Of all the human factors that challenge our backcountry decisions, the sight of fresh tracks—either on the uphill or the down—in deep powder will unfailingly test our ability to choose wisely in avalanche terrain.
The benefits of following an existing track are not only obvious but compelling. Spotting a previously tracked route through high mountain terrain can validate our plan and confirm what we seek: an aesthetic climb to an uncrowded powder run. When we are in new terrain, the local’s track can identify their preferred route, in today’s conditions, and helps to eliminate some of the unknown. And of course, an existing up-track is also easier to climb than breaking trail on our own.
But the track that reaffirms our plan also muddies our ability to assess the risk. When it comes to ski tracks, a single set weaving an elegant downslope arc can bring on desire, as in, “I want to go there.” It can confirm old habits, “Yup, that’s where I usually go as well.” And it can subconsciously coerce, “Nothing happened when she skied the slope.” Nevertheless, we cannot become less guarded or vigilant. Your line in the terrain has to sum up everything you know about snow. Lit up by the late-day sun, your track is your signature when well-placed and well-timed and your guilty confession when not.
The track that reaffirms our plan also muddies our ability to assess the risk.
Even a simple valley up-track can influence. The Connaught Creek ski trail in the Rogers Pass climbs up a V-shaped drainage through several wide avalanche paths that descend from both sides to the valley floor. In the early ’80s, ski tourers would sometimes avoid Connaught Creek when large natural avalanches were a concern. Today, the valley is never without a track, and, though we may know better, we sometimes still follow along. On February 1, 2003, a huge natural avalanche from high on Mount Cheops swept down and tragically killed seven teenage kids touring up the valley route. Despite Park’s hazard rating and warning that natural avalanches could step down to the November weak layer and initiate a “larger and deeper event,” at least 65 individuals toured past the trailhead counter that day. A ski track can be a dangerous lure.
Does a set of tracks increase our confidence, or does it muddy our assessment of the risk? See the next slide to find out. Same aspect, same elevation, and similar slope angle—with a very different outcome. Photo courtesy of Golden Search and Rescue (GSAR).
Yet, it is natural to follow a backcountry track. It is part of our learning process. We observe where people go and then follow them. As a substitute for experience, we stay back and note where the group sets their climbing track to avoid exposure. We mark where they cross the runout zone. We watch where groups choose to descend. We then wait on the ridge until several have dropped in before we follow. If we are wise, we recognize that while familiarity doesn’t guarantee a good decision, the group’s track hopefully reflects their collective caution. But always following tracks can develop into a problem. When we don’t question whether this is the best route in today’s conditions, we’ve stopped making our own decisions. When following tracks becomes a habit, we might not notice whether this track is benefiting or biasing us.
I am now acutely aware of how a few pre-existing tracks can challenge my ability to see a hazardous slope for what it is.
A follower is not how I define myself. I have made mistakes following others. I have regretted stomping up an existing up-track that placed me in a risky spot. I have second-guessed my decisions after watching a rider lay gorgeous arcs down the plum line I deliberately planned to avoid. And 30 years ago, I watched the 32nd skier on a slope release a large avalanche, 100 meters wide and 70 centimeters deep, that caught him and four others. I had thought the tracked-out slope was unlikely to avalanche and the safest way down. I am now acutely aware of how a few pre-existing tracks can challenge my ability to see a hazardous slope for what it is.
My current strategy is to imagine the terrain devoid of tracks, a bare canvas, and therefore avoid the influence of another’s habit or choice. My goal is to set a line that optimizes conditions, climbs efficiently, and reduces risk. I want my route through the terrain to mark an elegant passage that promotes flow, not frustration. I understand that when weak layers persist, a steep slope is not an attraction but a threat. And, importantly, a lifetime of near misses has informed me that a few downhill tracks do not constitute a successful slope test.
When heading out onto quieter slopes, my plan is to gather my own information, carve an independent line, and not be seduced by a few carelessly placed tracks.
Easier said than done.
Colin Zacharias is a consultant and educator in the avalanche and mountain guiding industries, and an IFMGA/ACMG mountain guide. He resides on Vancouver Island, B.C.