Decision Making in the Backcountry

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The Backcountry is inherently dangerous no matter what setting you might find yourself in. The big outdoors tend to draw us in with its vast energy and power. 

On a recent trip into the Beartooth Mountains, a group of friends and I found ourselves in a situation many backcountry skiers are accustomed to: deciding whether or not the snow is safe to ski. Avalanches are a serious threat to any mountain goer, and when it comes to skiing, the decision to turn back isn’t always easy. Putting in hours, sometimes days, of preparation to reach a location only to turn around isn’t always the easiest decision to make. However, this day was sure to remind me: if there are doubts… DON’T RISK IT! 

As we determined a specific couloir was unsafe, we turned around to ski a different couloir near our car. We began the next accent with our fingers crossed. However, once again the snow was less than ideal. As we began the hike down, we looked over to our right to the couloir we had initially planned on skiing. Directly where we would have been, was clear evidence of a snow slide that had taken place sometime since we had turned around. Seeing this, and the potential for what could have happened was a major eye opener. It made the decision to turn back down that much easier. Although our skis did not taste snow that day, we gained a valuable first-hand experience on the potential dangers of avalanches. 

Here are 4 tips to making effective decisions the next time you find yourself in a sticky backcountry situation:

  1. Weigh the Pros and Cons: Assess all of the possible positive and negative outcomes in the situation at hand. If any of the negative outcomes are something you do not want to live with, DON’T DO IT.

  2. Communicate: When traveling with a group, there are usually many opinions. Make sure you and everyone else in the group is able to share their views. You may discover a viewpoint you would have never thought about, and maybe even learn something new! 

  3. Know before you go: Simply being prepared with the right gear and knowledge can be incredibly beneficial when trying to avoid a sketchy situation. Although the backcountry is very unpredictable, knowing the environment, weather, snow conditions, etc. are all valuable pieces of knowledge to have in the back of your mind.

  4. Know that there will always be “another time”: If turning around is part of your decision making process, keep in mind that you are turning around for a reason. Know that your skis will taste snow again, remember that you will always have another opportunity to be in the big outdoors. 


Charlie Dickson is a product of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and he currently lives in Bozeman Montana. He spends his time going to school and experiencing everything the western mountains have to offer. Backcountry skiing and climbing are just a few of the outdoor sports he can’t get enough of. He loves any kind of sandwich accompanied by a fresh brew of Yerba Mate. 

Instagram: @char_ski