Es­sen­tials of Back­coun­try Ex­plo­ration


While Euro­peans have been ex­plor­ing their moun­tains for gen­er­a­tions, back­coun­try ski­ing has only be­come a boom­ing trend in North America re­cently. In the past few years more and more skiers and snow­board­ers are ven­tur­ing be­yond re­sort bound­aries and into un­con­trolled back­coun­try zones. Some are there to chase un­tracked pow­der, some like to avoid the ski re­sort crowds, and oth­ers en­joy the unique chal­lenges of self-pow­ered back­coun­try travel. How­ever, be­cause of the in­her­ent risks of ex­plor­ing the back­coun­try, it is cru­cial to have cer­tain skills and knowl­edge be­fore ven­tur­ing into un­tamed wilder­ness. For­tu­nately, the Sea to Sky Cor­ri­dor is sur­rounded by ac­ces­si­ble, high-el­e­va­tion ter­rain with a con­sis­tent snow­pack — all fac­tors that make it an ideal place for learn­ing and de­vel­op­ing back­coun­try skills. With so much great ter­rain and some of the best snow on Earth, the Whistler area also hosts dozens of top-tier guid­ing com­pa­nies who of­fer all lev­els of back­coun­try ed­u­ca­tion, from in­tro­duc­tory cour­ses to ad­vanced moun­tain skills camps. If you’re look­ing to mas­ter the moun­tains, Whistler’s pris­tine hin­ter­land and ta­lent pool of skilled in­struc­tors can make it hap­pen. The in­tro­duc­tory level of back­coun­try ed­u­ca­tion is a course called AST (avalanche skills train­ing) 1, which is tra­di­tion­ally fol­lowed by an AST 2 course. AST 1 is geared to­ward in­ter­me­di­ate-level skiers or snow­board­ers who want to be­gin learn­ing about as­sess­ing snow con­di­tions and what sit­u­a­tions they might en­counter when trav­el­ling in the back­coun­try. AST 2 re­in­forces those lessons with fur­ther in-field train­ing. Peter Smart, founder of Ex­tremely Cana­dian, says the com­pany’s AST pro­gram has grown ex­po­nen­tially in re­cent years as more peo­ple are get­ting in­ter­ested in go­ing out of bounds. “AST 1 is usu­ally the ice­breaker for peo­ple. It tends to be a lot of in­for­ma­tion about what can go wrong … it just makes peo­ple aware of all the don’ts, and for what rea­sons,” Smart says. The AST 1 and 2 cour­ses are just the tip of the ice­berg. There are many more spe­cific, ad­vanced-level cour­ses avail­able for those who choose to con­tinue their train­ing. “What the Level 1 and 2 re­ally does is make you aware of all the dif­fer­ent things go­ing on out there in the back­coun­try. If you are in­ter­ested in guid­ing your­self, or go­ing with friends and be­ing the more ex­pe­ri­enced one, then the next level up would be a must for most peo­ple,” Smart adds. For those who wish to guide them­selves, lead a group, or just fur­ther their train­ing, Moun­tain Skills Academy and Ad­ven­tures of­fers a va­ri­ety of ad­vanced cour­ses in­clud­ing crevasse res­cue and glacier travel, orienteering, ski moun­taineer­ing and more. Eric Dumerac, owner/op­er­a­tor and cer­ti­fied In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Moun­tain Guides As­so­ci­a­tions guide, ex­plains a few key cour­ses he con­sid­ers vi­tal for back­coun­try en­thu­si­asts. “There are two other ex­tremely im­por­tant cour­ses. One of them is crevasse res­cue and glacier travel. We’re ski­ing here on glaciers, and more than ever now, we’re see­ing a huge amount of glacial re­ces­sion. In the last cou­ple years we’ve seen moats get mas­sive. We’ve seen crevasses get a lot big­ger,” Dumerac says. Moats (open rivers flow­ing be­neath glaciers) and crevasses (cracks in the glacier’s sur­face) are po­ten­tial traps for back­coun­try ex­plor­ers, so know­ing how to prop­erly per­form a res­cue is es­sen­tial.

Dumerac also highly rec­om­mends train­ing for nav­i­gat­ing in ad­verse weather con­di­tions, as storms can ap­proach quickly in the back­coun­try. “Imag­ine a case where a storm rolls in, and you have what we call white­out con­di­tions. Even if you do know which way is north, east, south and west, you bet­ter know how to nav­i­gate and fol­low a bear­ing.” Dumerac rec­om­mends some first aid knowl­edge, but says ba­sic first aid is all he ex­pects from recre­ational skiers. It’s cer­tainly ideal if skiers or snow­board­ers can sta­bi­lize an in­jured per­son un­til pro­fes­sional help ar­rives. With so many lo­cal com­pa­nies of­fer­ing back­coun­try cour­ses, some providers like Al­tus Moun­tain Guides have put to­gether spe­cial­ized pack­ages for spe­cific cus­tomers. JD Hare, one of Al­tus’s guides, is a pro­fes­sional skier known for ex­e­cut­ing self-pow­ered back­coun­try mis­sions deep into big moun­tain ter­ri­tory. Hare guides ad­vanced skiers on ed­u­ca­tional back­coun­try trips with a fo­cus on how freeskiers tend to use the ter­rain. “Look at the way Whistler Black­comb’s alpine gets shred­ded af­ter ev­ery storm. There are an aw­ful lot of peo­ple who are great tech­ni­cal skiers, but only a small frac­tion of peo­ple are com­fort­able ski­ing that way in the back­coun­try un­der their own guid­ance,” Hare says. “Guides [are] good at see­ing where the dan­ger lies, but they don’t re­ally know what the skiers want to do … how skiers would ide­ally like to ap­proach the ter­rain. I view my role as al­most a trans­la­tor be­tween the guide cul­ture [and] the knowl­edge the guides have into the ski cul­ture.” If you’ve tracked out all your home re­sort’s best lines and you hear the dis­tant moun­tains call­ing, per­haps it’s time to get out there and an­swer — but not be­fore you’re wise to the tech­niques of trav­el­ling safely and min­i­miz­ing po­ten­tial risks. All com­pa­nies who host avalanche cour­ses or skills camps pro­vide de­tailed lists of re­quired equip­ment, so be sure you’ve got the right gear sorted out for your course (avalanche equip­ment rentals are avail­able from sev­eral Whistler stores).

For more in­for­ma­tion about train­ing cour­ses and dates visit ex­treme­ly­cana­, moun­tain­skill­ or al­tus­moun­tain­


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