Know Before You Go

Essentials of backcountry exploration



While Europeans have been exploring their mountains for generations, backcountry skiing has only become a booming trend in North America recently. In the past few years more and more skiers and snowboarders are venturing beyond resort boundaries and into uncontrolled backcountry zones. Some are there to chase untracked powder, some like to avoid the ski resort crowds, and others enjoy the unique challenges of self- powered backcountry travel.

However, because of the inherent risks of exploring the backcountry, it is crucial to have certain skills and knowledge before venturing into untamed wilderness. Fortunately, the Sea to Sky Corridor is surrounded by accessible, high-elevation terrain with a consistent snowpack — all factors that make it an ideal place for learning and developing backcountry skills.

With so much great terrain and some of the best snow on Earth, the Whistler area also hosts dozens of top-tier guiding companies who offer all levels of backcountry education, from introductory courses to advanced mountain skills camps. 

If you’re looking to master the mountains, Whistler’s pristine hinterland and talent pool of skilled instructors can make it happen.

The introductory level of backcountry education is a course called AST (avalanche skills training) 1, which is traditionally followed by an AST 2 course. AST 1 is geared toward intermediate-level skiers or snowboarders who want to begin learning about assessing snow conditions and what situations they might encounter when travelling in the backcountry. AST 2 reinforces those lessons with further in-field training. Peter Smart, founder of Extremely Canadian, says the company’s AST program has grown exponentially in recent years as more people are getting interested in going out of bounds.

“AST 1 is usually the icebreaker for people. It tends to be a lot of information about what can go wrong … it just makes people aware of all the don’ts, and for what reasons,” Smart says. The AST 1 and 2 courses are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more specific, advanced-level courses available for those who choose to continue their training.

“What the Level 1 and 2 really does is make you aware of all the different things going on out there in the backcountry. If you are interested in guiding yourself, or going with friends and being the more experienced one, then the next level up would be a must for most people,” Smart adds.

For those who wish to guide themselves, lead a group, or just further their training, Mountain Skills Academy and Adventures offers a variety of advanced courses including crevasse rescue and glacier travel, orienteering, ski mountaineering and more. Eric Dumerac, owner/operator and certified International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations guide, explains a few key courses he considers vital for backcountry enthusiasts.

“There are two other extremely important courses. One of them is crevasse rescue and glacier travel. We’re skiing here on glaciers, and more than ever now, we’re seeing a huge amount of glacial recession. In the last couple years we’ve seen moats get massive. We’ve seen crevasses get a lot bigger,” Dumerac says.

Moats (open rivers flowing beneath glaciers) and crevasses (cracks in the glacier’s surface) are potential traps for backcountry explorers, so knowing how to properly perform a rescue is essential.

Dumerac also highly recommends training for navigating in adverse weather conditions, as storms can approach quickly in the backcountry.

“Imagine a case where a storm rolls in, and you have what we call whiteout conditions. Even if you do know which way is north, east, south and west, you better know how to navigate and follow a bearing.”

Dumerac recommends some first aid knowledge, but says basic first aid is all he expects from recreational skiers. It’s certainly ideal if skiers or snowboarders can stabilize an injured person until professional help arrives.

With so many local companies offering backcountry courses, some providers like Altus Mountain Guides have put together specialized packages for specific customers. JD Hare, one of Altus’s guides, is a professional skier known for executing self-powered backcountry missions deep into big mountain territory. Hare guides advanced skiers on educational backcountry trips with a focus on how freeskiers tend to use the terrain.

“Look at the way Whistler Blackcomb’s alpine gets shredded after every storm. There are an awful lot of people who are great technical skiers, but only a small fraction of people are comfortable skiing that way in the backcountry under their own guidance,” Hare says. “Guides [are] good at seeing where the danger lies, but they don’t really know what the skiers want to do … how skiers would ideally like to approach the terrain. I view my role as almost a translator between the guide culture [and] the knowledge the guides have into the ski culture.”

If you’ve tracked out all your home resort’s best lines and you hear the distant mountains calling, perhaps it’s time to get out there and answer — but not before you’re wise to the techniques of travelling safely and minimizing potential risks.

All companies who host avalanche courses or skills camps provide detailed lists of required equipment, so be sure you’ve got the right gear sorted out for your course (avalanche equipment rentals are available from several Whistler stores).

For more information about training courses and dates visit extremelycanadian.com, mountainskillsacademy.com or altusmountainguides.com.

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