Early season off-piste skiing is fun. Skiing in the fall among the turning aspens with untraced blowing powder is a treat, but it’s essential to keep in mind that you are aware of its dangers.
Tree skiing is one of the best ski touring options, but early season snow cover presents serious dangers. The shallow snowpack means that large shrubs, rocks or roots can hide below the surface, ready to damage your skis or, worse, your knees. When skiing in the trees with a shallow snowpack, assess the depth of snow on the skin-up piste to know the depth of snow covering said hazards.
In alpine terrain above the treeline, the same dangers apply as in the trees. You have to be careful of the rocks hiding under the unconsolidated snowpack. Again, a good strategy is to test the snowpack on the way up. Another good strategy for super early season skiing (before there is consistent, even snow cover) is to use satellite imagery to your advantage to ensure you are only skiing above perennial snowfields. Some good resources for doing this are the Sentinel Hub Playground or the Sentinel layer on Caltopo.
As at any other time of year with snow, avalanches are a typical problem in the backcountry. Avalanches, especially early in the season, are condition dependent, so there is no “most common” avalanche early in the season. You can find a great overview of the nine different avalanche problems and the conditions they correlate with in the CAIC here.
Early season off-piste skiing has a low snowpack and many risks to be aware of. Although there are things that can be done to mitigate these risks, the first thing you can do to stay safe is to always ski with a partner. Always ask about snow and weather conditions before heading out. This season will see many more off-piste skiers than usual who may not be able to take an official AIARE avalanche course. If so, please inquire in advance. Good ways to do this are to read Bruce Tremper’s Staying alive in avalanche terrain or, at the bare minimum, familiarize yourself with backcountry hazards and mitigation techniques from avalanche.org.