Backcountry skiing is skiing in its most pure element. Traveling up and down mountains, making your own decisions, and being in the peace and quiet of nature are just a few of the many benefits that await the backcountry skier. Oh, and there’s abundant powder as well. Backcountry skiing, however, comes with a vastly increased responsibility over resort skiing and the consequences could not be higher. Part of the allure of the sport is the vast amount of knowledge and skill it requires. Because backcountry skiing does not require lifts, you can literally go anywhere. The first step in a typical day of backcountry skiing is to choose a proper objective for the day, and who would be suitable to join you on that objective.
Route planning in the backcountry can be one of the hardest objectives of the day. With literally every alpine face and backcountry bowl being an option, this is when it pays off to do your homework and be smart. A wrong choice could lead to disastrous consequences. When I begin planning my route, the first thing I think about is weather. What has the weather been like over the past couple weeks and what does that mean for certain slopes? It is key to know the aspect (North-South-East-West) of any desired ski terrain and to know when that slope will ski well and when it might have a crust on it.
After selecting a few slopes that I think might ski well, it is then important to do what should always be done before backcountry skiing. Read the local Avalanche report. Now, not every mountain range has a dedicated team of avalanche forecasters, but odds are where you live has some sort of avalanche program. Here in Utah, the Utah Avalanche Center is truly amazing and each morning cranks out very detailed avalanche reports. Briefly, these reports talk about the current and past weather and what that means for different slope angles and elevations. It then talks about the type of avalanche problems that are present that day and ways to detect those problems. If available, an avalanche report is my #1 tool each day.
With your desired slope aspect in mind and knowledge of the days avalanche situation, the next crucial step in planning the day comes into hand. Your partner.
After thinking about what you think may or may not be safe for the day, communicating your thoughts with a potential partner is paramount to a successful day. It has taken me years in Utah to find a group of people that I genuinely enjoy backcountry skiing with, for there are so many variables that go into a partner. Ideally, your perfect ski partner has the same fitness level and more importantly, risk tolerance. Backcountry skiing is a game of risk. Period. It is important to find a partner who appreciates that risk similarly. If your partner is always game for jumping off cornices and you are not, there will be conflict. If your partner only wants to ski a 20-degree slope on a safe avalanche day, there will be conflict as well. Be picky and search for people that you think are compatible with your fitness and style.
When talking to your partner about the day, it is important to talk about what you think may be safe or unsafe to ski and why, and to hear what your partner has to say as well. In this discussion, talking about the primary objective of the day is probably the most important path to success. If you want to bag a peak and your partner just wants to lap a bowl, it is simply not going to work out. Make sure that you and your group are on exactly the same page about the day's objectives and once clarified, leave a small note with someone back in town about where you will be going and when you expect to return. If tragedy were to happen and your group got stuck in the mountains, someone needs to know where you are so a safety team can be accurately deployed.
Once in the mountains, communication is paramount. Talk with your partners about what you see and how you feel. While a pre-tour plan is always necessary, I have switched plans on the skintrack many times due to unexpected conditions. Communicate and do not be hell-bent on achieving the days objective. Mountains aren’t going anywhere.
Ok, you and your group have finally reached the top of the days first run. First and foremost, take it all in. Backcountry skiing is equal parts nature and skiing, so take in the mountains and the peace and quiet. That is something you will never get in a ski resort. This part of the tour is very important for the safety of the group but is often overlooked. How do we ski this run? Yes, you probably have just spent 3 hours getting to the top, but it could not be more important to analyze the run from the summit and talk about how the group will ski it safely. Are we going to ski it in pitches? Should I ski the whole run and wait at the bottom? What is the exit plan and what part of this run is the safest? There are so many questions that should be talked about on top before dropping in. Should something go wrong, it is key to know where exactly your partner was headed and what the exit plan is. The last thing a group needs during an emergency is to be unsure of whether someone is in danger or not.
Backcountry skiing is an intricate sport with high highs and low lows. It is a sport of endurance, natural beauty, and powder skiing. It is a sport that has the power to transform lives. Approach the backcountry with respect and knowledge, and you will no doubt discover everything that is possible on a pair of skis.