7May 2021

How do guides see terrain differently than the rest of us?

“Well, yes, maybe, but it depends.”

That was the most common response I got from Jeff this winter, as I decided to use extra days off to learn more about how decision-making works in the field.

I finally got fit enough to be able to ask an annoying number of questions on the uptrack.

Because as I’m sure you know: just because you’re married to someone doesn’t mean you know how their mind works.

“So you think the snow will be better on the east aspect because [______]?”

“Since there was so much wind last night that’s likely going to mean [_____]?”

[insert half-educated guess here]

And then I listened as he explained not just about the one factor I could identify [aspect/wind/temp], but also the mind-bending overlap of every factor at once, and how that processing lead to why we were switch-backing where we were.

Though I never got a better response than a patient ‘well, it depends’ to any of my attempts to read the terrain, I spent the winter appreciating what guides are seeing while I’m busy WAHOO-ing in the back.

Here’s how I’d sum that up:

They see relationships

Not just is it sunny, cold, snowing, but what effect are those things having on everything else?

Being able to track those dynamics helps identify where the best skiing will be, and how to avoid hazardous features.

They’re balancing questions like these and more, all of which have to be considered at the same time:

  • Has the recent wind been buffing that slope, or loading it?
  • Is the sun on it midday, when it’s most intense, or does it only get morning sun?
  • How much recent snowfall have we had, and how much time did it take for it to fall? Was it 10cm over a week, or did 50 fall overnight?

This isn’t just data for the record books. There’s immediate, felt effects for a skier.

We might take you to your first run of the day, and it’s perfect, blower pow from top to bottom, and you get to enjoy the warmth and good visibility in the sun instead of being in the cold shadows.

But if you wanted a do-over of the same run at 1pm, when the sun has been on it for hours… maybe now it’s wet or sticky, or the intensity of the sun could be weakening layers of concern in the snowpack.

At 4pm? Last one before home? Maybe now that little bit of melt layer from the sun is refreezing, and voila, you will meet my mortal enemy: sun crust.

That’s one factor, the sun, in one period of time, a day.

The same run could go from perfection to hazardous to heinous.

Now add historical layers, wind, snowfall, slope aspect and human factors.

Does your brain hurt yet? Yeah me too.

Where is there great skiing on safe slopes?

It’s the big question that guides are trained to answer, so you experience nothing but beautiful skiing, every run, every day.

They see margins

Your guide knows a lot, but a good one also never forgets what they don’t know. What they can’t know.

When hazards to safety are possible, guides look for terrain that gives them buffers around the unknown, leaving room for nature or people to surprise them.

That might mean not regrouping at the bottom of a slope, beneath any overhead hazard, or in a gully where if any snow slid, it would pile up there first.

Instead, they eye the terrain in terms of higher ground, tree islands or away from cornice fall hazard.

Not because they expect those things to happen, since they already considered a lot of factors to be on that slope to begin with (see above), but because humility and wisdom have a lot in common.

They build margins around people too, by not choosing lines where you have to be perfect to be safe.

There has to be room for someone getting a little too far from the guide’s track, for picking up too much speed, or for not being as competent in the trees as the person thought they’d be.

That’s one margin that can grow thinner the longer a guide and a guest ski together, as they build trust that can put a guide more at ease.

They see it over time

What happened here recently? What’s been happening here for a long time?

While any certified guide is trained to manage a new environment with competence, those that become experts in one area gain immeasurable insight as five, ten, twenty years go by.

They can get to know the backcountry with the same level of familiarity that you know your own backyard.

They know the spots that are usually protected from the wind, how to find a slight change in angle where the snow is driest, or which landing zones are more favourable when we’ve had an east wind all week.

The point is, the longer you look, the more you see.

And the longer your guide has been working in that zone, the more value you get from your experience as their client.

We’ve been paying attention to what these mountains have to show us for nearly 50 years.

We can help you see it with more depth too. Though admittedly, sometimes, mid-turn, it’s hard to see much of anything. 😉


Hoping to lose sight of your feet in the pow next winter? Get to know our small-group, private heli, easy access, single and multi-day heli-skiing packages here.






FREE stuff that’ll make you smarter, happier and better-looking (well, the last one might be a stretch).

Click on the image below to grab it.