08 February, 2014

Navigation And The Framework For Route Planning

It's been a busy winter, even with the below average snow year, but what has really stood out in day to day skiing has been trip planning and navigation.  The success of a day can be blind luck, but I prefer to prepare, and ensure my success (and safety) when it comes to completing a loop or objective.  There are three things that are of vital importance.  1.  Topographic maps 2.  Route and mountain photos,  3.  White-out and GPS navigation plans.  All of which can be combined, along with daily avalanche risk mitigation, to make your way through the mountains efficiently and safely.
(Photo Above:  Ben Groundwater on the Spearhead.  Seeing is a luxury we don't always have.)
Using topographic maps, seems pretty basic, but recently I've read a bunch of stories on the internet where people have epics just because they didn't bring a map and compass.  Topo maps will give you an overview of the terrain from slope angle, avalanche path exposure, glacier crossing, and where large terrain traps my lie.  They also can illustrate the best ski line, white-out management handrails, broken portions of glacier (crevasses), and benches to utilize on the up track, all with just a bit of practice.  Not to mention topos can be used with a compass and altimeter to do a resection to find your location in case you don't have a GPS.

Topo maps are pretty easy to get a hold of as well.  They come as PDF's from the government, you just save them, then print them AND laminate them at any print shop.  Many stores have popular areas, where you can buy waterproof versions, and custom maps such as John Baldwin's series.

Free, printable PDF, 1:20,000 maps of all of BC.  Did I mention they are free?  Tends to be the fastest way to get a map, plus you have to option of customizing on the computer, or printing it to lay down some notes and route before laminating it.

An online and custom mapping software, which allows you to build your own map with a variety of different scales, colours, even orthophoto layers if available for the area your working on.

This website rocks.  It is another free topographic map provider, but it allows you to download custom sections of map, and also overlay it in Google Earth over the terrain so you can even see what the topographic terrain looks like in 3D.  But that's not all, it has maps for all of Canada and The USA.  Just click on the USGS 7.5' Topos section in the top right for 1:20,000 that include Canadian versions, that you would find on GEOBC.  And, if that's not enough, you can load these maps directly from the website onto your Garmin GPS.  The US section is ahead of the Canadian section, as it also has option for angle shading, and a bunch of really cool features.  Oh, and there's more, but one of the really cool KML/KMZ downloads is an giant 1:20,000 topo map overlay of all of Canada!

Hill Map is much like CalTopo, but has some different features such as overlays, GPS route planning,  and one feature I love... Points.  Click any point on the map, it will give you Lat / Long, AND a slope angle.  Perfect for planning white-out section where you may be concerned about avalanche hazard, thus knowing your okay, rather than just hoping.

Google Earth
Okay, if you are a skier or climber, and you don't have Google Earth it's time to get off your horse and carriage and drive a car finally.  This program and plugin is usually required for many of these websites, but is really useful when planning any trip.

Magnetic Declination Calculation 
This site will not give you any maps, but should never be skipped, as it simply gives you the magnetic declination required for your area to navigate properly.  Write it down on your map, so you aren't forced to calculate it in the field when stress levels can be high.

Doug Sproul's amazing backcountry guide to Rogers Pass, utilizing Google Earth, Topo Maps, and route description all in one amazing package for your phone.  This is the future of guidebooks.

Route photo's come in next and are incredibly useful, especially when arriving on top of a mountain where you can't exactly see all the hazards and route from the top.  Do you go left or right?  Is there a traverse?  Cliffs?  Crevasses?  Most importantly, good skiing?  By looking at the route photo's, everything becomes easier as you can landmark on your way down to hit the line you have planned.  It also will help your mind to interpret the map data into a clear mental picture and get you dialled with your map reading.  Do a google search, and also try Bivouac.com, and John Scurlock's amazing aerial photo database.
(Photo Above:  The high end of shattered terrain, but important to see why a photo would be absolutely essential to make your way down this piece of terrain.  Most importantly, it also gives skiers an option of what looks the least hazardous for the conditions at hand.  Tisiphone Area, Lilloet Icefield.)
Another important photo tool, would be summer photos of glaciers, in order to get an idea of how shattered and broken the glacier can be.  It will also give you hints as to where you might find thin bridges, and shallow snowpack over it's coverage.  The photo above is taken in a moderate snowpack year, and can be useful in deeper snowpack years, to see what has changed and where some average years dangers might lurk.  Just note, the area above requires only the high end of experience levels to ski it and proper conditions to match, and rarely gets skied due to the gapping building size holes.  Just take note, glaciers change, so try to find out when the photo and plan accordingly.
(Photo Above:  1:50,000 identifier map, to help with an overview in the field.  Navigation is done best using the 1:20,000 map, with even more detail added to route and descriptions.  Use different colours when writing on the map, to identify certain features faster.  And if you want to get fancy, laminate the map after, so you can write on it every day with marker and erase the marker at the end of the day.)
Now coming back to your topo map that you've printed and referenced so many times, it's time to draw on it.  Take your notes, concerns, and plans and make sure they are on the map so there is as little to think about in the field in order to concentrate on what's in front of you.  This will be useful when navigating in a white-out as well.
(Photo Above:  A long while ago, navigating the Dais & Franklin Glaciers, in weeks of white.)
If the clouds and storm do come in, a white-out plan pre-preparred is your saving grace, and the difference between an experienced backcountry skier and a newbie.  All of your trip planning, the topo maps, photo's, all combine to give you the basic frame work required to put together the white-out plan.  By now, you've identified benches, terrain features, hazardous areas, and safe spots.  All you need to do is choose your route that travels through those and around specific features.

When writing the whiteout plan, you'll need waypoints to input into your field book and GPS, route description to read in the field, compass bearing and back bearing, as well as elevation.  Using UTM is much better than Lat/Long as it's much faster and easier to find your location on a paper map.  These combined provide you with a step by step walk through of the mountains, and allow you to move your way through the white room without being stopped in your tracks completely, or potentially walking yourself into an accident.
(Photo Above:  Basic white-out plan, which can be even more detailed if you are expecting poor weather.  The more detailed the less guess work. - Note UTM above is short hand, and not missing northing.)
The white-out plan not only will help you make your way through terrain without seeing it, but will also be helpful in telling how long it will take.  For trip planning purposes, plan on different conditions and different types of terrain taking different times.  Below I've listed baseline travel times, which can differ for individuals, gear, and amount of packed weight so adjust accordingly.

5km/h on good trails
3 km/h on open terrain
1 km/h rough travel
less than 1 km/h in a true whiteout

Preparation for a day trip, or multi-day trip, truly makes for amazing days in the backcountry with really cool loops.  By doing this, you are not only prepared for any navigation challenge, but better prepared to deal with every other hazard from glaciation to avalanches as you are forced to consider everything before leaving.  Go to new places, practice, and always leave yourself options to work with.  Better days skiing, are just more amazing days to think about when your stuck working or on a forced weather day.


  1. Another great article, Alex. Well done!

  2. Thanks for this, Alex. Very informative.

    Would you mind clarifying one thing? Your references to UTMs on your whiteout plan are single value. UTMs are typically an easting and a northing (2 values, like lat/long). Have you simply omitted the first 3 numbers of the easting and 4 of the northing (since they'd be constant in a relatively small area) and then combined the remaining numbers or is there more to this?
    Thanks in advance.

  3. You are correct, they are NOT single value, and in fact are easting and northing. The photo above, is really just a short hand I use, so that I am not writing out too many numbers that are hard to add to a map quickly. So I use 3 numbers for both the easting and northing, combined into 6. Guess I should make a note, so other's aren't confused!

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