Tips for a great first ski tour, starting with the leader
The prospect of going to the backcountry for your first time, for many, is intimidating. Executing that first backcountry excursion is often slow, miserable and exhausting (it is, of course, simultaneously beautiful, inspiring, and motivating). Reflecting on one’s first time in the backcountry, for many, is accompanied by “golly, how did I survive that ordeal?” The antidote to all these stressors is excellent company. But as a newcomer, how do you really identify an excellent leader for your first experiences? How do you determine someone’s actual expertise in the backcountry skiing field?
It is no surprise that internet presence, use of lingo, enthusiasm and bullet-point list of “accomplishments” does not wholly qualify one as an “expert”. I, for one, want your first time backcountry skiing to be with someone who’s expertise is durable, clear and wrapped in excellent leadership and communication skills. Here’s a sample checklist that anyone, regardless of experience level, can use to vet your wild snow sliding mentor or leader. That person, before leaving the comfort of home or coffee shop or ski lodge, must be able to…
-show you precisely where they think you all should go,
-describe how that choice is right for today,
-and describe how that choice is right for you.
Now, further expansion on each.
Your leader, “in this day and age”, should be able to describe and show the terrain choice using maps, guidebooks, online resources, virtual 3-d models (Google Earth), satellite imagery and terrestrial photos. Your leader should have an ideal plan, and one or two less-committing and less hazardous back-up options. Look for language like: “this _____ will be our ascent route”. “If the conditions are as we expect, this is the best way down today.” “If we find that weather, snow, or instability clues are less encouraging than we anticipate, the _____ line is less exposed but still apt to be awesome.” “Download this free app to your phone and I’ll send you a file that will allow you to follow along with gps tracking”.
You also want that person to be able to explain, in plain terms backed up by third-party sources (predominantly, this will be your local avalanche bulletin), how today’s hazards and conditions pertain to the terrain you are in. “This picture/paragraph/chart indicates that xyz slopes hold snow that is likely to produce large human-triggered avalanches today. That is why all of our options are abc slopes.” “The south side of each mountain has breakable crust today; we’ll be avoiding them on the downhill”. “The canyon-bottom exit gets ridiculously cold in the afternoon and evening. We’ll be finishing early so as to be out before this zone gets shady”. “My friend said that there are tons of tracks in this un-treed corridor; just around the corner is this option with similar configuration but less traffic”. “The corn snow oughta be perfect around 11:30 on that aspect”. And so on.
Finally, the person to accompany your early forays needs to consider your background and abilities as he or she chooses terrain. Everyone in the group needs to understand everyone else’s downhill abilities, wilderness skills, risk tolerance, rescue skills, uphill fitness, and so on. Look for your lead skier to seek information on each of these things and to be able to explain how terrain choices reflect them. There is a backcountry tour for every interested person. Excellent downhill skiing skills are almost a bare minimum. Having done an uphill lap or two at your local ski area goes a long, long way. Beyond that, any and all shortcomings can be accommodated for your first tour(s).
Yes, even a lack of avalanche rescue skills is a shortcoming that can be overcome. It is common to hear that everyone should take an avalanche course before ever setting foot in the backcountry. I’ll argue against that (and I teach avalanche courses; I am a direct beneficiary of the cultural pressure to take such a course, but I argue against its importance. At least, at first). I hold that everyone that travels into avalanche terrain in a group should do so with at least a rudimentary ability to participate in an avalanche rescue. First, and very importantly, it is possible to go to the backcountry without setting foot in avalanche terrain. Next, it is entirely possible for a good mentor/instructor to, as an early part of a tour, deliver a short, painless and effective introduction to the components of an avalanche rescue. Who’s been fortunate enough to go heli-skiing? Those who have will know that the rescue briefing is concise, at best. And there are many stories of clients, so trained, helping with simple, effective avalanche rescues.
In summary, rest assured that you, with no backcountry experience or knowledge, have what it takes to size up a backcountry ski mentor or leader. In the rest of your life you know how to recognize precision and accuracy of communication skills. Look for that in your backcountry leader. To put it another way, screen your mentor for your first backcountry excursions by asking them:
-Where are we going?
-How is that right for today?
-And how is that right for me?
That’s it. I don’t care if they’ve been there a hundred times or not at all. I don’t care if they did the first descent or if its a mogul-ed roadside attraction. What I care about, and it should come as no huge surprise, is how well this person communicates. Clear, precise communication is the key to good instruction and partnership, especially in one’s early days. And especially if you wish to launch a long, deep, and varied mountain career.
Jed Porter is a passionate adventure skier, all-around mountain professional and regular contributor to WildSnow. This post is the second in his ski touring and mentorship series. Learn more about him at jed.ski.