What A Ski Guide Wants You To Know Before Going Backcountry Skiing or Snowboarding

For maximum enjoyment and backcountry safety, follow ski guide Jessica Baker’s routine. This post is part of our Going Deeper Series.

Working as a heli-ski guide in Alaska, Jessica Baker remembers being blown away at the quality of the Chugach snow on such steep terrain. But as she stayed for multiple seasons, she began to see the reality of the conditions: sometimes there were hidden instabilities underneath that incredible pow. She recalls a day when she watched a class 5 avalanche—due to a massive serac fall—release across multiple ridgelines, taking out the entire snowpack across three mountains. She watched the debris cross over a half a mile out into the Tonsina glacier. She says it made her realize the mountains’ indifference to us as we pass through them.

Jessica is a former World Tour Freeskiing Champion, AMGA-certified backcountry ski guide, professional ski instructor and founder of Ski Divas Women’s Ski Camps. She also instructs Recreational Avalanche Level 1 and 2 courses for the American Avalanche Institute. She loves sharing the knowledge she’s gained to help empower others to enjoy the backcountry safely. We asked her to share advice for people going backcountry skiing or backcountry splitboarding for the first time—and picked her brain about common mistakes. Here’s what she said.

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What’s your first piece of advice to someone who’s never skied outside a resort before?

Do you have the proper partner, plan, gear and knowledge to safely travel in the backcountry? If the answer is no, then stop! Don’t go unless you have these things in place. The backcountry comes with inherent risks—it isn’t an inbounds resort. There isn’t any avalanche mitigation. You are at risk of dying in an avalanche, and you must go prepared. 

My first advice is to take an Avalanche Level 1 course. This will help you determine whether you should be going into the backcountry in the first place. Once you have completed your Level 1 Avy education, consider taking your Level 2. Making decisions in the backcountry can mean the difference between life and death. It’s a small price to pay to stack the odds in your favor.

Secondly, get to know your local avalanche forecasting center as well as your weather forecast and snowpack history before ever stepping into the backcountry.

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Was there a specific moment that shaped how you approach the backcountry?

I grew up skiing in the mountains, and first sampled backcountry skiing as a teenager, so I’ve been exposed to the environment for a long time now—I’ve seen it all. I’ve helped recover bodies, I have triggered avalanches, I have been caught in avalanches.

I do recall this one time when I was 17 years old, a pretty naïve, very green backcountry skier, dropping into a big avalanche path without really knowing what the snowpack or the avy hazard was. The path broke loose. Luckily, I was high enough on the slope to arrest before the avalanche engulfed me. The class 2 avalanche would have killed me had I been caught up in it. I came away unscathed physically, but the mental impression changed the course of my choices forever. I cannot reiterate enough: You must have the proper partner, plan, gear and knowledge before you go, or your risk is significantly higher.

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What's one of the most common mistakes you see people make in the backcountry?

Going out without backcountry gear and no partner. If you don’t have a beacon on, how will you be found if you get caught in an avalanche? If you don’t have a shovel and probe, how will you save your partner if they are caught in an avalanche? If you don’t have a partner, how will you get rescued if you are in an avalanche incident or other accident? 

I remember an incident a while back on Teton Pass where a man—a veteran backcountry skier—went out for a solo day of backcountry skiing with his dog, and went missing. He was later found in a very small pile of avalanche debris, just barely under the snow in a terrain trap. He didn’t die of trauma—he died of asphyxiation. His dog was pacing around the pile. He could have been saved had he had a partner.

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Jessica Baker's Checklist for a Backcountry Ski or Snowboard Day

 

Start with planning the day before:

  1. Check weather forecast, avalanche forecast, and recent avalanches.
  2. Take a closer look at the avalanche problems, what types of avalanches, what is the bed surface they are sliding on, how widespread is the problem?
  3. What route(s) will you feel safe going into for the day? What terrain is closed (i.e. too high a risk)? What terrain is open (acceptable risk, or non-avalanche terrain)? Stick to your plan.
  4. Make sure all your gear is ready, fresh batteries in your beacon, etc.

Then the morning of:

  1. Check in with your partner(s), and make sure everyone is on the same page, and communication is open before you step foot into the backcountry.
  2. Check beacon function for all members of your party.
  3. Gear double check.

Then heading into the backcountry:

  1. Stay alert. Keep mountain awareness a priority. Are there any new signs of risk that weren’t in your forecast?
  2. Don’t let heuristics get in the way of sound decision making.
  3. Keep communication open and often with your partner(s).
  4. Pay attention to warning signs (avalanche activity, whumpfing, etc).
  5. When in doubt, go to low-angle terrain less than 25 degrees in pitch.

At the end of the day, debrief your day with your partners:

  1. What went well?
  2. What could improve?
  3. When were you most at risk?
  4. What decisions led to a successful day?
  5. What decisions could have been better?
  6. Did everyone feel free to communicate?
  7. Was there something that didn’t get communicated?
  8. How can communication improve?

 

A few other resources Jessica recommends:

https://avalanche.org

https://www.americanavalancheassociation.org

https://www.americanavalancheinstitute.com

https://avtraining.org

https://www.noaa.gov

https://www.windy.com/

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[Stay tuned for more in the Going Deeper series: An Introduction to Backcountry Safety with Paul Diegel of the Utah Avalanche Center, a list of Backcountry Safety Resources and a Guide To Finding Your Perfect Ski Kit.]