Sidecountry vs. backcountry. In both areas accidents can happen. Skiing and snowboarding, even at a ski resort, is never without risk. Understanding avalanche safety, having the proper gear, and knowing how to use it matter. If recent avalanches have taught us anything it’s that not all areas are safe. There are no universal truths to avalanches. Even areas that traditionally are safe can quickly become deadly in the right conditions.

There are several common misconceptions about avalanches and what areas are typically safe from them. The belief that the sidecountry is safer than the backcountry is certainly one of them. These out-of-bounds areas are often easily accessible from a resort. A person can use a lift to go up the mountain, leave the boundary of the resort, and skiing down adjacent to it. Ski patrol will go into these areas, but they don’t have the same jurisdiction as they do within the resort.

Sidecountry vs. backcountry “As soon as you leave a resort gate, you are leaving the controlled environment of the ski resort,” Chad Brackelsberg of the Forest Service said. “Therefore, you are responsible for your own safety, meaning you have to be able to assess the avalanche risk, and you have to be prepared to be your own rescue party. Ski Patrol does not have jurisdiction to do a rescue there. Generally, suppose you are in an accident, avalanche accident, or just an injury in the side country. In that case, ski patrol must first get permission from the sheriff’s department to function as search and rescue. Just because you can access that terrain from a ski lift or you can see it from a ski lift does not mean that it is the same as in the resort. It is the same as hiking to a slope in the backcountry.”

Problems can arise when skiers go into the sidecountry or backcountry without avalanche safety knowledge, rescue gear, or training, and are completely unprepared in the case of an emergency. It would be easy to put a pack together with a beacon, shovel, and probe, and think you have all the essential avalanche gear, but preparedness goes well beyond that.

Do you have a first aid kit means to provide first aid and to provide a rescue? Do you have a way to evacuate a person? Do you have extra water, food, and gear? You have to have enough gear to keep you warm and comfortable and not get hypothermia for an extended period of time. Then consider the emergency gear you might need. Such as a bivy sack, a way to start a fire, a hot drink, additional clothing layers, and other things.”

Checking avalanche reports for current conditions before you head out is also important. This year’s conditions in Utaj have been unique. Avalanches are occurring in forested areas, lower elevations, and all compass aspects of a slope.

Some believe that the presence of trees can deter an avalanche but this isn’t always the case.

Trees can sometimes act as anchors but any slope that has trees that are wide enough facing to ski has enough spacing for an avalanche. So the presence of trees does not necessarily indicate a safe slope.

Squaretop sidecountry vs backcountry in Utah
Sidecountry vs. backcountry – Squaretop sidecountry in Utah

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