Preparation is key to any good mountain trip. If you prepare well and anticipate what you might encounter with regard to terrain and conditions, chances are you'll have a great trip and come home safe with a silly grin on your face. Preparation helps you think about and ready yourself for the unexpected, and ties together important aspects of backcountry travel like weather and snowpack analysis, terrain assessment, human factors, and search and rescue.
Training and Skills
It is common for us to have practiced our travel skills (skiing, boarding, climbing) far more than our avalanche & rescue skills. So even before you start calling your mates and getting them all juiced up for an adventure it pays to know your collective level of training in these areas. Do you/they have avalanche training? How about first aid training? Have you been practicing your beacon searches?
The next stage of trip planning starts at home. This is a perfect setting to gather info together by pouring over maps, guidebooks, and using the internet and phone to hatch a few plans. The more time you spend at the table, the more likely your trip will go smoothly. Choosing the area with the best snow/ice and weather conditions is often better than committing yourself to a destination and then seeing if the conditions there are any good. Start by looking up weather and snowpack information, even before figuring out where to go.
Dredge the internet for weather and snowpack/avalanche conditions. Do this and make notes about how things are right now, and through the duration of your trip. Record in a field notebook how critical weather factors might change affecting avalanche conditions - precipitation, temperature, and wind. How will the visibility be? Poor visibility reduces your ability to make good field observation and demands conservative decision making and travel habits.
NZ weather conditions and forecasts can be found at the following sites. The info you get will vary from site to site, and it's a good idea to compare them:
Metservice - check out the Mountain forecasts, the 3 day rain forecast map, together with the satellite imagery (nowcast - or what has actually happened to this point)
METVUW - Forecast maps showing precip intensity. Note these maps have an extra isobar so it always look a little windier than standard 'synoptic charts
Avalanche and Snowpack conditions can be found from many sources.
NZ Avalanche Advisory gives regional forecasts for most areas throughout the winter months.
Other sources for avalanche and weather conditions include informed locals, ski patrollers, hut custodians, and web discussion groups. If your region doesn't have a public avalanche bulletin, you'll need to rely on your skills and information from others even more. Most avalanche forecast centres archive their bulletins so that you can track the weather and snowpack; this is especially good for figuring out which buried weak layers are lurking in the snowpack.
Locations and Routes
Scope out possible routes by looking at maps, guidebooks and check out the 'Community' section of this website for tour ideas. Google earth is also a good way to get a feel for terrain. Use the zoom and tilt function to work out aspects and a basic idea of slope angles (Click here for video to show how to use Google Earth).
When planning a route it's best to select an area with some non-avalanche terrain, especially if the avalanche danger is rated considerable or higher. Identify potentially hazardous or crux areas, safety zones, and one or two alternate routes or areas in case the weather or snowpack has changed when you wake up in the morning. If you pick an area where most routes are exposed to avalanche hazards, you've reduced your options and increased your risk.
So who is going on this trip with you and what are their capabilities? Things to consider include group size, individual experience, fitness levels, and purpose of the trip. Limiting the group size to three or four people will make communication and decision making easier, and help avoid the dreaded "herding instinct" (people tend to be bolder in larger groups). Even if there are people with different fitness levels, plan to keep the group together since splitting up sometimes leads to accidents. Everyone on the trip should have similar expectations so, if the objective is getting to a certain peak, make sure everyone is happy with this. If it's a cruisey day out on low angled terrain, Mr Huck A Cliff better be happy with this. If not, perhaps Huck should go with another group.
Now that your group is all in order, the focus should turn to equipment. You should always run through an equipment check before departing. Some people do this in their head; others find a checklist works better. You should also ensure that everyone knows how to use their gear.
The more serious and longer the trip, the better planned it should be and the more serious are the consequences of forgetting something. Try to plan shorter, low-consequence trips for the first few times out each season since it's easy to forget something in the mad scramble to assemble gear. The right gear must, of course, include an avalanche transceiver, collapsible shovel, and probe. Check that all your equipment works before you go out for the day. Other important group safety equipment includes repair (tools, duct tape, etc.) and first aid kits, extra food and warm clothing, foam pad or bivy sack (or both). Cell phones and radios can be useful in some areas. Most importantly, take along a functioning brain and the skills to use emergency equipment in case something does go wrong.
Before you go, leave a detailed trip plan with a responsible person that knows what to do/who to contact should your party be overdue.
If the weather or snow conditions don't agree with your plan, be ready to change them or cancel your trip. By putting some thought into your trip before you head out the door, you'll greatly increase your chance of having a safe and fun trip.