From Iraq to Wild Snow

Post by blogger | June 10, 2009      

(Editor’s Note: I’m over in Vail doing some trail research for Was going to just chatter away about some hiking I did yesterday, then this came in over the transom as an email. I figured the collective wisdom of all you WildSnow commenters could help this guy out. He wants to make snow, not war. Let’s help him out! -Lou)

Mr. Dawson,
I wanted to write and tell you thanks for exposing me to backcountry and steep skiing. Last year I was in Iraq when my “hutch”, a little air/sea container with a cut out for a door and an A/C unit where I live was hit twice in two days by rocket fire. My roommate and I were lucky and not in the room when it was hit. I was in the hutch several days later when I noticed my TV/DVD player and A/C still worked. I got STEEP in a care package from a friend cranked up the A/C and put my lucky ski cap, now well ventilated, on and zoned out to watch another ski film.

What I found wasn’t a bunch of guys that can ski better than I ever will, although they do. What I found the essence of why people take risks to ski the greater and greater lines. It changed my life. I was taking risks in war I didn’t particularly believe in. I knew I liked the risks and I would need to find it elsewhere outside of a warzone. I have found it. Six days later I was offered my next assignment: Suva, Fiji or Bern, Switzerland. I told my boss I didn’t swim and he just smiled and said that he already knew that.

I arrived in Bern Feb 1, 2009. My new boss took me skiing the next day. I found my answer to that old question: Is it better to be a prince in hell or a servant in heaven. My best friend told me that was a parable, not a question to be answered. I know my answer to his parable.

I started off piste skiing last winter and I want to improve both technically and athletically.

My question to you is, how would you go about improving from a solid on-piste skier to a one season off piste/steep skier?

Books, DVD’s and recommendations of guides/instructors in Switzerland or Chamonix would be great. Also I want to buy a signed copy of your of your book Wild Snow, I will be back in the US in 2012 to ski some of those lines.

Thanks Lou and all, K.S.


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20 Responses to “From Iraq to Wild Snow”

  1. Lou June 10th, 2009 9:47 am

    I’m chuckling thinking of you guys sitting in an air conditioned shipping container watching Steep, wearing a ski hat full of holes from rocket attack shrapnel. The truth, always stranger than fiction!

    I’ll get things rolling and say, first, that being in EU will pretty much make you into an off-piste skier unless you work really hard not to have that happen (grin)!

    That said, watch out for a tendency to take things too cavalierly. Take some skills courses, first aid, avalanche, glacier travel. You usually won’t learn much from hiring a guide, unless you pay for a private and specifically ask for an instructional day. More later, I’ll let the other wildsnowers chime in.

    Oh, and thanks for the kind words, a copy of Wild Snow is waiting for you!

    P.S., Glad you survived the rocket attack, and this is a first for those words on WildSnow (grin).

  2. Euro Rob June 10th, 2009 11:06 am

    Congratulations, Switzerland is awesome for what you want to do.

    Apart from the technical/mountaineering/safety/… skills, in my opinion, the most important thing when skiing the steeps is to “feel it”, not “force it”. I’m always starting a season with moderate descends. Lots of them. Then go increasingly steep, but never so steep that you are scared. Don’t push it. When conditions are questionable, cancel. When you’re having a bad day, pick a more conservative line. At some point you’ll just “feel it”, and the turns in the steep will flow.

    Go skiing as often as possible, then you’ll have lots of good rides, this makes it easier to turn around or pick a smaller tour when avvy danger is high.

  3. George Laquian June 10th, 2009 11:14 am

    One of the fastest ways to improve your skiing for the off piste is to ski as often as possible, regardless of the weather. Taking such an approach means that you’ll gain experience and confidence in both your gear and your technique.

    Ski terrain and conditions that are outside of your comfort zone, since the biggest difference between skiing in bounds and off piste is the variability of the snow conditions.

    Night skiing regularly at a resort is also a great way to develop a sense of where the sweet spot is on your boards.

    Finally, skiing steep tree lines will help you develop a sense of timing and rhythm for jump turns and couloirs.

    +1 to what Lou suggested with regards to courses on glacier travel and rescue, avalance science, mountain survival and first aid. I find that so much of the richness of off piste skiing comes from the things that you do outside of just making turns….

  4. Lou June 10th, 2009 11:29 am

    Another tip: try try try to ski with folks more experienced than you are. You can learn with the blind-leading-blind method, but it’s slow and dangerous.

  5. ThomasB June 10th, 2009 2:07 pm

    Ski,ski, ski. Practice skills and drills on piste and ski off piste. Ski every type of snow that is available, seek out crap snow and try to ski it as well as a groomer.
    Get some solid avalanche education under your belt and continue learning.
    ski a lot, ski year round.

  6. gonzoskijohnny June 10th, 2009 2:13 pm

    Glad to hear you found a better and safer duty station!
    All the prev. is great advise.

    A friend from Zurich (that i toured with in Ortler this spring) ski tours with the locals in the swiss ski/mounteering club- lots of expereince to learn from.
    You might check on a chapter near you.

    Get snow smart- snow and avy education can get you the best skiing and keep you alive in the BC. Winter snow vs spring snow, how different exposures can be better /safer in one season than another, when avy conditions make certain areas dangeorous but others quite safe, how timing is everthing in the spring, etc.

    I have also found that when skiing in big mountains and complex terrain with a guide- and interacting with them (discussing route selection; what they are seeing; snow/avy conditions; etc) can be a very insightful learning experience.
    I’ve skiied with several very good guides in your neck of the woods- Pete Mason based in Chamonix (american-ex Boulderite); Daniel Zimmermann based in the Berner Oberland. Although not cheap, getting professional assistance can be quite helpful both for learing and for getting to places beyond your knowledge/ability base.

  7. Paul June 10th, 2009 2:28 pm

    An addition to all the great advice, I would add that the perspective shift of enjoying the skin/ascent has made the off piste experience so enjoyable. It’s cliche, but you really do earn your turns (and a lot more). It’s just part of it–early mornings, the quiet rhythm, plus the time to assess conditions, think of terrain, exits, etc. The cardiovascular benefits, seeing wildlife, being with friends. Embracing the full experience has made outings worthwhile, even when the skiing has been breakable crust. It’s all mountaineering and glisse. The mental engagement makes it so different from the piste and lift-accessed terrain.

  8. Tobias June 10th, 2009 2:29 pm

    Take a look on my blog if you’re thinking about going backcountry skiing in Chamonix. Think you can learn a lot just reading some of the tripreports. Hopefully it can inspire a bit as well. Good luck and stay safe!

  9. Njord June 10th, 2009 4:06 pm

    What I want to know is how did you get an assignment to Bern?

  10. CCD June 10th, 2009 5:08 pm

    Sometimes the best way to learn any skill is by following a master.
    I learned climbing and other mountain skills by following the master Lou D. up some gnarly crags, I learned to ski by following some great ones down the steep and deep.
    Take advice from the best, and be careful not to get in over your head when you are starting out.

  11. Randonnee June 10th, 2009 5:39 pm

    First, thanks for your service, glad you came through it ok. In regard to ski touring/ mountaineering in the Alps, there are lots of US military guys there, in Germany etc., with mountain skills, some very highly skilled. One was assigned here in the US and ski toured with me a few times here. If you are in the US and WA specifically ask Lou to put you in touch and we will show you what we know here…

  12. turner June 10th, 2009 6:22 pm

    You ask:
    “My question to you is, how would you go about improving from a solid on-piste skier to a one season off piste/steep skier?”

    Most of the above posts talk about the steps towards becoming a backcountry skier. Much wisdom towards that goal can be found there, especially in regard to educating yourself in regard to safety.

    However, before you even go there, I would suggest developing your off-piste technique by seeking out the ungroomed and steeps offered within the ski area boundaries. Many ski resorts even have terrain which can be accessed only by hiking, which is an ideal stepping-stone for someone who is making the transition from on-piste to wild snow.

    You will probably find that a good ski instructor can help you learn how to deal with terrain you find challenging. You may be surprised how much a couple of seemingly small tweaks to your technique can improve your mastery over terrain; small tweaks that you may not have figured out by yourself. And when you are introduced to concepts you have never imagined, it will can be like a quantum leap.

    The trick is to make sure you get a good instructor, because there is a large variability. Certification level is a decent indicator, but also find out about years of experience, and personality type (it really helps to find someone who is on the same wavelength as you are).

    Have fun!

  13. George Laquian June 10th, 2009 7:09 pm

    I have to agree with turner-

    When I moved to Vancouver BC from Boston MA 22 years ago, my backcountry skiing skills were rudimentary- primarily becasue of trying to learn skiing while only in the backcountry, and usually while wearing a big pack.

    I bought Lito Tejada Flores’ Book “Backcountry Skiing”, and had a revelation when I read his suggestion that the best way to master a telemark or alpine touring turn was to bite the bullet and put in the time at your local ski hill.

    I learned the fundamentals of steep skiing in bounds on my local mountain, and skiing the local hills at night helped me with balance and edging.

    It definitely sped up my learning curve when I returned to the backcountry.

  14. Ben W June 10th, 2009 8:00 pm

    Reading books like, “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”, by Bruce Tremper, “Freedom of the Hills” (forgot author) and “Backcountry Skiing” by Martin Volken will help you tremendously. Being familiar with important concepts and techniques will make you much more confident when implementing them for the first time.

    Come spring time when the snow is stable, forgiving corn, find some seriously steep slopes with low consequences and and climb and ski the heck out of them until booting up is no longer terrifying and you can link relaxed turns without any fear of falling.

    And Tobias, I saw your blog for the first time a few days ago. It is amazing.

  15. Dostie June 10th, 2009 10:11 pm


    First off, thanks for your service. Didn’t read a single bit of advice above that I would disagree with. All good stuff.

    I would add that once you’re getting dialed on your ski technique, take an advanced ski lesson that includes getting a video of you skiing. It is one thing to take advice from masters, but it is much easier to apply when you see your flaws yourself. You already know the body position of a good skier, and when you see what yours is, you’ll be able to recognize how to better apply the advice various instructors are giving you.

    I would also suggest running gates in a race course. This is an excellent way to tune and hone your turning skills.

    Finally, I’ll echo the advice to simply ski as much as possible without (knowingly) putting yourself in dangerous situations. Enjoy!

  16. Murray Chapman June 11th, 2009 5:34 am

    Agree with all the above. One suggestion – it’s easier to learn a new skill on its own rather than multiple together. learning to ski steeper terrain is a technical exercise. You may progress faster if you do that with an instructor – it’s they’re speciality. I’ve heard good reports about Warren Smith

  17. Eric June 11th, 2009 8:30 am

    The best resource to get info and find partners for touring is
    It has all the info you would need
    happy touring

  18. KS June 11th, 2009 2:32 pm

    To all those good folks giving me advise:

    Thank you!!!!

    I was amazed, ok I was awed by your kindness your generousity.

    I wore ceramic and kelvar everyday in Iraq. I really understand the need for safety. Telling somebody to put it on no matter what; is the same as say I love ya, as far as I am concerned.

    I heard I lot of I love ya’s go out.



    Thank You I am humbled that so many people I don’t know would care so much me. I used to joke that everybody needs to have a tribe to run with, from what I see your tribe has its heads and hearts in the right place.

    Kurt S.

    PS I had a book arrive in the mail today

  19. Lou June 11th, 2009 3:39 pm

    Review of Martin’s backcountry skiing book is here:

  20. Sam Reese June 11th, 2009 4:40 pm

    Learn to enjoy the touring aspect, and also learn to enjoy mild lines.

    If you aren’t out with an experienced group, you should be at maximum risk avoidance. When you do decide to take things up a notch, you should add in every risk with extreme consideration and knowledge.

    For Avalanches, that means get local forcast info, and don’t ski anything stepper than, say, 20 degrees? There’s a lot of fun to be had as a beginner bc skier on “shallow” slopes. (btw: this means, get a clinometer. Cheap and Good tool to have). Tree runs are great too in the states, don’t know about those in switz

    For general danger, don’t expose yourself, and get hyper-aware of terrain and dangers. Watch out for cliff bands, try in your mind to visualize what you can’t see, and just be cautious.

    Sure, you’re probably a pretty accomplished inbounds skier, but in the BC, skiing is one of the least important skills. Route finding, hazard awareness, and uphill slogging are far more important for far more of the time. Don’t just focus on the down, It’s all about the entire experience… And have fun.

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