Hi everyone! This week our expert interviewee is Erin Cunningham and we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about how to get started in backcountry skiing.
Backcountry skiing must be one of the coolest outdoor adventure sports out there. It’s all about getting off the resort mountains and into the wilderness! From what I’ve seen however, this is also one of the hardest adventure sports to get started in. How do you transition from the safety and ease of skiing at mountain resorts to forging your own path into unknown terrain? Where do you go?! What do you need?!?
These questions have been burning in my mind for a while, as I really want to learn backcountry skiing myself. But fear not, because we have Erin here to answer all our questions about getting started in backcountry skiing.
First off, who is Erin and what makes her an expert?
Erin currently lives in Bellingham, Washington, which gives her close proximity to the mountains of the West Coast. It wasn’t always like that though; in fact, Erin grew up resort skiing the modest hills of Minnesota.
“I am originally a flatlander who learned how to ski on a single rope tow at the age of 10 at Como Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. During my early years of skiing, I joined a Developmental Race Team at Wild Mountain in Taylors Falls, MN and taught ski lessons on the weekends throughout high school. My family visited all of the local ski resorts in Minnesota and then eventually traveled out of state to the upper peninsula of Michigan and eventually to Colorado.”
“My sister and l lived for these trips and continued the tradition of traveling to Colorado through high school and college. I moved to Washington state in 2013 and discovered backcountry skiing.”
“I just love climbing mountains and skiing down. The feeling is pure joy and freedom, strength and accomplishment. Backcountry skiing has definitely become my biggest passion!” Sounds like something we should all get involved in! The question is how (read on for the answer).
What is backcountry skiing (and what is it not)?
Before we dive in further, let’s take a minute to address what backcountry skiing really is, as there tends to be some misconceptions about it. As Erin puts it, “if you asked me 6 years ago what backcountry skiing was, I would not have known how to answer. I used to think backcountry skiing was helicopter assisted.” In her mind (and likely ours too), “skiers were dropped on the top of the mountain to ski big lines down to the valley bottom. Something unattainable, a little crazy, and only seen in the movies.”
But as it turns out, backcountry skiing is much more than that (and also much more accessible).
“Backcountry skiing is working hard. It’s climbing uphill to earn your turns back down the mountain. Backcountry skiing requires skis with special bindings and boots that allow you to walk uphill with free heels and skins.” For those unfamiliar, skins are grippy material that go on the bottom of your skis to help you ski uphill. “Once you reach your destination, you take the skins off, lock down your heels, and ski down.”
“Not only is there special gear involved with the sport but also route planning, navigation and terrain selection.” While it may require a lot of learning and hard work, thankfully you can go backcountry skiing without hiring a helicopter!
First step: become a competent skier
“I would recommend learning how to ski at the resort prior to venturing in the backcountry. There are so many other elements to consider in the backcountry aside from learning to ski.”
“I think it’s pretty essential to be comfortable skiing all different types of terrain and all different textures of snow as well. Here in the Pacific Northwest, our snow pack can be a bit heavy and variable. If someone is having difficulty skiing in these conditions, it can jeopardize the safety of the group.”
“I also have to say, it takes a lot more work to ski uphill to get enough downhill to adequately learn how to manage these variable conditions in the backcountry. That’s why I’m a huge proponent to learning how to ski at the resort first before venturing into the backcountry. Get a season pass to a resort and take as many runs as possible to become a competent and confident skier on the downhill in a variety of different types of terrain and snow conditions.”
Next step: get avalanche training
Once you feel comfortable skiing, it’s time to get some training to prepare you for the backcountry. Here’s what Erin has to say about avalanche safety.
“The most important part is avalanche safety. This involves taking courses that teach you the different types of avalanches, and how to avoid them. You learn how to interpret the avalanche forecast, how to manage safe terrain selection and how rescue your partner if they get into an avalanche using a beacon, shovel and probe. There are an average of 25-30 avalanche related deaths each year and with more people becoming interested in getting into the backcountry, more people are at risk.”
“The Know Before You Go Program stresses the importance of getting the gear (avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe) and getting the avalanche education training. There are lots of ways to get educated from free Avalanche Awareness Seminars . Many organizations offer these courses during the winter.”
“The next step is to take an AIARE Level 1 (Recreational Track) course. Beyond that is a Avalanche Rescue/Companion Rescue course, AIARE Level 2 (Recreational Track), Professional Avalanche Training 1, and Professional Avalanche Training 2. These courses are usually offered by a variety of guide services. Check https://avalanche.org/avalanche-education/ to find programs near you.”
Third step: find a community of skiers
One of the barriers to getting started in backcountry skiing is that you need to be with other people who are also competent skiers and trained in avalanche safety. But for those of us without competent backcountry skiing friends, how do we find a community?
“There are tons of resources out there for building your own network or community of backcountry skiing friends. You’re trusting your life to these people, so having competent, confident and safe partners who are educated, communicate well, and make good decisions is essential.” Erin recommends checking out Facebook groups like Turns All Year, PNW Women Backcountry Skiers and Snowboarders, SheJumps, South Coast Touring, and Washington’s Alpine Climbing and Ski Mountaineering Group. In addition, Erin says you meet others in the avalanche training courses and can organize ski trips with them after the course is finished.
Alternatively, you can hire a guide
“I think hiring a guide is a great idea to gain knowledge and experience. Personally, I’ve never hired a professional guide as I pursued my own education first and ended up connecting with others from my avalanche course to gain more experience.”
“But the courses I’ve taken have been taught by certified ski guides or certified mountain guides. Sometimes they offer to ski with you outside of the course as well! I actually took one winter off to ski at a backcountry lodge in British Columbia with a guide and others in the ski industry. I learned so much about decision-making in avalanche terrain that entire season.”
One caveat Erin mentions: “I think guided trips are extremely beneficial if you can afford them.” Hiring a guide definitely isn’t inexpensive, but “ski and mountain guides are experts in their field and will choose the best terrain for the current conditions to keep the group safe and also teach you how to do the same – a win, win situation!”
Step four: find a destination
“My most favorite place is the Mount Baker backcountry and I absolutely love taking trips to British Columbia as well. I have a bunch of awesome books with routes and tours that I’ve studied. And my fiancé, Todd, is a Google Earth guru who has learned how to route/trip plan by looking at slope angles and terrain via satellite images on Google Earth to help plan our trips. Using resources online including recent trip reports, Google Earth as well as guide books can help prepare you to tour in different areas. Also, going with friends who have experience in the area is also beneficial.”
Erin’s final piece of advice
“Get the gear, take a course, connect with people in the course and get some experience! Try to have a continual assessment mindset when you’re out in the backcountry. Be a sponge and soak up any learning opportunity. Communicate as much as possible in a group setting. Pre-plan, talk about terrain, the planned route, a backup plan, the current avalanche hazards, what to avoid, and make sure when skiing down, people stop in a safe spot if pitching out the run. And if something feels weird, speak up, voice your concern and don’t be afraid to pull the plug. Live to ski another day! And most importantly, have lots of fun!!”
“Honestly, I can guarantee, if you take an avalanche course or go out with friends who have the experience and education, I can guarantee you’ll be hooked!”