If you’ll be in the backcountry, be sure to ‘Know the Code’
Freedom and Anarchy in the Backcountry”: This was the title of a recent talk given at the Fourth annual Southcentral Alaska Avalanche Workshop that spawned some great discussion and later conversations within our community.
I’ve heard it echoed over the years that some people will not ride many of the busier zones such as Turnagain Pass because of the illusion of “anarchy in the backcountry.”
There’s an idea that there are too many riders with little or no respect for the mountains, let alone the safety of their fellow riders around them. I have seen this on occasion, but I also recognize the Alaska snowmachining community as one of the most kind and generous user groups in the mountains. Time and again strangers will come together to search for a missing rider, lend a tool or a gallon of fuel to get back to the trailhead (see “Crisis averted” article in the November 2016 issue of SnowRider). They’ll even throw caution into the wind to ride straight back into a winter storm to recover one of their own after tragedy strikes in the backcountry. Consistently, I’ve seen this thoughtfulness and charity from our community, moreso than any other group of outdoor users.
So, when I see a lone snowmachine high marking above a stuck sled or side hilling across a steep avalanche-prone slope where a photographer is setting up for a shot, I don’t think this is a malicious act. I think these riders are uneducated in what I’ll refer to as the “Mountain Riders Responsibility Code.” This is the unwritten code that many savvy and seasoned backcountry users simply adopt within their group of friends and riding partners to ensure they make it back to the parking lot every day. For many who have either taken an avalanche safety course or perhaps had a close call with an avalanche, it’s common practice to check your buddy’s beacon before leaving the parking lot or to not high mark above a stuck sled in avalanche terrain.
As a user group though, it’s worth recognizing that not everyone in the mountains has had these experiences or recognizes some of the inherent dangers of riding snowmachines in Alaska’s backcountry. This is particularly true when you consider that anybody with two thumbs and a decent credit score can purchase a snowmachine that has the ability to approach terrain only helicopters could access 10 years ago. So why not take a stab at formalizing and communicating some basic “guidelines” in an attempt to make the backcountry a safer place for everyone?
Below is a DRAFT version of a “Mountain Riders Code of Conduct” that has come to fruition from conversations amongst the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Info Center (CNFAIC) staff and seasoned mountain riders within the snowmachine community. I have the word “draft” in uppercase letters because I can’t stress enough that input and feedback is always appreciated.
I’ll encourage riders to adopt this responsibility code or some iteration of the above within their core group of riders this winter. As a community, we can add to the level of safety in the backcountry and set the example for what a responsible, mindful user group is. And to take it one step further, if the code is being broken I challenge individuals to respectfully call each other out. Draw attention to shortcomings, and educate your fellow riders because really, we all have a common goal to keep riding areas opened, help our fellow riders in time of need and, of course, make it back to the parking lot safely each and every day.
Graham Predeger is a lifelong Alaskan who has been working in support of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Info Center (CNFAIC.org) for the past six years. He’s based in Girdwood. If you have any questions, comments or ideas to strengthen the above ‘responsibility code’ please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.