Explore impermanence with environmental factors
We stood at the top of the couloir, peering into the abyss. Cliffs yawned over the funneled chute of untouched snow. Looking up from the couloir’s entrance, jagged peaks overhead whispered their secrets: the options were endless. But the impermanence was disquieting. We might draw lines in untracked snow knowing that the mark we left behind would disappear with changing weather or the skiers that came after us. But it wasn’t the transitory freedom of backcountry skiing that pulled me between anxiousness and excitement.
We were in new territory, on a relatively unknown snowpack. The land and this line beckoned, inviting us in. But did that couloir lure us with a deadly siren song? Was the feeling of impermanence I felt rooted in something more ominous?
Method and practice build upon technical expertise to create competence in the mountains. Only with extensive experience and deliberate continued learning can we trust our gut instincts—and even then, factors beyond our control can still change everything.
In the winter issue, I explored ‘the human factor’ of backcountry skiing. But moving through mountain spaces on a backcountry touring setup isn’t just limited to our own personal decisions, expertise and group dynamic. The environmental factor is equally important to the day’s outcome.
Plan Your Backcountry Trip
Start thinking about your adventure far before the day you drive to the trailhead. Trip planning is a skill unto itself, and knowing how, where and when to go into the backcountry takes years to master. When we’re newer to the backcountry, more experienced or knowledgeable friends will take the lead on developing a trip plan. But all members of the adventure party should feel empowered to know what to do: Learn how to plan trips, even when we’re adventuring as newbies.
Start by getting the right gear together. This printable backcountry gear checklist from Weston Backcountry deserves a magnet on your refrigerator, if not a place in your pocket. Not a splitboarder? Many of the tips on their PDF stil apply; just swap out “splitboard” for “skis” or “snowshoes,” depending on your fancy (or budget).
Adventure photographer, Indigenous rights advocate, and AIARE 2-certified mountain athlete Micheli Oliver reminded me that when planning, she likes to first analyze her own physical ability, the group dynamic as a whole, the objective we’ve decided to do, skillsets of partner(s), and more.
In short: don’t just pick a spot on a map and drive to a trailhead. Learn about what a trip plan entails. If you haven’t taken your initial avalanche certification yet, start here: review content on Know Before You Go (a free 40-80 minute avalanche awareness course created by the Utah Avalanche Center). Then, check out this trip planning workshop and avalanche center website demo featuring the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and Colorado Adventure Guides.
Learn the Terrain
Conocer: the Spanish word for “to know” brings a different perspective to learning than that which we have in English. In English, we often say “we know” even when information comes from second-hand parties: apps and information from the internet give us a sense of authority even when we haven’t interacted first-person with something.
It’s important to move beyond theoretical knowledge from apps and books when doing new things, especially in mountainscapes. The first step to learning how terrain works: Embrace paper maps if you want to earn your laps.
Learn how to read a paper topographical map with this resource from Gaia GPS. And, now that you have a compass, learn how to use it. Take a navigation skills course from REI to bring together map and compass skills.
Take your new skills into the outdoors to practice, practice, practice. When you become a trip leader and planner, your terrain navigation skills won’t just save you time. Good navigation skills can save you tons of wasted effort, shave time off route ingress (access) and protect you from potentially life-threatening situations.
Welcome a different meaning of the term “to know:” to gain new knowledge, get hands-on. Don’t rely on digital apps to tell you where to go. As renowned alpinist Graham Zimmerman advised: “Return to the same places [to build navigation skills and] relationships with those geographies.” As we spend more time in an area, we learn to read the land: with map in hand, contour lines come alive with every day we safely travel through an area.
Consider Your Impact on Local Communities
Backcountry skiing in the time of COVID forces us to consider the bigger impact of our choices: if we want trailheads, parking lots and even entire communities to remain “open” we must consider how (and when) we travel.
When Gabaccia Moreno recently asked me the meaning of “exploring responsibly,” I took pause. Because ‘exploring’ conjures images of conquest, I wanted to move toward a more symbiotic relationship to land in my answer. And, in the context of COVID, exploring responsibly doesn’t just mean staying close to home or finding recreation in our own backyards.
Exploring responsibly as a backcountry skier, splitboarder or snowmobiler means moving through (un)known spaces to be your best self at the same time as honoring past and present inhabitants therein. This community-minded approach to exploration doesn’t just help us find value in our own backyards. It also encourages us to think about the footprints (and more) we leave behind.
As Cal Smith, RMI Expeditions Mountain Guide, Indigenous rights activist and four-season mountain athlete says: “The first thing I think about when selecting terrain whether a big or small day, is how far do I have to drive to it?” If conditions, trip partners and snowpack line up, don’t forget to check “COVID-19 Know Before You Go” guidelines via local town websites.
By following COVID containment guidelines, you can help keep communities safe, healthy and operating all winter long.
The Forecast Changes Everything
Radio 101.5FM in Truckee-Tahoe crackles early every morning when the snow reporter announces: “Every day in the mountains is a good day.” It’s true: crisp mountain air is like nothing else on Earth. But define a good day: two feet of fresh powder can be just lovely as two days of sunbaked hardpack—dependent upon your objective, the season and weather conditions.
Emily Hargraves of Backcountry Babes reminded me the value of understanding variable conditions: “I’ve been out on many days that seemed unideal, only to find surprise wind blown powder, perfect corn or other great conditions … and even ‘bad’ conditions can be a great day to get out for some exercise, sun and fresh air.”
Start with these two steps to make every day a good day in the mountains:
- Make consistent observations: No two days in the backcountry are the same: sun, wind, precipitation and temperature change snowpack every day.
Check snow conditions via your local avalanche center (via this list view or this map view from the American Avalanche Association) at least several times a week to get a complete picture of changing conditions in your area. If you are out in the field and notice snow anomalies worth sharing (like large cracks in the snow or avalanche crowns), report them via your local avalanche center’s website. No information is bad information.
- Plan according to the weather: Get a weather forecast, in addition to the avalanche forecast, to get an idea of what to expect when you’re in the backcountry. While weather forecasts are often available via your local avalanche center, you can also get search by zip code, pass name or town on www.weather.gov, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
There are endless environmental factors that play into trip building and decision-making processes when backcountry skiing, but we have to start somewhere. We know that going into the backcountry puts our fate into our own hands and those of our partners, and that inherent risk will always exist way out here.
But moving through mountainscapes gives us agency when we empower ourselves with knowledge, even if it also gives us an understanding of our infinitesimal existence in this universe.
Former Navy SEAL, fourteener ski record holder and Journey Lines author Josh Jesperson pondered: “Never in a million years did I think I would try to engage in all of the passionate addictions [like packrafting and mountain biking to access backcountry skiing] simply to be in the wind when life’s answers blow toward me.”
But the answers just might be blowing out there in the wind, if we listen carefully. To move through the mountains is a dance, just like all others: The timing, rhythm and space are totally out of our control. Move with the beat; listen to the mountains. They will tell you when to stay safe, and when to seek freedom high.