Cold Comfort 

Tips for surviving and thriving in the tundra

"Avalanche safety" and "winter survival" are the most loathed words of the backcountry dialect by wannabe telemark-skiers like me and my ilk, but not because we fear for our lives. Like the song says, it's all about the Benjamins. A low-rent skier or split-boarder can avoid almost all big purchases, usually by scouring the Bogus Basin Ski-Racing Alliance Ski Swap (Nov. 5-7 at the Fairgrounds) for used planks, old leather boots and dinged-up racing poles. It is even possible to ski in a rain poncho if necessary, but everyone has to bite the bullet on safety. The essentials are unconscionably expensive, there are no generic brands and they are never on sale. In the ultimate test of commitment for a backcountry greenhorn (as well as smart snowmobilers and snowshoers), every scroungy one of us must put tail between legs and crawl to the feet of a smarmy, commissioned salesperson with quivering debit card in hand, whimpering, "one b-b-beacon, please (sniff)."

An avalanche beacon or "transceiver" or "transmitter" is arguably the only essential backcountry safety tool, aside from a shovel and plenty of knowledge and humility. A beacon rides inside a jacket or around one's chest and is a little radar-detector-ish unit that either transmits a signal to other beacons if buried, or receives signals from others in order to locate them. Ortovox, Tracker, Barryvox, the relatively new Pieps and F1ND are the major brands, and they range in price from $250 to 400 retail. While all brands are usually compatible, the first four have incorporated more digital technology than F1ND and claim to be user-friendly right out of the box. Expect to pay for the ease, as well as for any newfangled features like "displays the number of buried victims" and "is able to locate buried belongings and pets."

Ebay is a good place to wrangle a deal, as the Web site usually features a dozen or so beacons ranging in price from a C-note up on up. Just remember that buying used safety gear on the Internet places your life firmly in the hands of Lady Fortuna and some schmuck trying to sell you his old toys. If you absolutely can't afford a full-priced beacon, some specialized Internet sites also feature transmitter-only belts for about $100, but your friends may have a slight problem with your subsequent total inability to save them.

Last year's backcountry conditions were drought-marred and inconsistent at best. With infrequent snowfall, it was difficult to find untracked areas less than a day's trek away, and this winter promises to be little better. Unseasonably light weather does not preclude high altitude avalanches, however. On the contrary, a layer of new snow atop a thin base of melted, slick snow may provide ideal conditions for soft-slab avalanches, where a large patch of snow breaks loose from its under-layer and hurtles downhill. These are by far the most dangerous kind of avalanche a backcountry adventurer will encounter, but unfortunately they are also the most difficult to predict. Thus, all the precautions of a heavy snow season should be taken, including: be wary of storms dumping at least an inch of snow per hour or with winds of 15 to 45 mph, because those are the optimum levels for drifting, cornice formation and avalanches. Also tread delicately around canyons, obvious slide paths and slopes of 30 to 45 degrees--the most slab-friendly slopes. If it is necessary to cross these areas, do so one group member at a time, with generous space between. Learn how to dig snow pits to test the stability of snow layers, and especially how to use all your safety equipment. Remember, beacons need to be used without mistake on a moment's notice, so practicing using them away from the slopes is essential. Play hide-and-go-seek with your friends and beacons at the mall or supermarket, bury the little buggers in the snow or the laundry--just be sure to be freshly prepared every season.

Backcountry adventuring isn't all big bills and risks, though. On the contrary, snow can be an essential ally in affordably enduring (and yes, even enjoying) a few days in the bush. To talk with salespeople or look at magazines, one would believe that a $700 North Face tent is also a winter essential--lies! A great fact about snow is that no company has yet been able to surpass its ability to deflect wind, preserve heat and support palatial winter shelters. All it takes is a little instruction and a practice session or two, and snow-construction can be the skinflint's ultimate coup.

There are as many variations of snow shelters as there are funky smells in an old down sleeping bag, but the classic snow cave (a dome carved into the inside of a deep snowdrift) still has few peers. With the right drift and some stalwart workers, it can be as immense and luxurious as a skiers' stoned imagination, all the while staying more energy-efficient than the average Boise home. The keys to comfort are to use a shape that won't collapse on you over time--a dome or arch rather than a flat ceiling--and to always carve the entrance of a cave below floor level so that heat cannot escape. I have slept in a few shoddy, upward-sloping snow-sphincters myself, and the memories still twinge like a snowball in the face.

After locating an appropriately deep drift (avoiding gullies and definitely not using cornices at the tops of ridges), poke it with your ski poles or an avalanche probe to locate any unseen obstacles like boulders, shrubs or skiers who didn't use an avalanche beacon. If the snow is wet and sticky no additional compression will be necessary, but if it is soft you will need to compact it with your skis and shovel. The harder the snow-pack the better--and the less you will have to fret over those stray flakes falling on your face overnight (but still sleep with your shovel nearby, m'kay?).

The ceiling in a snow cave should generally be at least two feet thick on top, in order to maintain architectural stability--but don't forget to poke a few air holes. Chimneys can also be carved above a camp stove if campers don't want to venture outside to cook, but don't waste time on these luxuries during introductory cave-carving sessions. Instead, focus on efficiency, simplicity and gradually reducing the fear of sleeping inside an icy crypt. I even suggest a few rounds of snow cave car-camping before venturing into the backcountry. The forests around winter havens like Brundage Mountain, Pomerelle Mountain and Idaho City are rife with promising drifts, and the reassuring fallback of your car's backseat is never far away.

Most importantly, though, don't rely on any single article as a complete resource. The bourgeoning backcountry community has generated a flurry of excellent online databases, avalanche forecasting websites covering most of Idaho and books galore about survival--the most concise and accessible of which (especially when learning to build a snow shelter) is a $12 holy grail by the name of Allen & Mike's Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book: Traveling and Camping Skills for a Winter Environment. The price of safety gadgets may continue to soar, but there is a wealth of cheap and free information available to help save your cold little heinie.

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