Sustainable Backcountry Skiing

Post by blogger | June 13, 2011      

One of my ideals in backcountry skiing is to do it sustainably.

No, this isn’t about what kind of car I drive to the trailhead, or how big the zucchini is I grow in my backyard. Rather, I’m thinking about how do I ski so that years from now I might remain somewhat less than crippled, still climbing up and skiing down lots of nice mountains.

More, to me “sustainability” means caring for other folks. For example, having the requisite education (such as first aid training) and gear to help people in need, out in the wild.

You see quite a dichotomy of “sustainability” when you’re out backcountry skiing. This spring, I was glisssing a popular zone. I waited my turn to drop into a short access pitch. Simply assuming I was being given some room by the guy waiting behind me, I was somewhat surprised when he came in on my tail me like an F-16 in a dogfight. He had a helmet, no doubt essential, and a backpack that looked just big enough for a Red Bull — the can of which I’m certain was empty.

Contrast that with other skiers I saw last winter (and many of the guys and gals I skied with), who were obviously carrying enough water and clothing to be sustainable, and probably had some other stuff in there that would help deal with an injury, gear repair or stranding. Those folks were not dropping in on top of each other.

Should I judge a guy by the size of his rucksack? Probably not, least I be judged in return! Yeah, I haven’t skimped on education and carry some useful items, but I’m thinking about that bivvy sack I was leaving behind last winter? And my tiny thermos instead of one with enough hot fluid for sharing? Or how about the endless Socratic (I’m being optimistic) discussion of how necessary avalanche probes are?

But we speak too much of gear, and probably have too much faith in it. It’s nylon, not a religion.

A “style” of sustainability is more the key. Back in my NOLS instructor days we were fond of a concept we termed the “relative context of safety.” That pompous phrase simply means that what’s safe with a ski patrol around my not be so safe if you’re several hours (or days, if the weather turns) from an evac. Pretty obvious, right? We’ll, it’s amazing how the witch’s brew of adrenaline and me-video blows that concept into particles the size of spacial dendrites. It did NOT happen unless it is on Facebook, and it had better look good for your sock sponsor.

Perhaps, just perhaps, while it might be ok to go huge with a helicopter standing by or the ski patrol patiently waiting for another person to practice cervical traction on — at times you might want to consider going-less-big.

Yeah, the relative context of safety. Sustainability.

Just thought I’d give that guy who skied in on top of me something to think about. And myself, for that matter.


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13 Responses to “Sustainable Backcountry Skiing”

  1. gtrantow June 13th, 2011 6:42 am

    Great topic! I was impressed to see you brought a snowmobile up to Independence Pass for extracting injuried skiiers if needed. A sustainable outdoor list for skiing, biking and hunting for me includes:
    1. Notifying someone where I am going and when to call out the search team if I don’t return. Failure to do this is reckless.
    2. Knowing that summitting a peak to ski or scrambling a shale cliff while hunting is optional…coming home is not optional. Skip the dangerous terrain on solo and small group missions if you don’t have a solid plan on how to get out.
    3. Gear — bring life safety gear (seasonal) and repair equipment to limp home. On multiple day excursions rent a satellite phone. Sat phones make calling the outfitter to bring an extra mule for elk quarters easy (grin).

  2. Eric Steig June 13th, 2011 7:41 am

    I always bring spare gloves, hat and sunglasses. The gloves (especially) wind up being needed by someone more often than you might expect.

  3. turtle June 13th, 2011 9:25 am

    nice food for thought piece, lou.

  4. AndyC June 13th, 2011 9:55 am

    I over do it: wilderness 1st responder, 1st aid kit fills 1/2 the trunk on my Manaslu Pack; beacon-shovel-probe; space-blanket sleeping bag, large plastic garbage bag, extra gloves, balaclava, extra clothing (more protection for an injured person); field repair kit, extra glop stopper and paste glide wax; electrolytes (Endurolytes), pain pills (Alleve), anti-histamine/decongestants; sunscreen; etc. etc. I did 30 days of volunteer Nordic Ski Patrol last year and have routinely assisted novices in the backcountry on Mt. Rainier; plus occasionally skiing with spouse, grandkids, and friends and encountering many acquaintances keeps nagging me to be at least minimally prepared to deal with people in distress or emergencies.

  5. Matt Kinney June 13th, 2011 11:08 am

    Those of us who have had bad experiences in the BC seem to be more attentive to “sustainability”.

    I recall one youthful partner I had. Day after day he would blaze ahead of me. Finally one day I reached for his pack to toss in the back of the truck. I was shocked at how light it was. Come to find out he was not carrying water. No food at all. All he had was a beacon, probe shovel, and shell. He said he didn’t need it being super-fit. My pack was loaded. I though of “confronting” him about it but then, nobody held my hand when I discovered the Chugach.

    I began to think about if he got hurt and all we had was my 1/2 quart of remaining water at the end of a long slog. That water could save his life along with my first aid kit , extra layers, and response. But, being the selfish skier I am, I realized that if I got hurt, there was nothing he had in his pack to help me. As expected nothing changed in his pack contents and our ski days together pretty much ended.

    Suffice to say I don’t ski with people who have been caught in numerous avalanches( 3 incidents is a big, big red flag) and I don’t ski with folks who can’t carry all the gear necessary to help others and themselves.

    Time will tell and I bet when or If I were to ski with him he is 40 years old, his pack will be bulging with water.

  6. Caleb Wray June 13th, 2011 11:53 am

    And a recent mishap always puts something new on the list. Falling in a stream at 4am yesterday, I mean all the way in, just added extra socks to my pack list. I wonder how long I will be carrying them until the traumatic memory fades?

  7. Lou June 13th, 2011 12:23 pm

    Caleb, did you get them from your sock sponsor, and where is the vid? (grin)

  8. Lou June 13th, 2011 12:26 pm

    Snowmobile jokes aside, I wouldn’t have the knees I have now if it wasn’t for all the miles of cartilage grinding that snowmobile access has saved me from over the years. They’re not great knees, but they still work… Have given a lot of rides as well…

  9. Mike Marolt June 13th, 2011 12:33 pm

    When i was younger, Bob Perlmutter taught me a very valuable lesson that i often refer to regarding sustainability you speak of. There are no heros in the backcountry…….

    If you think about it, that’s pretty damn good advice.

  10. Jim June 13th, 2011 1:16 pm

    I was in Eastern Sierras last month on a nice sunny powder day climbing up a moderately slabbed slope when an obviously guided group with the guide in front, all skiing together skiied right down on top of me forcing me to run out of the way of the slabs they were skiing. While the clients might have been clueless the guide sure should have known better. Its more than etiquette, its safety.

  11. Lou June 13th, 2011 2:46 pm

    Jim, that guide needs to be sustainable!

  12. Jason June 13th, 2011 3:12 pm

    Sock Sponsor = Awesome.

  13. Mdibah June 14th, 2011 11:06 am

    You see old climbers and you see bold climbers. Don’t see many old & bold climbers though.

    Same thing for skiing.

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