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Scouting Backcountry Lines Before Snowfall

So it’s fall, and the mountains are dry as a bone. Or maybe the first coat of snow has just fallen and you’re so ready to get at it that you find yourself walking around the house in your ski boots. You know, just “to loosen up the linings.” Either way, there’s only one thing to do: head into the hills and start scouting lines.

But what can you learn from a bare chute or a barely dusted ridgeline? Plenty, starting with how to get there. Route finding is a rarely discussed aspect of backcountry travel, mostly because it’s often seen as intuitive. You follow a few basic rules, stay out of terrain traps, follow ridgelines, etc., and you’re good to go. Of course, that assumes that you know how to get to the line in the first place. And come winter, with all the variable weather and less than optimal visibility, simply getting to the right zone can be more of an issue than you or your riding partners will ever let on. Studying topo maps and trip reports will give you a good bit of information, but there’s no substitute for some eyeballs on the scene. So cinch up your boots (your hiking boots) and get going. Hey, your legs could probably use the workout.

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Now, you’ll want to take a few things with you besides the normal day-hike accoutrements. Namely a topo map of the area in question (winter-specific, if possible), an inclinometer for measuring slope angle, a camera for taking reference pictures, and a notebook for taking notes.

If you’ve never been to the area before, make note of the trailhead, as any signage has the distinct possibility of being buried by the time you return. Once you start hiking, pay attention to where the trail is cut. Once everything is covered in pretty white stuff, you’ll be able to take short cuts off trail, so keep your eyes peeled for more efficient ascent routes along the way. Even better, remember to do this again on the way down, after you’ve gotten a feel for the area.

Naturally, you don’t have to climb to the top of every line you want to ski, but if you can, do it. A couple feet of snow can make any place look unfamiliar, so the more angles you can scope a line from the better. Make note of any landmarks or identifying features near the top of the line; distinctive trees and rocks are best—anything that won’t be buried by January. If you can’t make it to the top, or don’t want to, at least hike to the bottom of the line so you can get a good reading from your inclinometer. The slope angle of a line never changes and is invaluable information when it comes to predicting avalanche activity.

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The other thing that never changes and that is invaluable information is the aspect—whether a line is northeast-facing or northwest-facing can make a huge difference when it comes to timing your descent. Remember to snap a few photos, again from different angles and distances, so you can get an accurate idea of the size and shape of the line. Take notes and don’t be afraid to draw routes and landmarks on your map. I guarantee you’ll never complain about having too much information.

By the time you’re back at the trailhead, you should have a comprehensive picture of your target line, how to find it, how to safely approach it, and how to ski it once you’re perched on top of it. Just remember, all this information is secondary to some good knowledge about the snowpack. Keep up on all the latest news from your local avy forecasters, and make your own trips back to the scene of the line to keep tabs on how the snowpack is developing.

Like most trips into the backcountry, scouting lines is an exercise in patience. And you know what? That’s good. We could all use some practice at being patient. Hopefully a trip to that line will keep the ants out of your pants when you’re finally out there after an epic storm cycle.

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