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Being adventure smart in the springtime backcountry

The recent sunny weather has been gorgeous for heading into the backcountry on skis, a snowboard or sled for springtime lines, outstanding views, and end-of-day hangouts catching the final rays with your friends. But, as we all know, the backcountry needs to be treated with respect. We caught up with Joelle Tiessen, Marketing Director of Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures (MSAA), for guidance on how to safely make the most of springtime in the backcountry.

 

Dress in layers:it get warm hiking in the Spring. Photo credit: MSAA

 

What steps do you recommend beginners take before heading into the backcountry to ski, snowboard or sled?

Tiessen: Before anyone heads into the backcountry, the first step is always to take a Level 1 Avalanche Skills Training (AST 1) course. This course makes you aware of the dangers of travelling in uncontrolled terrain and beyond the ski patrol resort boundaries. [In resorts patrollers manage the terrain and are also available for rescue. “Uncontrolled terrain” isn’t managed to reduce the risk of avalanche or other hazards such as crevasses, and rescue may not be possible—Editor.] If you are planning to go into the backcountry you want to always carry a transceiver, probe and shovel. The AST 1 course teaches you how to use these tools in an avalanche rescue situation and how to stay out of avalanche trouble spots so hopefully you never need to use those skills.

 

Learn about safety in the backcountry on an introductory Level 1 Avalanche Skills Training course. Photo credit: MSAA

 

What would you recommend somebody brings in their bag on a backcountry trip? AdventureSmart recommends these 10 items (a flashlight, fire-making kit, signaling device, extra food and water, extra clothing, navigation/communication aids, first aid kid, emergency shelter, pocket knife and sun protection), but do you have any further tips? 

Tiessen: One item that we would add to this list is a repair kit for your gear. You don’t want to have a binding or pole or other key item break while you are way out in the backcountry. If something does break, having spare parts, duct tape, ski straps and a multi-tool can come in very handy and make the difference between getting back before dark or spending a long night out.

 

Duct Tape can get you out of a sticky situation.

 

Is avalanche.ca the best website to check on conditions? Or do you know of other resources? 

Tiessen: For the Sea to Sky area, avalanche.ca is the best resource for avalanche conditions. It’s also good to get in habit of browsing a Facebook group like South Coast Touring to read about individual experiences in specific locations. Another source for a little geeking out is the Wayne Flann Avalanche Blog. There are many more, but find your favourites and keep current on local conditions throughout the season.

The backcountry is a pretty intimidating place, do you recommend any ways for newer adventurers to get ongoing guidance and mentorship? 

Tiessen: There are several local groups who meet up casually (like South Coast Touring on Facebook) and welcome new tourers (who have taken AST1), there are also mentor groups like Mountain Mentors for women. Hiring a local ski guide for a day is a great way to get into new terrain and learn tips to make your touring experiences better and safer. Many local shops also offer clinics for free or a minimal fee on certain dates throughout the season. And if you like to geek out a little, our local bookstore [Armchair Books. You can also try Whistler Public Library.] has titles on avalanche topics and there is also YouTube for mini instructional videos to keep your skills fresh. If you are very new and not sure you’re ready to commit to all the gear and training, just take an Intro to Backcountry guided tour where you can get a taste and see if touring is for you.

 

 

What should experienced backcountry adventurers do to keep their skills fresh? I’ve heard it’s important to take an annual avalanche safety refresher course.

Tiessen: It is good to practice your avalanche training skills regularly, especially at the beginning of each season. You can do this with your touring friends or take a one-day refresher course with a professional guide to continue learning. There are also options to build more advanced rescue skills by taking a Companion Rescue Skills clinic or going even farther and taking the Level 2 Avalanche Skills Training course. There is a snow field up on Blackcomb Mountain near the Rendezvous where patrollers bury transceivers to practice searching, and members of the public are welcome to practice there as well.

If someone is vacationing in Whistler, is there a way for them to safely experience this area’s backcountry without owning all the equipment? 

Tiessen: The best and safest way for visitors to get into the backcountry is to go with a local guide who can show them around terrain appropriate to their skill level. There are a couple of local businesses that specialize in renting all the touring gear you need from skis, skins, splitboards, transceivers, probes and shovels and even avalanche airbags. MSAA’s tours do not include rental gear but we partner up with Escape Route Alpine Demo Centre and they offer our guests a 20 per cent discount on most rental gear. [Excess Backcountry is another option—Editor.]

Read more about being adventure smart in the backcountry here and Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures. For more adventures, join us at GO Fest from May 17 to 20.

Back vs. Slack. Or is it all just whacked?

No one forgets their first time. You’re skiing or riding along your favorites run – maybe it’s big and wide and blue with epic views, or maybe it’s steep and bumped out so your knees rattle a bit – and suddenly you look off to the side. What’s that? Some untouched white gold that looks as fluffy as cloud essence?

And then you see it: the endless amount of virgin pow just waiting to be ridden. You cast a backward glance only once at the beautiful run you’re leaving, and then you duck into the darkness of the trees.

At the bottom you’re breathless with exhilaration. You’ve just gone where no one else has gone before, and it was the best ride of your life.

You’ve just tasted the world of off piste. It’s beautiful and glorious and full of risk because in the blink of an eye you could sail off a cliff, fall into Whistler Creek, or end up at Cheakamus and hitching back to the Village.

Off piste is where the groomers don’t go and the maps get vague. It’s where pow exists when there’s nothing great on the runs, and it’s where you get to know every tree, every fallen log, and all the turns of the creek in a way you’ve never thought possible.

It’s everyone’s first taste of a face shot.

@therichardtopp plunging into the deep end . #keepittubes

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So you ski off piste for a while until one day you notice some hard core looking guys and gals hopping on the chair with large packs, and bindings that look much smaller than yours. You follow them and see they’re walking – walking up to the top of Flute.

You don’t have the gear but you strap on your skis or board and start up. There’s enough of them to make you realize they know something you don’t, and it’s got to be good.

Earning my turns #whistlerblackcomb #bluebirdday #hiking

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The long way up • @ioandavies

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You’re sweating up a storm at the top and your heart hasn’t pumped that fast since you’re first date, but you see where everyone is going. And the down is viciously sweet.

 Welcome to slackcountry, where just a short jaunt uphill from the ski lifts gives you access to even more fresh pow – a veritable blank canvas that is waiting for you to float and drift on the most heavenly white gold you’ve ever experienced. It’s so smooth and buttery that you want to bottle it up and take it with you.

Out here, you earn your turns and walk up to get the best rides down.

Perfect day for a walk! #musicalbumps #oboe

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You soon realize you’ve got to get better gear, so you invest in an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course, buy a beacon, shovel and probe, and find yourself out on Decker, Corona Bowl, or the Musical Bumps every time you’re out.

And then the epic stories start trickling in – ones of people sleeping out overnight on the Spearhead, or shredding Heartstrings up on the Duffey.

So you tag along, and suddenly you’re pack is a lot bigger than it was and you’re not walking for only an hour. You’re walking for a few hours, and you’re almost deadbeat exhausted, but the ride down is the most incredible you’ve ever experienced.

And the views. Nothing beats those views.

Now you’re in the real backcountry, where understatements reign supreme when someone suggests you “go for a walk” and “just pop over that ridge”. The walks are long and the lifts are far away. Cell service is unavailable and if things go sideways, it’s up to you and your buds to get you out.

In other words, you’re in the heart of nature.

Just above Matier Glacier icefall enjoying the fat coastal snowpack.

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And for some, this is the best place to be. Your days are long and you carry your own food, water, and tent, and somehow you are more connected to the land than you’ve ever been.

But when you return home and tell others about what you’ve done, they raise their eyebrows and say “You walked? Up a hill?” and give you the look that says you’re whacked.

And maybe you are.

But there’s a whole lot of you out there, exploring the backcountry.

And for those that don’t ride the backcountry, there is no shame – no shame at all, in playing it safe and riding the lifts. After all, a blue bird day is a blue bird day no matter where you are.

Or how whacked you can be.

Cover photo: Mike Crane