Experts offer advice when leaving the well trodden path
Special to The Union
With ski resorts planning to limit the number of skiers and riders this season, many in the industry are anticipating a large number of inexperienced people in the backcountry this season.
“We certainly expect a flood of new users, and certainly, from the manufacturers that we have communications with, it sounds a little bit like bicycles sixth months ago. All bikes sold out and people couldn’t get them,” said David Reichel, executive director of the Sierra Avalanche Center, during last week’s Mountain Minds Monday. “I think that a similar sort of run on touring equipment is occurring right now.”
This month’s virtual meeting from Tahoe Silicon Mountain focused on backcountry skiing, bringing experts to the table to offer knowledge on getting into the backcountry.
For those new to backcountry skiing, the first piece of advice to tackling the significant learning curve is training and education. With so many people looking to get out into the backcountry this upcoming season, introductory avalanche courses offered by Alpenglow Expeditions and International Alpine Guides are sold out until February. Another group, Backcountry Babes, also offers lessons and courses, and has also seen an uptick in the amount of skiers and riders interested in getting into the backcountry.
“Because we’re a smaller provider, we don’t have a ton of classes available, but we saw things fill up last month, which is early,” said Emily Hargraves, chief executive babe of Backcountry Babes. “And anecdotally, I’ve heard that the gear sales have been through the roof.”
With many classes being full, Hargraves recommends finding literature like “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper.
“That can give you a lot of really, really good information to work with this season,” she said.
Other forms of education that should be considered when heading out include wilderness and medical training.
“Stuff happens and you need to be prepared for that,” said Reichel. “Patrol is not going to come quickly. That is a huge one.”
Tips on heading out
For those planning on accessing the backcountry for the first time, perhaps the most important piece of advice from a number of experts is to find experienced people to accompany them.
Andy Rathbun, administrator and monitor for the Facebook group San Francisco Backcountry Skiers, said goals and objectives for the day should be set, and that skiers and riders should know conditions, forecast, and where they’re heading.
“The first part of the daily ritual for backcountry skiers is to check the forecast,” said Reichel. “In order to be able to check an avalanche forecast, you have to have one and that’s where the Sierra Avalanche Center comes in.”
The center is run by three full-time season avalanche forecasters and a few professional observers that gather avalanche, snowpack, and weather observations to create avalanche advisories and avalanche warnings.
Hargraves added that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also a good resource for backcountry skiers and riders.
“Their Mountain Weather Advisory hits on elevation bands that are good for backcountry skiing and kind of gives a generalized picture of what’s happening in the Tahoe region,” she said.
Other resources include the California Department of Transportation’s webcams for real-time conditions,
With plans made and forecasts checked, the appropriate gear is the next essential item skiers and riders need to account for before heading out.
Hargraves recommends new and experienced skiers create a checklist with everything needed for the trip from car keys to boots. Of the items needed, Reichel said it’s essential to have a shovel, beacon, probe, and a backpack to carry it all.
“If you’re traveling the backcountry you should have that,” said Reichel. “Everybody in your party should have that. You should all know how to use it.”
Reichel also advised against buying used gear when it comes to beacons and probes.
“I’m not sure I would buy a used parachute,” he added. “It would be something similar to that.”
In terms of what to wear, Hargraves said bringing many layers is the best approach, along with extra gloves, and emergency layers in the event plans go awry.
“A lot of very first-time backcountry skiers I’ll see wearing their resort setup to go out touring, and that can get really hot,” said Hargraves. “Most people start a little lighter … but actually have a ton of layers in their backpack.”
Before heading out, skiers should have an idea of what they’re getting into.
Hargraves said she goes to http://www.caltopo.com to get a broad idea of the steepness of terrain.
Once in the backcountry, especially where there is often weak cell service, Reichel said he uses Gaia GPS to help navigate the area. Both Hargraves and Reichel recommend having a physical map like those created by Backcountry Ski Maps in their backpack as well.
Radios are another piece of technology that Rathbun said he incorporates when skiing in certain areas of the backcountry.
“Having that communication can be really nice if you’re in a dense, wooded area or somewhere where you’re getting out of sight of one another,” said Rathbun.
The Truckee-Tahoe area offers plenty of terrain for those looking to get out this season.
Rubicon Peak and its beginner to intermediate terrain is a favorite place of Hargraves. Rathbun recommends skiers and riders go beyond the Tahoe area and explore locations like Lassen National Park or Mount Shasta. Reichel said he prefers getting deep into the Desolation Wilderness.
experts Townsend, Russell weigh in
Last spring, when resorts were forced to shut down early due to the outbreak of COVID-19, local pros Nick Russell and Cody Townsend said they saw a jump in the amount of people in the backcountry — many of whom were inexperienced and unprepared.
“I think we’re going to see quite a surge in backcountry usage like we did in the spring of 2020 when all of the ski resorts shut down,” said Townsend, who is also a safety ambassador for Mammut. “There were definitely a lot of cars on the side of the road and a lot of people out there that were new.”
Townsend said he’d direct those interested in backcountry skiing to begin by doing online research.
“There’s a lot of web resources out there,” he said. “Just basic information to find the terminology, some of the way things work for backcountry skiing, and then from there making sure to sign up for some form of an avalanche course … signing up for an avalanche clinic is pretty much an absolute.”
Once skiers and riders begin to make it into the backcountry, Townsend said the best advice is to take things slowly.
“If you’re just starting to get into backcountry skiing, don’t just race out there and expect to go to the top of Mount Tallac and have an amazing day,” said Townsend. “Set your goals low, start slow, start safely, and ease your way into it. Backcountry skiing is physically challenging, it can be frustrating at times, and it takes a lot of experience and education.”
Russell, a snowboarding ambassador for Patagonia, said he’s likewise seen an increase in those heading into the backcountry this upcoming season.
“I definitely foresee a boom to the backcountry and hopefully everyone takes the necessary time and steps and do it safely, and be educated about what they’re doing and not blindly following tracks out there,” said Russell.
“The first step would be to go to a basic backcountry clinic rather than trying to jump into a Level 1 avalanche certification,” he added.
Even for experienced skiers and riders, Russell said preparation and education are among the most important factors in terms of coming home safely after a backcountry trip.
“Every winter, the beginning of my year is spent doing safety training and refreshers with my riding partners, whether that be loosely all getting together and practicing our rescue skills to then doing some of the wilderness first-responder recertification. Basically just spending the month of December with that being the main priority. You definitely need that refresher every year just to be on top of your game,” said Russell.
“Through those safety refreshers that we do, you’re kind of refining your daily kit that you bring with you out to the mountains. It’s not just your beacon, shovel, and probe, but it’s a first aid kit filled with things that are actually useful and things like a rescue sled if you had to carry someone out of the backcountry. It’s a GPS device where if you’re somewhere without cell service and knowing the right numbers to call to get a rescue … it’s a constant learning process for all of us.”
Russell’s biggest tip for those looking to head out for the first time is to find a more experienced person to ski or ride with.
“We all want people to enjoy the outdoors and to recreate and see the beauty of the mountains that we have, but there is a fine line of doing it safely and not being reckless out there,” concluded Russell. “My main piece of advice would be to find a friend that’s more experienced than you and go out with them. Track down that person that’s been out ski touring or splitboarding for a couple years and follow them. Don’t just go out blindly.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of The Union.
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