Ruby Mountain Heli photo

What do I need to do before I go into the mountains?

Plans are nothing; Planning is everything.

-Dwight D. Eisenhower

A lot needs to happen before we arrive at the trailhead and set out into a winter mountain environment. Responsible backcountry travel begins with developing options for where to go that are appropriate for each day’s unique set of conditions and hazards. Change is the only constant in the backcountry; be it partners, objectives, weather, or avalanche conditions. As these variables continually evolve, gaps in knowledge emerge and uncertainty persists. Planning is your tool to reduce uncertainty and manage risks before they are encountered. This process happens each day prior to heading into the backcountry and every team member is involved.

Planning is the inaugural step that sets The AIARE Risk Management Framework into motion each day. It is also the initiation of a feedback-rich learning environment that provides and builds upon past experiences. By predicting the hazards for the day, we can be proactive in managing them. Outside, you can make observations that either confirm your predictions or provide new information, unforeseeable earlier in the day. The contrasts between what you anticipated and what you observed provides the basis for a learning model and advances your experience with those conditions.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance

There are four components of trip planning: Assemble your Group, Anticipate the Hazard, Plan your Route, and Discuss your Emergency Plan. These elements are intentionally sequenced to help us answer the million dollar question – “Where should we go today?” Before you answer, consider the following: who’s coming, what are your goals, what’s the weather forecast, what avalanche problem(s) exist, and how you will respond during an emergency . These are examples of prompts that each component of “PLAN” challenges us to clarify. It is essential that you evaluate the who (travel companions) and the what (hazards) before determining the where (terrain). As you gain more experience, the order of these steps may change. What's pivotal is that you develop a planning routine that works for you, your plan is appropriate for the conditions, and the team has the ability and skill to execute.

Think of your plan as a living document, ready to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of mountain environments and team dynamics. Your plan needs to cover a large spectrum of outcomes that could include a styled summit descent followed by high-fives or an injured teammate miles away from the trailhead. Uncertainty is inherent, having multiple route and descent options will make your team more resilient to the unknown unknowns. Remember, the best made plans are destined to be changed.