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Objectively Speaking

I’ve done a lot of stupid things in the mountains on skis over the past twenty plus years. For 10 years I made backcountry ski films, and now I’ve turned backcountry skiing into some sort of career. I’ve been on the cover of Powder Magazine, skied all the lines in Andrew McLean’s book TheChuting Gallery, I’m halfway through the “50 Classic Ski Descents of North America,” I’ve traveled to remote never before skied ranges, I’ve guided skiing, shot skiing videos and ski photos all over the planet, and I’ve personally enjoyed over 1,374,892 face shots (yes, I’ve been counting). I’m not just bragging—my point is that I’ve spent a lot of time hunting down and skiing specific objectives in avalanche terrain, with varied conditions, and many different group dynamics. Of those accomplishments, the feat I’m most proud of is that I’ve never lost a partner in an avalanche and I’ve never had to dig anyone out (knock on wood). There have been some close calls no doubt. And I know that half of that is just pure luck, but what’s the other half? ………. It’s actually also probably luck, with the addition of some concepts perhaps.

I’m a very objective oriented skier. This is a big motive for me. I like going new places, skiing classic lines, ticking off lists. I worked into it very slowly and realized early on that objective focused skiing is one of the most dangerous ways to operate and one of the easiest ways to get into trouble in the snowy mountains. Why? Because once your sight is narrowed onto one thing, you lose focus of the broader view.

If you’re going to have goals, give yourself a long list of mountains and lines you want to ski, with a wide variety of aspects and elevations, make it a broad target and that will make it easier to hit. When I started the project to ski the lines in TheChuting Galleryit was easy because I had 90 lines with many different aspects to choose from and when the days and conditions were good for south facing, I skied south facing lines. As the list got smaller and smaller it became harder and harder to line up the conditions because all I had left were lines on the infamously dangerous NE aspect and that was where we were having instability in the snowpack. There were several days where I tiptoed out onto stuff trying to force it to work for me, instead of aligning with when it was good snow and safe.

I’ll hear people say, “I really want to ski the NE couloir on Lone Peak.” Well, there are only a small handful of days when that is a safe line to access and ski. If every day you’re waking up and thinking about that line, you can end up trying to force it in the wrong conditions. The mountains are not the place to force things. I like to work the other way around. What are conditions like today? Where are the safe aspects and elevations to operate? And THEN if they line up with your objective, go for it. It’s subtle, but it makes all the difference.

Another thing I’ve learned and try to practice is using smaller test slopes to work up to bigger and larger lines. Find similar slopes with less exposure or consequence and master those before moving upward and onward. This works well for testing avalanche stability as well as testing your skiing abilities and nerve.

If you can, give yourself an out—a plan B. Keep your options open. It’s best to bring this up with your group before you head out, so that it already exists in the minds of everyone in the party. That way it’s not a surprise, or a let down when you end up skiing your plan B, because it was actually part of the plan all along.

Failure isn’t necessarily failure. We have an upside down and shortsighted view of what success and failure is. We look at it on such a short timeline and with a narrow view. Failure to me is losing a friend, or dying in the mountains. Failure is not turning around having attempted something fun and cool and learned a lot along the way. In my stupid “quest” to ski the 50 Classic Ski Descents, I’ve turned around a few times and I don’t regret it or fret over it. Backcountry skiing isn’t like baseball in many ways, but maybe in that there are plenty of “strike-outs,” but you just keep swinging knowing this is part of the game. After a 6 hour drive, a long snowmobile ride and a cold night camping out in the White Cloud Range to try and ski Castle Peak in Idaho, my partner and I tucked tail and bailed when we encountered a wind loaded col we couldn’t safely manage. That was a lot of commitment for us in time and money, but it was an easy decision to make because of what we were seeing. It seems like the mantra of “summit or die,” has been replaced in the mountain community with “summit, or try again later” even though it doesn’t sound as cool. These false starts and “failed” attempts led me to develop some form of patience. There is a time and a place to ski all things, but it might not be today, this season, or even next year. Plan well, let the fire build inside, and strike when it’s time. This is actually a very fun and rewarding part of the process when things finally fill in and line up and you nail it.

I go into the mountains for many different reasons on many different days. Work, play, social, fitness, escape, challenge, personal projects. Each of those different types of days, each has its own challenges and dangers. Each day I’m looking to get different things, different objectives. Knowing your motives is key. You might think that skiing is the motive, and while yes it is, as humans we also operate with many sub-motives all the time—whether that’s wanting to impress someone by showing off your knowledge of the mountains, getting them the best powder, proving how strong and fit you are, or not embarrass yourself. These change from run to run and day to day depending on whom I’m with. So before you head out for the day, ask yourself what your motives are. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Great questions for yourself and if you’re brave enough, for your partners.

Don’t forget that the experienceis the real objective, and we don’t actually know what that will be. It’s called adventure and it’s the best part of being in the mountains. We get to be surprised, aware and explore.  Sure, head out towards what you desire with an open heart and mind but accept what is delivered. Sometimes that will be getting what you thought you wanted, sometimes it won’t. And sometimes, you will experience more than you could have imagined. The great days I’ve had in the big mountains are when my partners and I have correctly lined up exterior conditions with our inner motives and it all comes together to “safely” ski those dream objectives.

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Noah Howell

Noah Howell

What is the best backcountry advice you’ve ever gotten?

The best advice I ever received was to slow down and truly listen to the mountains. They will share their mood with you if you're paying attention. Some days they're yelling loudly and other days it's a much more subtle message, the mountains may be quiet, but they are never silent.

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