How to Become a Backcountry Skier

 

Zeb Blais backcountry skiing in the Italian Alps

 

How do I start Backcountry skiing?  Backcountry skiing is an intimidating sport to get into.  There's a lot of gear, a lot of hazards and a lot of unknowns.  This post will point you in the right direction to get started so that you can stay safe and have fun in the backcountry.  For simplicity, we'll refer to both skiing and snowboarding as just skiing - no offense to the boarders in the crowd, we're all just snow-sliders in the end! 

backcountry skiing Japan

First step: be or become a great resort skier. The backcountry is not the place to learn how to ski downhill.  The backcountry has a lot of challenges that don't exist at ski resorts, like variable snow surfaces such as breakable crust,  "schmoo," and the surface we all pray for: deep powder! By the time you hit the backcountry you should already be an advanced to expert level resort skier. There is no ski patrol to scoop you up in the backcountry if you get injured, so the golden rule is don't fall out there!

Develop your riding skills at the resort.  Use the power of the chair lift.  In the backcountry, you're going to spend 75% of your time going uphill and you're way better off developing your skiing by skiing, rather than hiking.  As an "expert" backcountry skier, I still love the ability to ski down without exerting any effort to get to the top.  I use my resort days to build strength and stamina, hone steep skiing skills, and work on skiing fast and fluidly over varied terrain. 

Ski Touring Lake Tahoe

"Ok, Ok, I'm a great skier! How do I get into the backcountry already!?"  Once you feel ready to tackle the snow surfaces and terrain the backcountry is going to throw at you, it's time to get out there.  The easiest way to do this is to rent some gear and take an Introduction to Backcountry course.  Almost all ski guide services offer these programs and they are definitely the fastest way to get up and running and understand the sport.  You'll learn:

  • How to find and understand the Avalanche Advisory
  • How to perform a trailhead transceiver check
  • How to use your touring gear
  • Skinning techniques
  • Basics of navigation
  • Tons of efficiency tips from your guide

Now, with your first tour under your belt, it's time to dig deeper.  The Intro to Backcountry just gave you a great understanding of how it all works, from the gear to the skiing back down. Now you can take the reigns and run with it.  If you plan to do this on your own without a guide, you need to understand the hazards.  The hazard that most resort skiers are unfamiliar with is avalanche.  Start understanding what avalanche terrain is and makes a snowpack unstable or more prone to avalanche with these simple online tutorials:

Take an Avalanche Level 1.  The level 1 provides the foundation of understanding of weather, mountain snowpack and small team avalanche rescue and provides you with a framework for making decisions.  Make sure you pick a provider with a solid curriculum and experienced instructors.  Our Blackbird AIARE1 program is top notch, but there are plenty of options at the AIARE (American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education) website: avtraining.org.

Students practicing snowpack tests during an AIARE 1

 

Take an Avalanche Rescue Course.   We avoid getting into avalanches by making conservative decisions based on our framework from AIARE 1, but there is a lot of grey area in avalanche and mistakes happen.  And when they happen, they happen fast.  Once a person is buried, statistics show you have less than 15 minutes to locate and dig them out before the chances of survival drop precipitously.  The Avalanche Rescue Course is a full day of training that makes rescue into a reaction. The last thing you want to be doing when a friend is buried is wondering what to do!

Continue your avalanche education - every year!  There are no experts in avalanche and understanding the phenomenon of avalanche is a lifelong pursuit.  Seek mentors to tour with and make it a point to refresh your skills each season

  • The California Avalanche Workshop happens every year before ski season and is a great way to start thinking and prepare before the season ramps up.
  • Get your friends together and take an
  • Build up your experience and take an AIARE 2 program. AIARE 2 dives deeper into using the framework and routines we developed in AIARE 1 to improve your planning and decision making.  
  • Build your team to include more experienced riders.  The more you can go out with people that have more education and more experience, the more you can learn from them. Take an avalanche course with your team!  Reviewing the lessons with your partners really helps drive it all home.

Expand the terrain you ride in.  Try new routes and travel to new snowpacks.  Hire a guide to take you into terrain that pushes your limits and builds your skill sets.  Feel free to reach out with questions and ideas- we love helping people build the skills they need to achieve their objectives!

Ski Mountaineering Chamonix

I hope this post has provided a clear and simple path to get started safely and efficiently!  Please reach out with any suggestions or comments below or at info@blackbirdguides.com

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