Backcountry skiing Instagram is the pits, literally. There are so many stories of skiers digging pits and slapping snow posted every day all winter. Sometimes my time scrolling through the app feels like a repetitive barrage, screenshotted “high” avy forecast, trailbreaking video, ski tip shot, pit digging shot, often with a witty caption about “doing homework.” And that’s awesome. It’s great that so many of us are learning about the snowpack, investigating what’s happening underneath the surface, and contributing to a culture of continued education.
But I’m not convinced. I’m glad there are plenty of folks interested in the snowpack, and thinking through what they’re skiing on, but I sometimes wonder if there’s a heuristic that leads recreational skiers to doing performative snowpack analysis instead of working through the stressful and often scary challenge of realistic companion rescue practice.
Realistic companion rescue practice sucks. It’s hard, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And I think too often we half-ass it in favor of spending more time on softer topics that make us feel better. I know a lot of people who brag about how many pits they dig each time they go out. I’ve never had anyone tell me how they practiced their fine search techniques a lot and shaved a bunch of time off their multi-burial scenario. Pits are sexy. Companion rescue is not. That’s a problem.
Train harder than you expect to perform
To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone should be digging less pits. Instead, I’m arguing that if you’re going into the backcountry, you should be doing at least a couple days of intense companion rescue training every winter.
In the context of Avy 1 style courses, instructors are trying to foster a growth mindset, they’re trying to get everyone comfortable with failing so that they can progress their skills. That’s how teaching introductory classes works. So they’re not trying to create a stressful and realistic training situation.
Similarly, when I’ve gone out with friends to practice companion rescue, everyone has kept the mood light, we’ve been chill, trying not to be overly critical of each other or make anything too stressful. There’s a conscious effort to keep things in line with our typical mood when we’re in the mountains, and I think that’s a common factor with other informal groups as well.
But, if a member of your group is caught and buried in an avalanche, the mood will be decidedly unchill. No one will be letting you cheat by starting with your shovel out of your pack and your probe already extended. You probably won’t be in a flat, treeless meadow that’s already been packed down, like where much companion rescue training happens. Chances are you’ll be cold, tired, and ready to get out of the hills and into the bar. So we train in these easy, soft environments, for the most challenging, stressful, and painful thing that could happen to us in the backcountry out of convenience. That’s foolish.
In real life, being part of an avalanche rescue really sucks. No matter how calm and prepared you think you are, the amount of adrenalin introduced into your system in these situations is immense. And they rarely happen when we’re at our best mental and physically. They happen when we’re already stressed, cold and tired. Equipment management becomes a very big deal, as does efficient backcountry travel. When folks complain that someone transitions too fast, and that they don’t need to be in such a hurry, it’s important to remember that if your friend is stuck on a slide, and you’re 500’ down the slope, in deep snow, in ski mode, every minute you spend fumbling with your gear as you transition cuts down their window of survival exponentially.
So get good at using your touring gear. Know exactly where your shovel and probe are in your pack. Practice tearing them out as fast as you can as someone yells at you that your favorite person is buried and dying.
Practice with your beacon, a lot. Chill backyard searches are fine, but focus on the entire process. Think through when you’ll take your skis off to do the fine search, where you’ll put them, if you can get your shovel together with your usual gloves on, and where you store electronics that could interfere with your beacon.
The amateur snow scientist halo
In my (limited) experience, there’s a pretty classic path from taking one’s first avalanche class to digging a bunch of pits and talking about them a lot over beers. And it’s understandable. Many of us come out of our Avy 1 classes enraptured with our instructors, enamored with their knowledge. And we’ve seen them dig pits in the class, we see professionals digging pits on social media, we associate mucking around in the snow with being a cool, complete mountain person. And undoubtedly it’s part of being one. But there’s a lot more happening behind the scenes.
It’s easy to create a facade of consistent pit digging and checking that has no correlation to the rest of your mountain skills and knowledge. I know because I’ve done it. The winter I dug the most pits was also the winter I was least prepared to find and rescue a partner. All of those pits, and all of the data gathered from them is only as useful as your ability to interpret it. And that’s a technical skill that takes a long time to acquire. Too often I’ve seen parties be unsure about a slope, dig a pit, do a half-assed ECT, and then use whatever result it leads to as justification to ski the slope.
How many times has someone claimed they “skied a slope because they dug a pit and it seemed solid” in ski town bars? Many, many times. Digging pits can easily help us create a false expert halo around ourselves or our parties.
In contrast, doing realistic companion rescue training does the opposite. It makes us feel small and stressed and shitty. It brings the potential consequences of poor decisions into high definition, and highlights our weaknesses. Digging a pit in the backcountry makes me feel more confident in skiing in avalanche terrain. Spending an hour practicing strategic shoveling in a plow pile does the opposite.
Snow Science isn’t as time sensitive
So why should we be dedicating more time to practicing realistic companion rescue, over digging even more pits? One obvious reason is that it’s easy and harmless to “cheat” at snowpack analysis, but it’s impossible to cheat at rescuing your partner. It doesn’t cost anyone anything if you need to google how to do an ECT before you separate your column in the pit. It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember which symbol stands for facets in your diagram. You’ve got time to look all that stuff up, to check your work and make sure it’s right.
But when it comes to a rescue, you don’t want to be looking up your beacon’s user manual, or trying to remember at what point you start the fine search. The process of locating and extracting a partner needs to be second nature; you need to be able to do it on autopilot.
I’d much rather go out with a partner who can’t draw a perfect diagram of the snowpack, but does know exactly what they’d do if I was buried than someone who has posted a lot of pits on Instagram, but has never used their rescue gear in earnest.
The stakes are higher
Personally, I’ve found that when I’m digging a pit, it’s easy to put avalanches into an abstract context. Most recreational backcountry skiers have a hard time making the leap from “this small column of snow moved when I slapped my shovel” to “I’m buried and my chest is compressed and I can’t clear my airway and I have no idea if the rest of my group was also caught.” The stakes just don’t feel that high when you’re in a pit. It’s easier to get excited about the science of it all and marvel at bouncing facets than it is to rationalize this snowpack’s relationship with your own mortality.
In contrast, realistic companion rescue sucks because it’s emotionally intense. If your instructor does a good job of getting you into the mindset that this is a real person who has a limited window to be rescued in, and you’re their only hope, the stakes feel very high. Standing in a pit makes me feel wise and strong. Sprinting around a pile of debris imagining my partner suffocating makes me feel so weak, so unprepared, so useless. Digging pits makes me want to get rowdy. Doing companion rescue makes me want to move somewhere with palm trees.
Digging a pit and doing some half-assed assessments of it, without adding all your data to your local avalanche database might not do any real harm, but is it really helping anyone?
I came to a hard realization a few years ago that at my level of snow science knowledge and understanding, I can never use information from a pit to justify skiing a line. Instead, I can only use that data to rule out an aspect or elevation. For me, at my current level of knowledge, a pit can only say “no”, never “yes”. And I think for a lot of us in the “some education but not a full time pro” realm of things, that’s probably a decent rule of thumb. If the line is questionable enough that you’re digging a pit to double check, should you really be on that line?
And if you’re really digging a pit because you’re passionate about learning about the snowpack, and helping others, consider doing an in-depth analysis and diagram that can be submitted to your local avy site. That way your data can help others make decisions, not just convince your Instagram followers that you’re super savvy.
We’re all aware that backcountry skiing is dangerous, but the longer we go without actually experiencing that danger first hand, the more abstract it becomes. And for many skiers, it’s easy to soothe any worries we might have by diving into snowpack analysis. That’s great, learn more about snow and what makes it move. But as we do so, we should also do the harder work of perfecting and expanding on our companion rescue skills. If the worst does happen, nobody will care what your ECT was. What will matter is how quickly and efficiently you can get your partner out of the snow.
A big thanks to Lynne, Jason, Don, Casey, Will, Rich, Maura, and everyone else who’s helped me get better at waving my beacon around and digging holes in the snow.