AMGA-Certified Guide Sarah Carpenter Talks Backcountry Communication Best Practices

March 12, 2021

We caught up with Sarah Carpenter to learn more about her communication methods and what tools she uses to make sure everyone’s opinion on skintrack-based safety is heard.

AMGA-certified guide and co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute (AAI), Sarah Carpenter, spends most of her time communicating with people about avalanches. From teaching avalanche education in the classroom and in the field for Jackson, Wyo.-based AAI, to personal tours with friends, she’s always thinking about how and when to discuss daily and seasonal avalanche problems. And over decades of experience, she’s come up with some best practices—and a backcountry checklist— for how to go about talking avy safety.  We caught up with Sarah Carpenter to learn more about her communication methods and what tools she uses to make sure everyone’s opinion on skintrack-based safety is heard.

Backcountry Access: Why is communication so important in the backcountry?

Sarah Carpenter: My thought is that communication can basically make or break a tour. My closest call when I got caught in a pretty decent avalanche was in large part because I failed to communicate with my partner—we failed to communicate effectively with each other. So, I think communication to me is an outlet for that solid trust that you should have with your backcountry partners. And it starts with coming up with a plan in the morning before you even walk out of the house. From checking the avy forecast—looking to see if there have been any avalanches, what the hazard is, what the problems are—to then establishing terrain that you’re probably going to go check out and terrain that’s totally off-limits for the day, that’s how good communication starts. And then out in the field, if you have good communication with your partners, it’s a conversation the whole time: “Are we missing anything? Here’s what I’m seeing. Hey, I’m comfortable with this. Hey, I’m not comfortable with this.” And then, obviously, before you jump into an objective, having an idea of how you’re going to manage it, where your safe zones are, where you’re going to communicate back with your partners about whether you’re safe or not. And just double-checking to make sure everyone is comfortable.

BCA: What are some of the tools that you use to broach tough subjects and facilitate open communication?

SC: What we at AAI developed is a backcountry checklist. It’s basically a system for coming up with a plan for the day, then five or six questions that we ask during the day, and five or six questions that we ask at the end of the day that are for debriefing and learning. And so what I try and do with all of my tours is frame everything around the checklist that I bring to my partners. “Hey, here’s how I like to communicate about the day and can we frame our tour around this?” Whether it’s the AAI checklist or some other checklist system that you develop isn’t as important, but I think having something written that you can then hand off to your partner and go, “hey these are the six questions that I want to ask throughout the day,” is crucial. Then, at the end of the day ask, “did we make good decisions, or did we just get away with it?” At a minimum, just asking that is really important.

The goal of this checklist is that it’s a system for planning your day and then on a tour, there are six questions that are cyclical. “Is the avalanche problem we were worried about present on this slope? What’s the likelihood of triggering it? What would be the consequence? Is this in line with our pre-trip plan? Are we operating within that framework or are we veering off? Are we going to go or are we not going to go?”

So ideally, it’s not like you have this conversation once. You have this conversation throughout the day, over and over. And whether you change plans or are sticking to your original plan, you can still ask these questions.

BCA: What role do communication devices play in a tour?

SC: In terms of communication devices like radios, for example, I think that they’re really useful in terms of being able to have the first person who skis or rides down then communicate real-time information: is the snow as good as we thought it was? Also, hey, let’s adjust how we’re going to manage this or, let’s go with our normal plans. With things like radios, you have access to good, real-time communication.

That being said, the way that I like to use radios is with succinct communication. I think having a tool at your disposal is really useful, but it’s much more useful if you communicate succinctly rather than talking in eight paragraph blurbs. I think the radio is a great tool for giving real-time information as long as that real-time information is given in two sentences or less. For example, when I work as a guide out of bounds at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, we’re all working as a team but we’re working in separate little pods. And let’s say I stop and I dig a pit. What I really want to communicate with digging a pit—we use the acronym LEAST—is location, elevation, aspect, slope angle and trouble or your test scores. If I get on the radio and say, “Hey guide world, this is Sarah. I’m in Rock Springs at 9,500 ft. East Facing aspect, 30-degree slope angle, my height of snow is 100 cm, my layer of concern is surface hoar 30 cm down where I got full propagation, low strength, poor structure.” Then all of a sudden everyone is like, “Oh, I’ve got to pay attention to that surface hoar layer.” That is a good way to use radios vs. when you turn a radio on and you hear mom and dad and son talking about where they’re going to meet for lunch and this that and the other thing. It’s no longer an effective tool for communicating focused results.

BCA: How does that translate to a recreational style of communication?

SC: I think if you use it in that sense, the first person goes, they pull off and can call back up, “All clear, conditions were as expected,” or “all clear, it’s more windslabby, stay to the right of my tracks,” something like that. But really just short, essential information.

BCA: What does your communication look like after you’re done for the day?

SC: After we’re done for the day, I want to ask at least two or three questions and the first one is always, “Did we make good decisions or did we get away with it?” I think that the world of snow and avalanches is a wicked learning environment where you don’t always get good feedback. You don’t necessarily get good feedback if you’ve made a really poor decision or if you just skated by. So, if you can actually sit down with your partners and ask that question, you can glean some good lessons. Like, “Man I had a really bad feeling about that but I went with it.” That can help adjust your behavior and it can help build your partnership. Other questions that I ask are: Did we manage terrain well and are there areas of improvement? Is there anything that surprised us today? Anything we need to think about for future tours? Anything we should send to the forecast center?

BCA: What are long term communication goals you have?

SC: When I think about communication it comes down to partner selection. It’s so essential. I need to have partners who I’m comfortable communicating with and who I know if I voice, “Hey, I’ve got a really bad feeling,” that they’ll stop and listen to it. If it makes sense they’ll turn around and we’ll come back another day, vs. a partner who’s like, “Whatever.” And I never feel like I have a voice. For me that’s first and foremost—partner selection. I want to be able to have a voice, I want to trust the person, I want to know if they have a bad feeling I’ll turn around and if I have a bad feeling, they’ll turn around.

BCA: What’s one key take home for people when they think about communication in the backcountry?

SC: I think communication is a foundational piece and it’s hard for all of us because it’s not a technical skill. Sometimes it’s awkward and sometimes it’s uncomfortable. But I think it’s one of those lifesaving pieces that needs to be more at the forefront of our minds.