeye season), I find my full compliment of avalanche rescue gear and a few surprises in the form of forgotten fruit leathers, a handful of grimy Hershey Kisses and my favorite pair of ski socks. Upon emptying the contents, I take a few minutes to do a thorough inspection on all of my avalanche rescue gear.
Avalanche beacon: Open up and inspect the battery compartment for any signs of corrosion. The terminals should be clean and free of residue. Ideally your beacon was stored over the summer with batteries removed. This will prevent the majority of corrosion issues. Batteries are cheap. Install brand new alkaline (NOT lithium ion) batteries in your beacon and test its functions (search and receive) with another beacon.
Avalanche shovel: Take a course file to the blade edge. This will remove any burrs allowing your shovel to slide in and out of your pack quickly and easily without getting caught on your pack material. A clean and consistent leading edge will allow for more efficient shoveling whether you are chopping through dense avalanche debris or digging out your buddy’s Arctic Cat. Do a visual inspection of all the welds on the shovel blade and handle. If any cracks are forming or welds failing, it’s time to replace your shovel. If your shovel has no welds (i.e. it’s plastic) it is time to replace it.
Avalanche probe: This is the least-used and arguably the most important piece of rescue gear in your pack. Without the ability to pinpoint an avalanche victim quickly, you are going to waste valuable time shoveling. Take the time now to familiarize yourself with how your probe works, specifically the locking mechanism, as all of these are slightly different. Ensure the locking mechanism works smoothly and the internal line or cable is not frayed. A visual inspection of the probe segments and internal cable should catch any potential problems. If your probe passes the visual inspection, spray a bit of liquid silicone lubricant on all the joints to keep these connections clean and lubricated. A goal should be to assemble and disassemble your probe blindfolded in less than 10 seconds.
Airbag backpacks: I highly recommend an early season deployment before your first trip into the mountains. If nothing else, a successful deployment in the living room will provide you the confidence of knowing that it’ll work when you need it in the mountains. This also provides a good opportunity to take the pack apart and inspect the airbag system before reconnecting a fresh canister. All packs are slightly different so I recommend consulting the user manual (can be found online) to ensure you are replacing O-rings, lubing connections and reconnecting the canister/ trigger properly.
And last but certainly not least, by far the most important piece of backcountry equipment is your brain (maintenance required). This is the year to rally your riding partners and take an avalanche class. The Chugach National Forest Avalanche Info Center (CNFAIC) offers a series of free awareness talks and rescue workshops beginning in November. More info at www.cnfaic.org. Another excellent resource is the Alaska Avalanche School who’s been offering avalanche education in Alaska since 1976. They’ve developed field-based courses taught for snowmachiners, by snowmachiners. Sled specific courses are in addition to their traditional (three-day) Level 1 and Level 2 avalanche courses. More info at www.alaskaavalancheschool.com.
Early season gear inspection is critical to ensure your safety and confidence in the backcountry. Take the time to love on your backcountry equipment as you do your new sled. Ensure your riding partners are doing the same because in the end, it’s their gear and training that is going to get you out of a bad situation. Take care of your gear, know how to use it and practice with it often.
Graham Predeger works as an avalanche specialist with the Chugach NF Avalanche Info Center (CNFAIC) based in Girdwood. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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