A number of people have been asking me how to get started with backcountry skiing. Assuming you’ve acquired necessary gear It’s good to get some mentoring and take an avalanche safety class so you learn to recognize safe and unsafe areas (as well as begin to build hazard evaluation skills). Beyond that, you’ve got to network and make backcountry friends so you have a variety of potential partners. But networking partners is hard if you’re new to the sport — a catch 22 that can be frustrating.
Solution: If you have outdoor survival and judgment skills from backpacking, hiking or climbing (as well as knowing how to ski or snowboard safely) a good learning exercise is to simply go out backcountry skiing by yourself during good weather in an avalanche safe zone on a well used route close to civilization, in an area with cell phone coverage in case you get hurt and stranded. Note I said WELL USED ROUTE CLOSE TO CIVILIZATION, safe from avalanches and with cell phone coverage — not some huge mountain in the middle of nowhere, covered with avalanche paths. More, don’t discount the value of simply skinning up a ski resort now and then. By doing so you’ll get fit and learn how your gear works, without backcountry risks.
The following words about just this subject came as an email from Cory Scheffel a few days ago. His ideas work both from the solo perspective or if you’re a beginner out with a group. Seemed like good blog fodder so here goes:
Last weekend I decided to see how things were shaping up on Williams Peak, that small timber covered hill near Glenwood Springs, Colorado that’s a popular place for moderate and safe backcountry skiing. It was thin, but in. The snow in the upper meadow was bottomless and a bit feisty. The lower shots were fantastic.
While stumbling to the top I was thinking how much this little peak has taught me. Everyone (if they are serious about pursuing backcountry skiing) should have a “regular” stash like this. I thought it might be nice for newbies to get some pointers on what to look for in their “classroom” and what kinds of lessons they can learn from the wise old mountain. Granted, you need some avalanche education first and should have some outdoor skills (as well as knowing how to ski or ride). The stuff below is intended for those folks who are at the point of “I know a few things, now what?” I tried to hit the main points, but it’s kind of like nailing jello to the wall. I guess my main goal was to give some guidance on how to get out and start experiencing the winter environment, learn something in the process and find out what all the “Loubies” are so excited about. School’s in!
First off, your “classroom” should be close to home and easily accessible. Proximity is important for a couple of reasons. 1) You’re going to be spending quite a bit of time there and don’t want to break the bank putting gas in your car. 2) Weather observations are going to be part of your “homework” and it is much easier (and more accurate) if you can do your observations from home (instead of having to find “reliable” info online or somewhere else). 3) Proximity to civilization will hopefully give you cell phone coverage and perhaps the presence of other backcountry folk, both adding an immense safety buffer if you’re out by yourself.
Second, your classroom should have an avalanche safe route that works no matter what the conditions are. The goal here is to learn, not die. It’s good to talk to someone with (a lot of) experience about where some good beginner spots might be. If you truly are venturing into this world alone, start by doing flat or gently rolling touring. Make sure you aren’t beneath any slopes that could slide (you learned to ID such slopes by taking an avalanche class, right?). Natural avalanches happen and often they end in the nice, happy, gentle valleys below. As you learn more you can take some baby steps and find some gentle slopes where you can start to do some turns. For now, it’s good to just be out and learning.
Unfortunately, not everyone has skiing in their backyard, so you’ll just have to do with what works best. Just be careful you choose at forgiving and safe area — don’t go charging off by yourself up some huge mountain in the middle of nowhere.
If you are checking your weather online, find a site that provides info on temperature, windspeed and direction, snow fall, and cloud cover (some of the avy sites provide good info, but there coverage tends to be a little too generalized). Check your source daily and ask yourself what effect these conditions will have on the snowpack in terms of avalanche danger as well as the quality of skiing.
First day of class. Ok, so you’ve found your spot…now what? This is the time to start your lessons. It’s kind of like an independent study at this point. My personal lessons range from observing what happens to snowpack under a variety of conditions to finding out which energy bar will break a molar when temperatures dip below zero. Below are some lessons that I’ve split into a few different areas:
At the car-
How to park your car so you can leave when your done (related: what to stash in your car, thermos of soup?).
Where to stash the keys.
How to load your pack.
How long you can have your gloves off before you get the screaming barfies.
How long it takes your partner to get ready.
What are the perfect layers to start with.
On the climb-
What your transceiver range is.
What is the most glide you can get with climbing skins at differing slope angles.
How to breathe.
How steep you can climb.
What kind of snow sticks to your skins.
How to deal with your skins when snow is stuck to them.
How to skin over logs and rocks.
How to back up with skins on.
How to efficiently change trail breakers.
How to deal with switch backs.
How to route find.
When to take a break.
What the snow pack is like on different aspects.
What your ski pole can communicate to you about snow pack.
What the wind/sun/new snow is really doing to the snow pack.
What is happening (avy wise) on the surrounding mountains.
At the turn-around-
How to dig a pit/read snow layers/do different shear tests.
How to take your skins off without taking your skis off.
How to package your skins so they’ll still stick to your skis when you need them later.
How fast your body cools down when you stop moving.
How to keep from dropping your glove in the snow.
How to keep from losing stuff in the snow.
On the ski down-
How to use an inclinometer (slope angle measure thingy).
What happens to the same slope week after week under different conditions.
What happens to the same slope after a few minutes/hours (on your second lap).
How to deal with bottomless, slushy, icy, breakable, bullet-proof snow.
How to get out of a treewell.
How to ski as a team.
Ski tune/equipment repair.
At this point I know I’m just scraping the surface. I’d like to see what other Loubies out there think. Stash suggestions in different parts of the country? Lessons a newbie can look for?