Pre-ride routine is the key to a good day in the backcountry
|Phone, wallet, coffee, keys: Check. Beacon, shovel, probe backpack: Check. Helmet, goggles, boots, riding bag: Check. Oil, fuel, sleds: Check.|
I’d venture to guess that everyone has some sort of similar checklist or conversation with their riding partners on the way out the driveway. And if you haven’t developed this habit yet, it only takes once to forget your boots in the garage
before you find the value in developing a pre-ride protocol. Fortunately, the consequences of forgotten boots or a set of goggles can usually be remedied before you hit the trailhead – after all, that’s why you ride with the one guy in your crew who either, A) has a spare set of everything in his trailer, or B), can MacGyver you a pair of boots out of some duct tape, an alder branch and your sled cover.
But now you’ve made it to the trailhead, the sled is unloaded and you’re all geared up and ready for an early-season rip. Not so fast. What’s your parking lot protocol? Think of this as akin to a pilot’s pre-flight checklist, a hunter’s procedure for sighting in a target or a final question from your surgeon, “Now it’s the left knee we’re operating on today, correct?”
This final check in the parking lot, I would argue, is the most critical and all too-often overlooked part of any day riding in the mountains. I’m guilty. I’ve forgotten. In a rush to get out of town or catch the fading Alaska light I’ve forgotten to charge my airbag. Or worse, forgotten to switch my beacon to transmit, only to return to the truck at the end of the day and realize I’ve been in avalanche terrain with a non-functioning beacon.
I challenge you to develop a parking lot protocol with your crew. Something quick and simple you can commit to 100 percent of the time, before every ride. It doesn’t have to be this big formal thing, just a mental or vocal checklist for everyone you’re riding with that avalanche transceivers are on, functioning and stowed properly. If you’ve got an airbag, make sure it’s charged and the trigger accessible.
I use the acronym D’BEST from the Alaska Avalanche School: Display, Battery, Electronics, Search, Transmit. In total, this check should take less than 1 minute, and I promise you will save a lifetime of grief and second-guessing if anyone in your group were to be caught in an avalanche.
Unfortunately it still happens every year where an avalanche victim’s airbag isn’t armed, or a would-be rescuer left their beacon in the trailer. In Montana just last month, a sad start to this winter season found two experienced skiers buried in an avalanche. Tragically, Victim 1 was fully buried and dug up with her avalanche beacon inside her backpack and turned off. Presumably overcome with grief, her ski partner walked out alone to alert rescuers only to take his own life the very next day. What if they had taken 30 seconds that morning to perform a beacon check? Would the events in Montana have played out differently that heart-rending day?
The backcountry community has come a long way in the last decade. Manufacturers and retail companies are developing snowmachine-specific safety equipment for motorized users. Avalanche education is more widely available and geared toward sledders. Avalanche forecasters are speaking to and recognizing the different ways snowmachiners see and use terrain. Riders are smarter and better equipped, but all of this is for naught if we don’t slow down and take a single minute at the trailhead to do that one last check on our rescue gear before charging into the mountains.
It’s a wicked environment we play in, so we may as well stack the chips in our favor. Develop, practice and adopt a “parking lot protocol”that works for you and your crew. It’s quick, easy and potentially life saving. And by the way, Doc, my left knee is fine. I’m here to get my tonsils out!
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.