Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Tips, tricks and tools of the trade from female mountain guides at Mountain Trip.
Kaylee Walden, AMGA apprentice ski guide and avalanche educator
Reaching Baseline for Your First Backcountry Season
Perfect powder slopes, pristine views, solitude, no lift lines—that’s what the backcountry is all about, right? Turns out it’s also about avoiding deadly avalanches; route finding through cryptic, untracked terrain; skiing ice, rocks and breakable crust; bushwhacking; and tough trail-breaking for hours just for a few minutes of downhill. Being a beginner is not only daunting, but if done incorrectly, dangerous.
I work as a ski guide and apprentice avalanche educator for Mountain Trip, an AMGA accredited guide service based in Telluride, CO, and I’ve been skiing in the backcountry for nine years now, averaging 80-100 days per year in recent winters. Of course the backcountry can be all of those good things and more, but there are many pieces of the puzzle that need to come together for backcountry success.
I sat down to answer a few burning questions from my friend and colleague, Jacque, who will be venturing into the backcountry this year for her first time. And she’s not alone—many outlets have reported that backcountry skiing is the fastest growing winter sport in the United States. It’s also one of the most intimidating to begin, requiring a higher baseline of knowledge, education, gear and fitness than almost any other outdoor pursuit. Hopefully you can also learn (or review) a thing or two from here leading into the winter.
Keep in mind this is by no means a completely comprehensive guide. Always seek out more resources to make sure you have the proper knowledge, experience, gear and training to get into the backcountry. We’ll be checking in throughout this winter season with tips, tricks, stories and informative articles from our female guides here at Mountain Trip.
How can I find safe, reliable partners?
That’s the million-dollar question in backcountry skiing, because having that partnership is key, especially when you’re learning. Put simply: It takes time. I was lucky to have some great mentors from the start and have continued to seek out more seasoned partners through the years. Keep in mind that those with more experience may not always want to take on skiing with a beginner, and that’s OK.
A big part of this is educating yourself enough to be able to recognize when a partner is unsafe or not a good fit for you. Never be afraid to ask more about someone’s previous experience and education in the backcountry.
Just because you enjoy someone’s company in a casual setting, or even if they’re a regular ski resort buddy, that unfortunately doesn’t always translate to a good fit as your backcountry partner. Developing partnership, and finding good partners that share your same risk tolerance, level of experience and skiing ability, can take years. A way to expedite that process can be to go out with a qualified guide or as part of a seminar (like those with SheJumps or with a guide service like Mountain Trip) to make your way over the start of the learning curve in a more risk-mitigated environment.
What sorts of courses or certifications have you found most useful for recreational backcountry skiing? What about guiding?
A Recreational Avy-1 course is the starting point for most skiers and snowboarders getting into the backcountry. I’d argue that a Wilderness First Aid or Responder course should also be treated as a “prerequisite” of sorts for getting into the backcountry in the same fashion.
Those two courses form a solid foundation upon which to build your knowledge and skills. But, I think there should be a bit of a shift in mindset with education surrounding backcountry skiing: There’s no one silver-bullet course that transcends you to backcountry enlightenment. There’s always more to learn.
It’s worthwhile to invest in continued education every season, ideally as often as possible. This doesn’t always have to be courses that cost money. Community backcountry and avalanche awareness chats are worthwhile, and generally free events to keep you in the mindset of thinking about risk and what’s going on with the snow in your area. In many ski towns you can find evening seminars on everything from mountain medicine, to navigation, to weather forecasting, both online and in person. Avalanche Rescue courses are a great single-day refresher for those who have already taken an Avy-1, and who want to continue to stay sharp on those essential skills. Introduction to Backcountry courses can be helpful for filling in the gaps beyond an Avy-1 that are commonly hard for people, like learning how to assess terrain, set a proper skin track, lace a flawless kickturn, and a more in-depth look at how to use your local avalanche forecast. These are all great places to seek out new backcountry partners who are also trying to up their backcountry skills and awareness.
In other words, all courses are helpful once you’ve built that foundational knowledge. A prolific quote in the avalanche education community comes to mind: “You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training.”
Beyond all of this, take the time to practice beacon searches and rescue skills with your partners at the start of every season. Start paying attention to every storm that hits your range: how much precipitation falls, what direction the wind blows, temperature fluctuations. Make it a ritual to read the avalanche bulletin for the zones you frequently ski, not only on days when you’re going into the backcountry.
The most formative course I have taken so far professionally is the AMGA Ski Guide Course. The course is an intense 10 days in the mountains, with 8-10 hour mock guiding sessions. We spent one night sleeping in snow caves at over 11,000 feet when it was a forecasted low of -8 degrees. Most days included rope work in challenging terrain and typically 3-6,000 feet of ascent and descent in variable conditions. A long course like that teaches you a lot about prioritizing self care so that you can continue to perform for long periods of time, day after day.
What do you have in your pack for a typical backcountry tour?
There’s a baseline kit that you should have in your pack every single tour to be well prepared for a successful day.
Pack: Something in the 22-35 liter range is great for most day tours. Preferably ski specific, with straps for carrying skis and a pocket designed for your rescue gear.
Avalanche Transceiver (aka Beacon): Make sure to check your (and your partner’s) battery and search function at the beginning of every tour. I trade out batteries when they fall below 50 percent. Much lower than that, and your battery life is compromised when in search mode.
Shovel: You want your shovel to be sharp and in good condition, both for rescue and for digging snowpits.
Probe: For most snowpacks, I recommend a probe over 300cm. Take it out of its storage sleeve before it goes in your pack to have it ready to be deployed.
Skins: You don’t need to store them on the skin saver or in the bag when you’re out for a tour. Carefully sticking them to themselves in quarters and rolling them up saves space and time. Make sure to clear off any snow before applying them, and take them out of your pack to hang-dry at the end of each day.
Water: You should actually remember to drink it, too. Bring at least a liter, or more depending on your objective. You can also swap this out for a thermos of tea on a particularly cold day.
Snacks: Obviously! But bring things that are packable, calorie dense, carb forward, and that you’ll actually want to eat. A simple peanut butter and banana wrap in a tortilla does it for me most of the time.
Ski Straps: I like to have three, of varying lengths, and I usually keep one handy. They have virtually endless uses, including keeping skins attached when they won’t stick, fixing a broken boot, or even in first aid applications, like helping to stabilize an extremity.
First Aid Kit: Remember to tweak this for backcountry skiing versus what you bring, say, mountain biking, so that it’s more specific to injuries you might encounter.
Scraper/Skin Wax: A small, plastic scraper tool helps clear ice and snow from tech bindings so they work properly, and skin wax will keep skins gliding rather than glopping on days with big temperature fluctuations. This is more of a spring concern in some areas like the Canadian Rockies, but it can happen anytime in Colorado.
Phone: Fully charged, with maps for your area downloaded, and as a rule at least 20 inches (50 centimeters) from your transmitting beacon.
inReach or Other Emergency Communication Device: If you’re going somewhere without cell service and outside of resort boundaries, it’s a non-negotiable to have one of these in your party.
Headlamp: Something small (like a Petzl Bindi) that lives in your pack in case you end up being out much later than intended.
Small Repair Kit: Extra skin clips, a knife or multi-tool, electrical tape, a few rubber bands, gear repair tape, and zip ties can solve a whole lot of problems and potentially save you a headache.
Packable Emergency Bivvy: The smallest one you can buy works just fine for day tours, but will make all the difference in case of emergency.
Puffy Layer: Something to throw on for warmth during breaks and transitions, while digging pits, if the weather changes unexpectedly, or if something goes awry.
Gloves: Keep ‘em waterproof by applying wax to your leather gloves each season. Bring a second, light pair for protection when you’re moving uphill and too warm for heavy gloves.
Headwear: Many people opt to ski without a helmet in the backcountry, but it’s always best to protect your head. I bring a helmet, a buff for warmth or to use as a headband, good UV-protective sunglasses, and ski goggles for the downhill.
Forecast: This is actually kept in your brain, but don’t forget to take the time during your morning coffee to check out the local avalanche forecast for the day and continue to make informed observations throughout your tour.
Some extra items I usually have in my pack when I’m guiding or on a long mission include: rescue sled, ski crampons, boot crampons, ice axe, snow study kit, guide notebook, extra batteries, overnight gear, and a rope(s). This list changes a bit if I’m skiing in the sidecountry or touring within ski resort boundaries.
What sort of terrain do you view as “beginner territory?”
In terrain assessment, many snow professionals use the terms “simple,” challenging” and “complex.” Beginners should typically stick to simple terrain, which, in other words, means terrain without features to avoid, like cliffs, steep roll-overs, very tight trees, etc, and does not steepen beyond 35 degrees.
Beginner territory is ideally somewhere not too remote, or too far from the car, where you can clearly find your way back in the event any of your gear malfunctions or something goes wrong. In reality this can be hard to find, but look for a mellow gladed slope, ideally close to a road, where the route is clear and you can focus on getting to know your gear and improving technique. Take the time to know the area before you arrive, by using a GPS or mapping resource to check out the nuances of the terrain.
From guiding, I’ve learned that being a “beginner in the backcountry” is not a one-size-fits-all term. Some come into the backcountry as expert skiers with good fitness who have simply never toured uphill, while others come from big cities or warm climates, where they spend very little to no time on snow or in the mountains. Of course, those two types of skiers are going to be starting off with different terrain and progressing on a different timeline.
What do you look for in your backcountry ski gear?
I make sure to read all of the “tech specs” listed online, looking specifically at weight and trying to maximize the performance of my gear at the lowest weight possible. If you’re a ripping freeride skier, hitting cliffs and primarily focusing on the downhill, you might have a different process. But regardless of your ability, you’re going to be dragging that ski uphill for every foot of downhill.
With skis, I read as many reviews (Blister Reviews are an awesome resource) as I can to get a better idea of how the ski will perform in a variety of terrain and snow conditions. I always look at their tip/tail profile and turning radius. Turning radius tells you how nimble the ski will be in obstacles. A ski with a turning radius shorter than 20m will be easier to turn through tight trees and chutes, whereas a ski with a larger turning radius will be more stable at speed and inclined to make big turns. Something with more rocker or early tip rise won’t be quite as grippy on the skin track, but will float easier in powder. There’s always tradeoffs. As far as length, I personally typically size down by about 5-8mm, both to sacrifice a little bit of weight and to improve maneuverability.
Ski boots are probably the toughest piece of the puzzle. Feet are like snowflakes. No two skiers are just the same, which makes boots an often painful challenge. It’s good to have an idea of if you have a narrow or a wide foot, and look carefully at the “last,” or forefoot width, of the boot. Consider the flex of the boot. The flex you’ll want will depend both on your weight and how aggressive of a skier you are. I can’t recommend finding a good boot fitter enough. It will change your life in ski boots, and change your skiing for the better—plus there are some fit considerations when you will be spending more time in your boots going uphill than down.
For snowboarders, you’ll want to get a splitboard, and ideally one you’re not splitting yourself. Many riders these days are opting for a hard boot setup for the ease of traversing and split-skiing. Hard boots, however, (typically modified AT ski boots), can be much more expensive, and don’t quite have the same “surfy” feel of a traditional soft boot.
Any other general advice leading into the season and anticipating my first tour?
As a beginner, don’t be afraid to ask questions! If you find an experienced mentor or go out with a guide, ask as many questions as you can. Be curious. Contribute to the conversation. Don’t hesitate to speak up if you feel uncomfortable with terrain choice, or if you notice a hazard and want to learn more.
If your resort has a good uphill policy, use that access to practice skinning and transitions, and to familiarize yourself with your gear in a low risk and avalanche mitigated setting. Upping your mountain endurance is the easiest way to make everything else about skiing in the backcountry easier. It’s really challenging to focus on terrain choice and avalanche mitigation if you’re barely staying alive on the skintrack and exhausted before you reach the top of your run.
And remember, most of the time, more snacks are probably the solution.
Kaylee Walden is an AMGA apprentice ski guide and avalanche educator for Mountain Trip. She is based in the high mountain town of Ophir, Colorado, at 9,800 feet, where she can start skinning into the backcountry directly from her front porch. She grew up in Montana where, if she was lucky, she could skip school to chase her ski patrol dad on powder days for as many laps as she could handle. Reach out to her at email@example.com if you want to talk backcountry skiing or join an Intro to Backcountry seminar.
Photos provided by Kaylee Walden & SheJumps
SheJumps is an inclusive organization. We welcome all women and girls (transgender and cisgender) as well as non-binary people who identify with the women's community. SheJumps strives to be an ally in the fight against racism and acknowledges that our events and programs take place on traditional, unceded Indigenous lands.