Q&A: How do I get started with backcountry skiing?
We know that a lot of you may be keen to do things differently this winter: whether that’s because travelling is off the list, or you’re looking for more personal space at the resort.
If you’re looking at getting into slackcountry (non-resort terrain accessed via the resort) or backcountry ski touring, here’s where you should start.
I emphasize that this is a ‘start’, since being responsible for your own decision-making in the backcountry is a major endeavour. For the love of Ullr, please take it slowly and very seriously.
Anyone can buy the gear, but none of it repels hazards. Knowledge, experience and conservative decisions are the primary tools to keep you safe.
When you ski inbounds at the resort, a lot of safety nets are in place and maintained so you don’t have to think about whether the terrain is safe: it’s signed and marked, rated, patrolled, often groomed or bombed.
The backcountry has none of this.
So, where do you start?
Hire a guide
If this is an option where you are, take it. More than once. If you’re still getting the hang of how your touring bindings work, putting route planning and terrain decision-making on top of that might be asking for trouble.
Give yourself a margin of help and guidance as the other elements become second nature.
Not only that, but touring with a certified guide allows you to ask a lot of questions (in between catching your breath) like why are they setting the uptrack like they are? What do they look for before even going out each day? What hazards are they observing and how are they avoiding them? How do they plan a route and what are the signs that tell them to pack it in and go home?
Don’t expect simple answers, but this where you start to see the outlines of the long road of learning ahead. Before any expertise is built, we need to recognize just how much we don’t know yet.
Give yourself time to build humility, fear, respect and curiosity. Overconfidence is life-threatening.
Building your skill set for wise backcountry travel is getting easier, as courses, both in person and online, are more accessible than ever.
Avalanche Skills Training courses (AST I and II please) are essential education – they’ll teach you the basics of recognizing avalanche terrain and hazardous layers in the snowpack, along with transceiver skills to help prepare you for a rescue should something go wrong.
And hey, here’s something that’s often missed: the right education also includes first aid.
You wouldn’t consider going out there without rescue gear, right? Well the rescue isn’t just about being able to find someone under the snow. How to manage an injured person, help them home, or keep them safe until help arrives, is a critical part of the picture.
Wilderness first aid courses give you comprehensive skills for managing a bad day in an environment where a short drive to the hospital is not an option.
Know your first aid, keep it current, and only go out there with people who’ve done the same. Your life might depend on it.
Get the right equipment
And learn how to use it.
Even Rudi, a mountain guide with fifty years’ experience, still practices with his transceiver at the start of every winter, and spends hours experimenting with any new piece of gear before he has to count on it.
Buying the gear carries the most temptation of fooling yourself into thinking that you’re automatically safer, but just because you bought a hammer and nails, doesn’t mean you have the skills to build a house.
Every backcountry rider should carry and be ready to use
- A transceiver, shovel and probe for searching for someone buried
- A reliable communication device for calling for help. Your phone may not have coverage, and cold temps can drain the battery fast. A spot beacon, inReach device, or radio are other options.
- A first aid kit
- Firestarter, a tarp, a saw, extra warm layers and a lightweight pot for melting snow. What if you get lost and have to spend the night out? Staying warm, dry and hydrated is critical.
And this one isn’t exactly equipment, but you should also never go out there without a partner. It may seem as harmless as going for a quick trail run on your own, but simply banging your knee off a rock could become a life-threatening situation if you’re by yourself.
It’s satisfying for the ego to be the person who always has a confident answer, but like you know from your own profession or whatever arena you’ve built decades of experience in, you know that confidence has to be earned, bit by bit.
When it comes to taking up backcountry skiing or riding, be the person who admits what they don’t know, asks questions, doubts themselves regularly, errs on the side of caution. Be the person who enjoys it safely, for a lifetime.
What Jeff likes to leave people with is this:
If you’re skiing something fun (i.e. it’s not completely flat and boring) You. Are. In. Avalanche. Terrain.
Act, hire, study and prepare accordingly.
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