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Your Pre-Backcountry Skiing Primer

Author: Jessica Baker

December 26, 2017

Are you licking your chops, antsy to get your first taste of backcountry powder this season? I feel you. That’s why now is a good time to refresh yourself and prepare—both physically and mentally—for the backcountry experience. That way, when you’re finally ripping your skins, you’ll feel strong, safe and confident. Here are five ways to bust the rust and smooth the transition into your best backcountry season yet.

Physically prepare. Returning to backcountry skiing after a half-year or more hiatus requires effort from muscle groups that have been out of practice, and lung power that can push through elevation gain and long aerobic pursuits. Putting in a solid six- to eight-week dry-land training cycle prior to your first days on skis can really make the difference during those first few weeks skiing down and skinning up mountains. Your fitness will also help you build a buffer of safety to prevent injury and allow you to move more efficiently through avalanche terrain. Program cycles like Rob Shaul’s at the Mountain Tactical Institute specifically address your fitness needs for backcountry skiing, and prepare you to be strong and aerobically fit for your first day back on skis.

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Mentally prepare.  Stepping into avalanche terrain in the beginning of the winter season requires mindfulness and strategy. It can be difficult to remember all the steps you need to stay safe. And a lack of confidence early in the season makes decision making difficult. Write down a list of all the steps you normally take to travel safely in the backcountry, and put question marks where you can’t remember or need more skill development. Find the gaps in your system and tackle them to find solutions before you head out for your first day in the backcountry. Have a plan for the types of terrain you feel are safe options even if the avalanche hazard is higher, and write them down. Finally, go forward with a humble mindset, with a cautious outlook, and no pressure to perform so that you may approach your first days back in the mountains with sound decision making, not clouded by the excitement or pressure of getting back on skis for the first time this season.

Educate yourself. Because most of us aren’t living in winter nor using the skills sets necessary to travel safely in the winter backcountry year-round, we need to re-up our avalanche education and hone our backcountry skills once again each year. First, take the time to re-read your avalanche education materials and re-familiarize yourself with the information. Many avalanche education providers offer refresher courses such as American Avalanche Institute’s Avy Level 1 Refresher https://www.americanavalancheinstitute.com/courses/avalanche-level-1-refresher/. Or make a plan to take the next step in your avalanche education and get your next level of certification. When your life depends on this knowledge, there are no excuses not to get more educated in the matter.

Choose your partners wisely and practice your avalanche companion rescue skills.

Everyone is excited to head out for their first day of the season—who will you share that day with? Having fun is, of course, of utmost importance, but you also want someone with commensurate skills and the right mindset. Ask yourself the following questions before choosing your partner(s) for a day of skiing…

  1. Is my partner a good communicator? Can I discuss things openly with them on an even playing field? Does my partner respect my concerns? Do I trust my partner?
  2. Does my partner know how to rescue me in case of an emergency, injury, or avalanche accident?
  3. Is my partner aware of heuristic traps, can we stop ourselves in those situations?
  4. Have we practiced our companion rescue? Beacon drills? Shoveling scenarios? Are we ready to help each other in case of an avalanche?
  5. Do we know the terrain we are going into? Do we know how to choose safer terrain when needed as a team?

RELATED: Video—What It's Like To Be Caught In An Avalanche

In addition to choosing the right partner, it’s super important that you have practiced your avalanche rescue drills before you head set foot in the backcountry. Practice your beacon searches and review best rescue techniques.

Know your weather and snowpack. Knowing the weather forecast for your region the day you are heading out—and also the history of the weather for the past few weeks, even months, can make a huge difference in your “global view” of what is going on in the snowpack and mountains. You are gaining your understanding of the snowpack for the first time in the season, and it’s a big task. For example, if there was a wind event, that transported snow onto northerly aspects the day before you head out, then you know that north-facing slopes have the potential for new wind-loaded snow—and may be more dangerous than other aspects that day. And, for example, at the same time, you know that there was a rain event earlier in the fall/winter creating a rain crust that’s buried under a few feet of snow on northerly aspects—then that aspect is even more suspect. If you don’t have these pieces of information, you are missing a big portion of the safety puzzle.

If you have access to an avalanche forecast center in your region—USA: http://www.avalanche.org/index.php , Canada: https://www.avalanche.ca/map , Europe: http://www.avalanches.org/eaws/en/main.php—then use this amazing resource! You can get an avalanche hazard forecast, recent avalanche activity, snowpack history and more. While a forecasting center certainly cannot give you all the detail you will need to know for your day in the mountains, it can provide a great starting point to help guide you through your day.

And finally, get your head in the snow! Dig, probe, look at your snow pack. How deep is the total depth of snow? Are there any weak layers? How far down are your layers of concern? What is the texture of the snow? What is the temperature of the snow? Start correlating your first-hand observations with the avalanche forecast, and your overall observations in the field. By knowing your snowpack intimately, and observing your weather closely, you are on your way to a safer day in the backcountry.

Jessica Baker

Jessica Baker is a professional skier, mountain guide, instructor, and founder of Ski Divas Women’s Ski Camps skidivas.com. She grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho in the Selkirk mountains. From a young age she built a successful ski-racing career and in 1999 moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming where she pursued her love for backcountry adventures, freeskiing, big mountains, climbing, and ski mountaineering. In her career she has won over five big mountain freeskiing competitions; landing such titles as 2000 North American Freeskiing Champion, 2004 US Freeskiing Nationals Champion, 3rd overall Woman on the World Freeskiing Tour both 2004 and 2005, and more. Jessica is the first female heli-ski guide for Alaska Rendezvous Guides out of Valdez, AK and works for Exum mountain guides year round. She has completed big ski descents on Denali, The Grand Teton, Mt Aspiring, Mont Blanc, and more. She has been featured in ski film and television productions including ESPN, The Ski Channel, Fox Sports, Rage films, Storm Show Studios, and NBC productions. Jessica has also been featured in magazines and publications such as Powder, Outside, Skiing, SKI, Freeskier, National Geographic Adventure, Mountain Gazette, and The New York Times. Jessica continues to inspire and support women in the sport, and has been a featured speaker at several women’s sport specific conferences.