Anyone who’s experienced the perfection of a lung-busting, mind-clearing skin track, followed by the soul-centering joy of powder skiing, understands the addiction of ski touring. These are days spent in the places we love, often with the people we love, imitating the art of flying. However, the solitude once expected after slapping on skins has given way to hordes of backcountry enthusiasts, and the style in which we travel can be as varied as the lines we ski. We’ve all made mistakes in the mountains; most are from ignorance rather than ill intent. Here are some style points to ponder as you sip a pint and plan for your next powder day.
Before leaving the house, you should, at a minimum, have read your local avalanche center report, know the current avalanche problems, and be aware of any backcountry closures. “Awareness – of what the Department of Transportation, ski areas, (and) other public safety agencies might be doing that morning” is key, says Drew Hardesty, a Utah Avalanche Center forecaster and Grand Teton National Park climbing ranger. Once you’ve reviewed the data, select your terrain accordingly. Evelyn Lees, another long time forecaster and avalanche educator with the UAC, explains, “The Wasatch backcountry is inherently busy, and I feel winter backcountry etiquette starts with a conscious selection of terrain. If I feel it’s not the day to be in crowds, I try to choose timing and terrain with fewer people and more choices.”
1-First, approach your day with gratitude. You are fortunate enough to be ski touring. It’s taken a bit to get here: you aren’t at work, you can afford the gear, and you’ve been introduced to the purest form of skiing.
2-Be prepared and prompt- (Cue my many touring partners of the last two decades laughing; I am not known for my punctuality). Being late is saying that your time, obligations, your life, are all more important than your partners’, which, assuredly, they are not. So make an effort and show up on time.
Bring what you need to be self-sustainable. If you’re going fast and light, recognize that some risk accompanies that. Anticipate what could go wrong and pack a repair kit accordingly. Consider a roll of super 88, some epoxy, an extra Voile strap, hose clamps, a lighter and some wire.Extra layers of warm clothing will likely be more useful than any specific first aid gear. Your brain is the best first aid gear you own (so long as you educate yourself by learning first aid or taking a Wilderness First Responder course), and anything you carry can become part of a splint. When things go wrong in the winter, warmth wins.
3-Anticipate company- Ski touring has exploded in popularity over the past twenty years. Remember the gratitude with which you started your day? Cultivate that mindset as you search for a parking space in increasingly crowded lots. Consider carpooling. “I think a challenge is that parking stress sets people on their heels and they have no time to release it before heading into the wild white yonder,” says Don Sharaf, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute.
If you’re touring from a resort or from a popular trailhead, you’re likely to see other parties. Of course, you don’t have to. Educate yourself on nearby designated wilderness where no mechanized travel is permitted. There is an inversely proportional relationship between distance walked and number of other ski tourers you will encounter. If you want to be alone, and have a wilderness experience, walk further, and walk into wilderness. That’s not always an option, as Sharaf points out. “The backcountry experience I would prefer to have doesn’t involve lots of other people, but that is not my reality when I’m at work, or grabbing a lap during a work day. When I can’t get far away from the road I try to be nice to people and I expect the same from them. We may end up being a part of one another’s rescue team if something goes dramatically wrong and we certainly should be able to discuss where we are headed and how to manage the run if we are on the same one.”
And of course, be aware that, unless your last name is Cawley or Dorais, someone will have gotten up earlier and will be faster than you. Step aside when faster travelers approach.
4-If you happen to be the first, set a good skin track: safe, polite, efficient, repeatable. Educate yourself on where the traditional skin track has existed in your chosen drainage; many slopes in the west have decades of touring history (read: decades of avalanches) and that sub-ridge skin track is always in the same place for a reason. This is your signature in the mountains. Wider skis and more traction have led to steeper skin tracks; try to use only your middle risers (or no risers), save the high heels. Employ powder preservation by avoiding a track that traverses the slope unnecessarily. Stick to ridges, sub ridges, and trees. Try to follow the terrain. Don’t start a new skin track in an effort to race skiers who are ahead of you on an established uptrack, especially if your path will unnecessarily traverse the slope. Take the time to lose a little elevation and use the track already in place, as long as it passes your risk assessment.
There is a balance we seek in keeping skin tracks to a minimum (surely we don’t need uptracks with only fifty feet between them), but also setting one that meets our own risk criteria.
- If bootpacking or snowshoeing, please set a track next to, but outside of, the skin track. Boot prints and snowshoe prints will ruin the skin track. Similarly, try not to ski within the skin track on your descent, other than crossing where needed. You’re out here for pow, right?
- To the top! Resist any temptation to strip your skins early in an effort to ski sooner than the people ahead of you on the skin track. If other skiers pass on the track, ask where they’re headed, or at least offer where you’re planning to ski and ask if that’s their destination, too. (Wait until you’re closing in on your goal, as doing this from the trailhead could result in having the same conversation several times). Will you all be skiing the same slope? As forecaster Lees points out, “communication with the people [in the area where I’m skiing] is obligatory. I have a choice – depending on avalanche conditions, am I willing to accept others on the same slope or above me? Am I willing to change my plans and not ski a slope due to crowding? If I’m heading to popular, busy terrain, it’s important to communicate with those around me, anticipate their moves and be willing to change my objectives for their or my safety.”
- Don’t ski above others- Ski one at a time: be aware and communicate. When multiple parties are on the ridge, it’s easy (and inexcusable not) to talk to each other and make a plan for skiing the slope using good travel habits. This means skiing one at a time, watching each other, and regrouping in relative safe zones.
If you take nothing else from this list, take this: Recognize when you’re about to put someone else in danger, and STOP. If you trigger an avalanche, whom else are you putting at risk? Are there skiers below you? Are you above a highway? What is the likelihood of an avalanche, and what are the consequences? Slope testing by cutting cornices used to be common practice. Dropping a sofa (or school bus) sized cornice on a slope to test it is hard to defend, unless you can be absolutely certain that no one is walking in that path, especially if it triggers a larger than anticipated slide. Can you be certain that a touring party isn’t around the corner just out of view?
Says Sarah Carpenter, a co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute, “For me, I think awareness is key. Knowing if there are people above or below you needs to be incorporated in your decision-making process. I don’t have a perfect solution… but you should know if others are exposed. If you can establish communication with other groups, that seems like the perfect next step. From there, it might be possible to establish a plan between groups.”
In avalanche classes, the answer to many questions is, “it depends.” What is the hazard? What specific avalanche problems are you facing? Do they exist on the slope in question? Are there skiers below you? Can you communicate with them, and if so, are they ok with you traversing above them? Can you avoid it? If so, do! If not, this is where, as Carpenter says, there may not be a “perfect solution.” Efficiency and safety are often aligned in backcountry travel, but sometimes we’re forced to compromise between the two. If the primary avalanche problem is wind slab, and you’re considering skiing a windward (i.e. not loaded) slope with a party of skiers on the skin track below, is it ok to traverse above them to get to an adjacent slope? Certainly it’s not ideal, but neither is standing on a col for an hour in January. How confident are you in your assessment of the hazard and the avalanche problems? Are you sure enough to bet other people’s lives on your decision making? What if you’re wrong? What are alternate route options? Avoid skiing above others.
Hardesty points out that knowledge of the hazards, and awareness of your surroundings should combine to form “wisdom- understanding what’s at stake and whether you’re putting other parties at risk without their consent.
I think this is the (backcountry) issue of our time and takes a sea change of perspective where travel in and adjacent to high use and high-risk areas requires a mindset of privilege rather than right. Even an unintentional slide may result in injury or damage to other parties, roads, or infrastructure below.”
Hardesty would like to see a Leave No Trace ethic adopted by backcountry skiers, a “Backcountry Responsibility Objective.”
- Practice good travel habits, and be fit. Ski the slope one at a time, and stop beyond the run out or well outside the fall line. Watch one another, and listen. Jake Hutchinson, former Director of Ski Patrol and Snow Safety for the Canyons Resort and a lead instructor for AAI, says, “SHUT UP! I know these are the greatest turns of your life right now… but… try to preserve the calls and yells for critical info. Powder whoops… can sound a lot like cries for help, plus if I’m whooping, I may not hear my partner cry, ‘Avalanche!’” (Powder giggles, on the other hand, are acceptable)
To spoon or not to spoon tracks? This may be more style than safety, but if there are five parties sharing a slope, consider making your turns a bit tighter for your fellow skier. You should be strong enough to ski a slope without stopping in the middle, just as you must be strong enough to aggressively shovel densely compacted snow in the event that your partner is buried in an avalanche. Set yourself up for success; if your fitness isn’t what you’d like, choose smaller objectives so that you can ski with style and have energy reserved for the unexpected, or for another lap. Be honest with yourself, and create a margin of safety.
- Reserve judgment (except for thyself). We all have different risk thresholds, different objectives. It’s important to learn from others’ mistakes, but more important to learn from our own. A sense of humility is key to surviving a life spent in the mountains, a sentiment expressed by many avalanche professionals over the years. In every avalanche accident, mistakes were made. It’s important to evaluate what those were, and also recognize how we might have made the same ones. We are all fallible. Sharaf shares, “I am continuously amazed by people who are budded up as they get their Strava on, scowling at others who are infringing on their turf…, or look disdainfully down upon others who can’t ski or ride or forecast as well as they can (or at least as they perceive it).”
- Good snacks (and post tour beverages) can significantly increase your popularity as a ski touring partner. Consider Swiss chocolate and French cheese in the field, India Pale in the lot.
The upside of more people in the backcountry is a stronger voice for protection and preservation of our public lands, increased observations and support for your local avalanche center, and impetus for positive change such as increasing public transportation to trailheads.
In short, be polite, cultivate gratitude, and don’t put others at risk. As Hardesty says, we should shift our perspective from believing we have a right to be touring and instead consider it a privilege. When we are closer to the road than we’d like given limited time or life commitments, anticipate company, and make terrain choices accordingly. We seek the wild places to remind ourselves that we are small, to allow the mountains to overwhelm and ground us simultaneously. The best days in the woods restore our sense of wonder and awe. That sense of something greater than us, be it our public lands or our ski touring community, should guide our actions in the backcountry. It’s not just you, or me, out there. It’s us… a lot of us.