GETTING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY: PART 2 – GET THE KNOWLEDGE


So here we are. For most of us in the U.S., the 2021 winter season is begrudgingly and slowly arriving in the  mountains and after the 2020 season was abruptly cut short, most of us can’t wait to get on the hill.  One result of Covid has been uncertainty on so many levels and the ski industry has not been immune.  Last spring, after resorts were forced to close, we witnessed a mass exodus to the backcountry, many resort skiers elected to get some gear, maybe a little a training and venture beyond the ropes.  All indications are that this trend will only continue into 2021, as people navigate reservation systems and skier caps at resorts, backcountry gear sales have exploded, as has enrollment in avalanche courses of all types.  In this three part article, we will look at the following:

In part one we looked at the gear you need to safely and enjoyably get out in the backcountry.  We also briefly mentioned places to start your knowledge base, and be able to understand and interpret all of the information you need to make good decisions in the backcountry.  COVID_19 has triggered the creation of numerous online avalanche course options, these are a great place to start, to reinforce knowledge or to just dust off the cobwebs, but nothing can replace quality in person, in the field instruction.  I break this into two distinct categories, avalanche courses and guided skiing, and I think both are critical to success in the mountains.

TAKE AN AVALANCHE COURSE

A very early step in your backcountry journey should be formal avalanche education.  Where to being this stage can be almost as overwhelming as buying gear.  There are so many options and so many opportunities out there, choosing the appropriate course can be confusing.  I have written previously about which course is right for you, and not much has changed since then.  Just a few things to keep in mind, look for an American Avalanche Association approved provider, this ensures you are receiving instruction on the most current curriculum and information out there, and remember, an avalanche awareness course is a kick-start for a Recreation 1 course, it doesn't take the place of it.

HIRE A GUIDE

There are so many reasons to hire a guide.  While it can seem easy to use the plethora of online resources and guidebooks to skip to the front of the line and begin to explore on your own, a professional ski guide will be a great way to learn to use your new gear, learn the nuances of traveling on snow with skins (kick turns and switchbacks can be a tough learning curve) they can also get you safely to and home from terrain you may not feel comfortable exploring on your own.  

Some things to look for in a guide:

  • In the US, look for AMGA certified guides and companies that hire them.  This is the easiest first step to ensure, knowledge, professionalism, proper permits.  There are a lot of ‘rogue’ guides out there, working and living outside the system, while some of them may be highly qualified, others are not and these rogue operations often lack proper permits and insurance which would get you in trouble.

  • Make sure they understand your objectives and your needs.  Are you hiring them to bag a peak just beyond your skill set and/or comfort zone or are you hiring them for an educational experience for better moving in and around the mountains?  Make sure they are not using you to get paid for a personal objective of their own.

  • Local knowledge.  I spend a lot of time traveling snow covered mountains, working from one mountain range to another as the winter goes on.  One of the first things I do when I get to a new spot, is connect with a local I trust, this gets me up to speed on avalanche conditions as well as ski and snow conditions.  While I can easily get out and check things for myself, that network of professionals helps me to minimize missing good conditions or flailing through bad ones.  It also helps to avoid potentially dangerous avalanche conditions or hazardous terrain.  Hire a guide who is either a local, or had good local connections.

  • I like the intangibles too.  Is your guide an over bearing, commanding and bull headed?  While this may serve them well on an individual climbing trip or objective, it rarely creates a healthy environment for clients.  Find a guide you feel comfortable communicating with, one that welcomes questions and voicing of concerns, encourages you to ask when things don't seem to add up.

Backcountry skiing can seem very simple and easily accessible one day and completely bowl you over and overwhelm you the next.  It's a sport that requires experience and expert skill set and intuition, you can really only get these things through years and miles, but hiring a guide can shorten the learning curve, help eliminate some common errors and help to learn many of the tips and tricks we all employ to stay safe and find the good snow.  

In Part 3, we will go through my pack.  What I bring, what stays home, and things are on the fence depending on where I’m going and for how long.

 

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Article by Jake Hutchinson

This article was written for the Wagner Journal by Jake Hutchinson. Jake has spent more than 25 years working as an avalanche professional. He is currently a lead instructor for the American Avalanche Institute, an avalanche dog handler and trainer and an avalanche safety consultant to the resort and rescue communities. Off the snow, Hutchinson is a Certified Instructor and former Head of Instructor and Seminar Development for Gym Jones in Salt Lake City. He is currently involved in private personal training with an emphasis on high level functional fitness for mountain and military athletes.