Backcountry skiing: education versus intimidation

Would you have known this was coming? Photo: Courtesy Neil Satterfield
Would you have known this was coming? Photo: Courtesy of Neil Satterfield
I’ve had my eye on backcountry skiing for years, but the fear of the unknown (specifically, the unknown world of avalanches) held me back.

I’ve dipped my toes in it a few times with guided tours, but in my heart, I always knew that if I wanted to be a good backcountry companion, I needed to know how to lead, as well as follow.

So, as 2015 drew to a close, I signed up for my AIARE I Avalanche Course with local guide company Sierra Mountain Guides (SMG). It was time to find out if education would override intimidation.

While companion rescue and what to do in case of an avalanche were components of the course, it quickly became clear that learning to recognize and (when possible) avoid avalanche terrain was the best course of action to stay safe in the backcountry.

“You can’t ever know 100% that there won’t be an avalanche,” said SMG co-owner Howie Schwartz, “but you can learn to recognize dangerous terrain.”

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Sitting in the classroom that first morning was the most terrifying part of the three-day course. Schwartz, and SMG’s other owner Neil Satterfield, inundated us with avalanche videos and photos, scary statistics and the fact that avalanches happen directly in the terrain where we most often want to ski and ride.

“After my first avalanche class, I felt like I was going to get avalanched on wherever I went,” Satterfield explained. The feeling was mutual.

But once we got into the field for some hands-on learning, the crux of the lesson began to sink in. Going into the backcountry is never a casual thing, so planning ahead to ensure safety, in addition to fun, is critical.

Check the weather, read your local avalanche center’s forecast or snowpack summary, learn how to dig your own snow pit to test conditions (which we also did in the course) and remember that your brain is your best piece of equipment (i.e., use common sense.)

Learning how to dig a snow pit and test the snowpack yourself can help you understand when terrain might be dangerous. Photo: Lara Kaylor
Learning how to dig a snow pit and test the snowpack yourself can help you understand when terrain might be dangerous. Photo: Courtesy of Lara Kaylor
Burton team rider Kimmy Fasani and several other professional women snowboarders were a part of my course.

Fasani represents Burton’s AK line of gear, which is their most technical line, and she gets out into the backcountry frequently to give that gear a good thrashing, while earning some great turns, in addition to filming. So, it was interesting to learn that she sometimes gets unnerved, too.

Even pros like Kimmy Fasani can get intimidated by the backcountry, but having avalanche education to fall back on helps her make good decisions. Photo: Courtesy Kimmy Fasani
Even pros like Kimmy Fasani can get intimidated by the backcountry, but having avalanche education to fall back on helps her make good decisions. Photo: Courtesy of Kimmy Fasani
“I find that I get nervous when I am heading into the backcountry with a group of people I have never been out with before,” Fasani said. “It can be a little intimidating to trust that everyone knows how to be safe, mindful and conscious while exploring in the mountains.

“Personally, I am given the opportunity to film in the backcountry with guys for a majority of the season,” she added. “If it’s my first day out with a new crew I get nervous that I won’t be able to keep up and hold my own.

“At the end of the day though, each member of the crew has my back and we all understand that clear communication about safety and terrain selection is the most important component of feeling confident with the group you’re with in the mountains.”

Kimmy and friends staying safe in the backcountry. Photo: Courtesy Kimmy Fasani
Kimmy and friends staying safe in the backcountry. Photo: Courtesy of Kimmy Fasani
Each time she goes out, Fasani uses her best judgment on conditions, intuition and crew. She anchors herself with the process of thoughtfully planning each and every backcountry excursion.

“If any of these three things feels off I will not go into the mountains on that day. I am also very picky about who I choose to adventure in the mountains with because I want to know that they will be educated enough to save my life if something goes wrong and vice versa.”

Fasani has taken her AIARE 1 course two times, continues to take refresher courses and practices her backcountry techniques as much as possible.

Learn how to spot terrain that could put you up close and personal with an avalanche. Photo: Courtesy Neil Satterfield
Learn how to spot terrain that could put you up close and personal with an avalanche. Photo: Courtesy of Neil Satterfield
So does education trump intimidation? As Schwartz pointed out at the end of the course, the bottom line is that it’s critical to learn how to check yourself so you don’t wreck yourself.

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