It’s not just about what you have, it’s also about how you use it. So, this article is dedicated to how to use your guidebook, what the functions are, and how to apply them to your tour. After all, understanding how to use your Off-Piste Ski Atlas is what makes it such a valuable resource.
Before we get into the guidebook, we want to address some other key components to smart decision making. We encourage everyone to get formal training. A great way to do this is to take an AIARE Level 1, minimum, course to learn about terrain management, decision making and snowpack analysis. You should also be looking at your local avalanche forecast throughout the season. You can find your local avalanche center here. Read the full report for your area before you go out on your tour to stay up to date and know what’s happening in the snowpack. In addition, you should be going out with a trustworthy partner, a beacon, shovel and probe, and a tour plan.
Speaking of tour planning, this guidebook is designed to help you establish an objective and educate you on the potential hazards of the zone. Your atlas is an important resource for finding a zone that is appropriate for the avalanche danger and ability of the group. Once you have located a zone, or a few zones appropriate for the group ability, refer to the book’s avalanche tools to see if it is appropriate for the current avalanche danger. The avalanche tools are: the compass rose, elevation beta, ATES rating, and avalanche notes.
The compass rose and summit elevation is listed in the lower page of each zone in your atlas. Each avalanche problem listed in your local avalanche forecast will have a compass rose showing what aspect that problem exists at and at what elevation (if this doesn’t make sense to you, find someone to teach you stat). Use this information in conjunction with the information listed on the descriptions page to help you assess the risk.
The ATES, or Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale, is a static rating system designed by Parks Canada. This system can be applied to any terrain and is ranked on a scale of 1-3 (1-5 in some books) with 1 being low consequence terrain, and 3 (or 5) being high consequence terrain. The rating is decided based on the avalanche history of the zone, terrain traps, avalanche paths and options to reduce exposure. During your tour planning, the ATES rating should be used in conjunction with the local avalanche forecast to decide if the zone is a safe option for that day. Learn more about ATES here.
Each page features avalanche notes. The blue icon with mountains lists the potential hazards you will encounter for that zone. Anything from terrain traps, slide paths and rollovers to avalanche history and deaths in that zone will be covered.
Next to the avalanche notes is driving/parking directions located under the car icon and in some books the road headed into the mountains icon. This should be fairly straightforward. Do your best to park in a way that allows other cars to park there and keep plows and private property in mind. Remember that most parking spots used by us backcountry skiers are there as a privilege and that our ability to use them in future years depends on us being respectful users.
Following the avalanche notes is the skin track/access info. This is indicated by the icon with the S. This is essential for finding the correct zone. Read this section carefully as it tells you where to begin, where to go when the skintrack forks and how to navigate tricky terrain.
The last piece is exit beta. Even though you have completed the bulk of the downhill portion, it is not over yet. Follow the exit directions to find your way back to your car. If the exit is sounding complicated, this is a great time to break out a map and compass (you did bring a map and compass…right?)
Some books feature snowmobile access. Pay close attention to these notes if that is your approach method. Many zones do not allow snowmobiles. More icons specific to certain books include a clock icon indicating when resorts are open, a cup of coffee sharing information about the best apres cafe, and a pass on a lanyard icon sharing if an uphill pass in necessary to skin up the resort. The yellow plow icon indicates road maintenance notes, this includes winter road closures and CDOT mitigation. The blue TH icon is for notes specific to the trailhead where your tour starts.
Please read ALL the information on the page of your tour before you head out. These books are designed for all information to be used together. Get some training, get a partner and get out there (safely).