By Paige Pagnucco, FOW
Bear River Range, Utah. FOW: Paige Pagnucco // Photo: Toby Weed
How does a backcountry avalanche forecaster get shred-ready for winter? With a mountain bike, eyes on terrain, and mental organization.
The leaves have turned, and cold storm cycles are hitting with increasing force. Our first powder days are already here.
Use winter eyes on summer terrain
So how have I been preparing? Well, in reality I’ve been doing a lot of mountain biking. It gets me out into the mountains and is a great way to keep strong and focused. But it also carries me into avalanche terrain. While there is no snow on the ground I can see where slides have wrought havoc: broken and uprooted trees, piles of debris, and flag trees at the bottom of steep slopes are all signs of past years’ activity. In fact, on one particular trail in the Logan, Utah zone there is still very obvious evidence of a massive avalanche that occurred over 35 years ago—a sobering reminder of their destructive capacity.I like looking at bare terrain to take note of its structure: are there convexities, concavities, rocks, trees, turns, or terrain traps? I take a mental snapshot so I know what lurks beneath once it’s covered in snow. Most of the winter I avoid steep slopes, especially when avalanche risk spikes. But knowing what the terrain looks like underneath the snow is a critical piece of information when I go there. [Editor’s note: it’s also really helpful to avoid drydocking on a pile of deadfall disguised as a fluffy pillow by a low-tide or unconsolidated snowpack.]
Bear River Range, Utah. Photo: Paige Pagnucco (@paigeweed)
Tighten up your rig—and your head
I want to be on snow as soon as possible, so when fall arrives I go through all my gear—transceiver, shovel, probe, airbag, first aid kit, tool kit, skis, bindings, skins, pack, etc.—to make sure everything is in working order. Once the snow flies, I don’t want to get held up by a gear malfunction, especially with my safety gear. I carry my transceiver, shovel, and probe every day regardless of avalanche conditions. That’s a habit that could not only save my life but someone else’s as well.
Having lost friends and colleagues to avalanches, I know how critical it is to have my head screwed on straight before the season starts. What if the worst case scenario happens? Maybe that’s an unfair question, but that’s why we train in the first place: to be able to do our best when it’s called for. Even when everything should go right, the worst can happen. People die in avalanches every year—if you choose to ride in avalanche terrain, you are accepting that risk. It’s the heavy side of the sport that can change lives forever.
The family on the skin track in the Northern San Juans, CO. Photo: Paige Pagnucco (@paigeweed)
I think about these possibilities, not in a doom and gloom way but more as a reality check. Am I willing to leave my family behind? My answer is NO, so I choose to be pretty far to the safe side of the envelope. I want to ski well into my later years, to enjoy my children and the joy they bring to my life, to travel and see more of the world. No line is worth giving that up—and the ripple effect of grief is huge and everlasting. So do yourself a favor and start getting ready for the season now—more than just your quads.
And practice with your rescue gear a lot.
Being on the snow, moving through mountains, enjoying the surroundings and quiet are all reasons why I prepare. I don’t intend to be involved in an avalanche accident, but I want to be fully prepared for any scenario. My goal is always to come home safely—mainly because I love the snow and how I feel when I spend time on it. That’s something that I’m not willing to give up for anything, and that’s why I get ready long before I hit the skin track.
- Paige Pagnucco, FOW
Paige spends most of her time in the Logan region as Avalanche Awareness Program Manager and Forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center. Learn more about the UAC's rich history here.
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