Raise your hand if you’ve been in this situation before: you’ve been skiing the resort (because that’s what you do) and you meet up with a friend over Aprés who’s been backcountry skiing that day… and they are absolutely fizzing. Wide-eyed and sweaty, they begin enthusiastically describing a mountain experience that borders on the spiritual… this leads you to the logical conclusion that there must be something really special going on out there.
Suddenly, all those days you’ve spent effortlessly sitting on the chairlift to reach the top seem lacklustre, self-indulgent and not challenging enough. You recall all those awe-inspiring images of people riding deep pow that inundate your Instagram feed (because let’s face it, you’re snow obsessed) and you decide; ‘that’s it… I’m going backcountry!’
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. In the past decade, backcountry skiing and split-boarding have reached giddy new heights of popularity, but unfortunately, the cult-like image of the sport and the scarce nature of fresh powder snow have driven people to do some pretty crazy stuff out there. And I’m not talking about the ‘boosting sick airs and dropping cliffs’ kind of crazy… I’m talking about committing acts of uneducated stupidity that endanger their own lives and the lives of others, usually their friends.
Okay, you’ve probably heard it all before; backcountry skiing is dangerous and you don’t want to be ‘one of those idiots’ you hear people talking about – so you’ve decided to get involved, the right way. Good for you! But how? What’s the best way to approach the task of getting the education and experience you need before you hike responsibly through that gate for the first time?
It’s no secret, there’s a lot to learn about the world of backcountry skiing and it’s not all intuitive. In fact, it can be downright intimidating and the last thing you want to do is endanger or offend someone who is already ‘in the cult’, so to speak. So rather than publishing another ‘what to buy’ gear list; I’m opening the door to the backcountry cult, and giving you an insider’s perspective on a safe and productive mindset to adopt as you take those first steps toward gloriously self-propelled days in the mountains (that also involve shredding massive piles of pow… let’s not forget that bit).
Get an avalanche education
Riding in the backcountry is a privilege, not a right. When you hear people talking about ‘earning their turns’, they’re not just talking about walking up the hill; you also need to earn the right to walk out the gate in the first place by doing an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course. These courses are super fun, eye-opening and will begin to teach you about the mountains, life-saving search and rescue skills (that you hope to never use) and the awareness needed to identify avalanche terrain so you can be a capable member of a touring group.
Take it from me, the number of hazards in the backcountry are unfathomable and they cannot be predicted, no matter how knowledgeable you are. And unfortunately, in many cases, the biggest hazards in the field are the uneducated humans riding above and behind you on a slope they can accidentally trigger. You will learn all about these hazards and more during your course, but mostly, you will learn how to not be one of those humans.
When looking around for a place to do an avalanche course, look for a reputable company that is a long-time professional member of the avalanche education system for which they are conducting courses. The Evergreen Backcountry Guides in Hakuba have been teaching AST courses (link) for 20 years with a team that has over 100 years of collective experience – and the courses are developed and authorized by Avalanche Canada, so you can be sure to get a qualitative certification that is worth the time and money you invest in it.
Do your research and find a quality provider in your area, or follow this link to find an Avalanche Canada course in your area.
If you’re in Hakuba and interested in course dates, or to book your spot on an Evergreen AST this winter, click here. https://www.evergreen-backcountry.com/avalanche-safety-training/
Friends who go touring are not guides (so don’t ask them to be).
So, you haven’t done your avalanche course yet but it’s nuking down with snow and you’re just frothing to get out. Don’t worry, the struggle is real and we’ve all been there. But before you start asking around for a friend to take you backcountry, you should stop to consider that a friend who goes touring is not a guide, and they will not have the unique skills and knowledge to handle the responsibility of taking untrained people touring.
I know a lot of folks (guides included) who will refuse to take a mate out backcountry on days off if they’ve not done the AST, so don’t be surprised if your buddy politely declines your request. It’s nothing personal, it’s just a safety thing. And if you do find someone who agrees to take you out, or maybe you’ve been invited by a group, think again about the kind of risk you are exposing yourself to and your friends.
As touring groups get larger, the risk that something can go wrong also increases exponentially. So consider how you would feel if you were the one who accidentally caused a problem for a group through an innocent lack of awareness? And what if you were the only one left to rescue someone but didn’t know how? My point is if an accident does happen, it’s unlikely that your friend will have the skills to help you while also managing a disaster that could bear life-altering consequences for everyone involved. Literally.
If you’re looking for someone to take you backcountry, book a guide!
Maybe you have a bunch of friends or colleagues who are all busting to get out there? But they’ve either not done the AST or they don’t have the experience and confidence yet to go out unaccompanied? Play it safe; coordinate a day off together and book a guide to take you all out on a first-time backcountry tour. It will be worth it.
Aside from having a really fun and safe experience with your group; your guide will help you learn all the things you need to know about touring at a pace you can handle. And there’s so much to practice; using your transceiver, shovel, probe, skinning, kick turning, layering up, layering down, how to pack your bag, what to eat, where to ski and how to find the foot onsen at the end of the day.
You’ll get much-needed feedback on your hard skills from a qualified person and you won’t run the risk of slowing down a group, feeling rushed or being flustered. Who wants to spend their precious days off in the mountains under unnecessary pressure?
Slow down. When you’re ready, the experience will be so much sweeter.
There’s a lot at stake out there; and education takes time to grow into knowledge, which in turn needs the experience to become wisdom. So take it easy, your day will come. Once you’ve completed your course, purchased the equipment and had enough time out in the field practicing – then you will have earned the privilege of being in the backcountry, without putting yourself or anyone else in danger.
Find a mentor. Every day in the backcountry is a lesson. Get ready to learn.
Learning about the backcountry, or any of nature’s wild open spaces, is a process and education within itself. Find yourself a mentor who knows their stuff and take some time to regularly sit with them to discuss your days out touring; your observations, things that worked and things that didn’t. Ask questions. It’s a great way to meet more crew to go touring with, and they will be more welcoming with the knowledge that you are actively learning and refining your skills so you can be relied upon as a safe member of the group.
Also, be warned; backcountry skiers and split-boarders are self-professed weather nerds and gear junkies! Be prepared to get your nerd on; talk gear with them and learn about all the websites you can harvest information from before you go into the mountains. Every part of the world has opportunities for collecting data, so get updated.
And remember, doing the AST is just the first step but the way you build on your education so you can make safe and informed decisions each day is your own choice. So good luck, enjoy the adventure and I look forward to seeing you brimming with joy (and beads of sweat) after a backcountry day very soon.
Please be advised that none of the content in this article should be substituted for formal avalanche education. If you have any further questions or would like to know how we can support you to begin your journey into backcountry skiing, leave a comment below or… https://www.evergreen-backcountry.com/contact/or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org