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Steal This Idea: A Mountain Guide’s Morning Routine

Author: Jonathon Spitzer

December 20, 2018

Each year, I spend more than 100 days a year skiing and ski guiding around the world as an AMGA/IFMGA guide. But my morning ritual never changes, no matter where in the world I am—and it’s this routine that helps keep me safe while traveling in the backcountry. Below are three things I consistently do before heading into the mountains.

Check the forecast—both avalanche and weather. 

My morning starts with a large cup of coffee and my laptop opened to my local avalanche center forecast page. With my first cup of coffee, I read the advisory and I ask myself, “Have any avalanches been triggered lately?” And, “If so, what elevation and aspect did they occur on?” After getting a sense of the main avalanche concern for the day, I move onto looking at the weather forecast. Weather is one of the main drivers of avalanche formation, and this helps me anticipate an increase or decrease in avalanche danger throughout the day. A clear idea of the weather forecast for the day will also help me find the best snow. Understanding the weather forecast also helps me pick my layers and clothing for the day. For example, on a bluebird cold day, I will probably leave my hardshell jacket behind and add an extra insulating layer.

Create a plan based on the avalanche and weather forecast and the goals of my teammates and myself.

My second cup of coffee involves creating a tour plan based on the avalanche problems and weather forecast for the day. I like to use digital map programs like Caltopo, Gaia, Google Earth and local run-list photos to help me envision the terrain and possible avalanche paths.

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Next, I consider the weather forecast and determine what type of terrain to ski given the forecast. For example, if they are forecasting overcast weather with thick clouds, it probably won’t be fun to be above tree line in large open features that are not well defined, since visibility will be poor.  Instead, the better choice is to ski/ride around tree line so depth perception on the slope is improved.

Inform someone of your plan and let them know when you will return.

Letting someone know where I’ll be and when I’ll be home is an integral part of my daily backcountry travel ritual. This can be super simple: a text message, a sticky note in the kitchen (on the espresso machine of course), or a phone call. I usually let my wife or another friend know the area I plan to ski and when I’m going to be home. I also will let them know if I’m going to have a satellite emergency device or just my cell phone with me. 

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Routines—like checklists—can improve safety. An effective routine is simple and straightforward. For me, the three tips listed above comprise an essential procedure that has helped keep me safe in the backcountry for years. Because it’s a simple list, I will continue to follow this morning plan before heading out for any ski tours. This winter I’ll be guiding and teaching several avalanche courses at Ruby Mountain Heli Ski. Come check out the yurt-based backcountry education program and get a first hand look at my morning ritual. Coffee included.

Jonathon Spitzer

Jonathon Spitzer grew up in the Pacific Northwest learning to hike, climb and ski in the Cascades Mountains of Washington State. With his strong passion for the outdoors, Jonathon made his way to Western State College of Colorado where he received a B.A. in Recreation and Business Administration.

These days Jonathon has turned his hobby into his profession, splitting his time guiding in Washington, Alaska, Utah, Nevada and Europe. After spending four years completing the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA/IFMGA) training program, Jonathon passed his final exam in the fall of 2009. He now works full-time as a mountain guide and helicopter ski guide.

Jonathon lives in Salt Lake City, UT with his Fiancé, Rachel. He can be found be exploring the Wasatch and the desert on his days off. When not climbing, skiing or training, Jonathon can be found at home perfecting his espresso and latte making skills.