Written by Backcountry Babes AIARE Level 2 Scholarship Recipient, Emily Olsen. Emily is an avid backcountry skier based in Leadville, CO and works as the Executive Director at Cloud City Conservation Center.
I started backcountry skiing a little over 2 years ago. I have almost 30 years of skiing experience but barely skied from ages 18 to 28. I am far from an expert but even as a backcountry newbie I’ve managed to spend almost 100 days in the backcountry over the last 2ish years. I skied 20 months straight from December 2017 thru August 2019. My only focus during that time was to get into the backcountry. In no particular order here are my top tips for becoming a backcountry lady. *
Ski in bounds as much as possible. When I picked up skiing again in January 2017 I knew my ultimate goal was to get into the backcountry. I also hadn’t really skied in over a decade. From January thru April that year I spent every single Saturday and Sunday at a ski area. I got first and last chair a lot of days. I skied some powder and a lot of bad snow. I took a few lessons. There are no guarantees about ski conditions in the backcountry and I wanted to feel confident in my skiing no matter the snow conditions we encountered. Now I ski more days in the backcountry than resorts but the resort is still a great place to try new terrain so that I feel comfortable when I encounter something similar in the backcountry.
Find ski partners you trust. It took me over a year to find the right ski partners. I asked anyone and everyone if they knew anyone who skied in the backcountry. I joined local Facebook groups. I begged people to take me. A lot of people said no (and rightfully so). I didn’t have my AIARE I, I didn’t have a lot of recent skiing experience and I was very naive. I skied with a lot of people only to realize that we weren’t on the same page or didn’t have similar goals. Eventually I found a solid group of partners who I trust with my life, who I can communicate open and honestly with and I know will show up on time and ready to go early on a Saturday morning. It kinda sucks like dating, but is so worth it when you’re sending your dream line and know your partners have your back.
Be honest about your experience and abilities. On paper I had almost 30 years of skiing experience when I got interested in the backcountry but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I had a few days of very mellow backcountry on the east coast under my belt along with a whole lot of skiing on shitty snow. Sometimes I feel more comfortable on a steep icy slope where I can catch an edge than in knee deep powder. The backcountry has every type of terrain and conditions imaginable. Being honest about your experience is essential to planning your tour, picking your line and getting home safely. If the terrain or conditions look like something you’ve never skied on/in before it might be a resort day.
Be honest about your risk tolerance. Risk tolerance is a huge factor in finding great partners. Decide what terrain you feel comfortable skiing, what risks you are and aren’t willing to take, be honest and stick to your gut. If you have a lower (or higher) risk tolerance than your partner(s) it may not be a great fit. Decision making is a huge part of backcountry skiing and if you already know you’re not on the same page before going out it can cause serious and dangerous problems in the backcountry. You’ll get to know your risk tolerance better the more you go but thinking about what situations you would and wouldn’t feel comfortable in ahead of time can help you feel more comfortable voicing your feelings once you’re out.
Get the gear, learn how to use it and don’t forget it. Make sure you have the necessary gear and know how to use it before you get to the trailhead. Your partners might not have the same make or model and most likely won’t know how to use your beacon or bindings. No beacon should always be a no go.
Pay attention to the weather and avalanche reports. They are always changing. Being a good partner means you’ve already checked the local avalanche and weather reports, and have some thoughts about what conditions you might encounter before you get to the trailhead. Not knowing these things can put you and your partners in danger and its unfair and unsafe for you to rely on others to check them for you.
Do your research. Know where you are going, the route, potential decision making points BEFORE you get to the trailhead. There are lots of backcountry skiing guidebooks, beta available online and on social media. Yes you have to dig a little harder for it but again relying on others can put you in dangerous situations.
Attend an avalanche awareness class. Lots of breweries and outdoor shops start offering these 1-2 hr intro to avalanche awareness classes for free in November thru the winter. They can’t replace an AIARE course but it’s a good starting point to understand what you’re getting into. Check out our Avalanche Awareness classses.
Read Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. I read this book every October/November as a refresher. It’s a great reminder and I learn something new every time I read it. Again it’s not a substitute for an AIARE course but it’s a great supplement and way to continue your education.
Sign up for AIARE 1 and an avalanche rescue class. AIARE I is considered the gatekeeper to the backcountry. A lot of people won’t go into the backcountry with you if you don’t have this course. If you want to get into the backcountry you have to be willing to commit to educating yourself. There is a lot of fun to be had but it should never come at the expense of your safety or worse your life. Coming home is always the number one goal in the backcountry so if you want to go commit to educating yourself for both your own safety and the safety of those around you. Take a look at our list of Avalanche Level 1 Classes.
*This list is by no means exhaustive. Do your research, use google, read books, and always ask questions.