Learning To Stay Alive | The Arcteryx Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Academy

Words by D’Arcy McLeish. Photos by Robin O’Neill.

The other day I was out for a light tour with some friends. We were just outside the boundary and headed to one of the regular ski lines in the Blackcomb Backcountry. As I came through a couple of rock formations, I saw two skiers sitting at the top of the climb. It’s not unusual to see folks you know out here so I was curious to see who it was. But as I slid alongside them, I noticed a few things: neither had packs or ski touring equipment, but both had their handy little day tickets flappin’ in the wind on their jackets.

Ya ya, you’re saying to yourself, he’s starting this piece off behaving like some snotty hard core local who thinks people not savvy to the world of the untracked turn are lesser humans. Not so, I say. Risk is a funny thing: it’s something people don’t think enough about, even in the mountain world of guides, athletes, and keen amateurs. These two were in so narrow a margin for safety it actually gave me the chills. I doubt they realized what the potential for disaster really is out there. Even for our ‘light’ tour, we had the necessary rescue kit; enough to deal with our day shitting the bed.

Risk management is a hot topic in the mountain world. Avalanche forecasters, guides, risk experts, backcountry enthusiasts; everyone’s talking about human factors and mitigating risk. With good reason too, especially when you see two skiers perched over a glacier with nothing but their Recco strip on board for good times. What often gets glossed over in these discussions, however, is how dangerous the mountains can be. It’s not just dying in an avalanche that you need to worry about, it’s the smaller things that can turn a simple day of skiing into a tragic catastrophe. A blown knee, a sprained ankle, a broken piece of gear, slipping and falling on a boot pack; little things like these can ruin not just your day, but your life.

Learning to move through the mountains is a long road. There’s a reason it takes effort to get to the hard to reach places of the world. That journey will bring you to some beautiful places and connect you to your friends in ways like nothing else will. But that progression can be dangerous: it was for me. I motored off into the ether with my ego, skiing ability and a total lack of backcountry skills. An idiot with an attitude. It almost got me killed and made for some horrifying experiences. I was lucky and managed to live long enough to keep learning how to do things properly.

Those two will be lucky too. That’s almost the problem; they got away with it without learning from their mistakes. I watched them ski out onto a glacier, boot pack up to a couloir and slide back into the safety net of the ski resort, none the wiser. Had one of them crashed, hurt themselves, fallen into a crevasse or got caught in a slide, it would have been a different story altogether. I get it, though. It’s hard to start out. As backcountry novices, we know not what we do. And the resorts don’t help so much. Powder days are great, but when all that untracked snow becomes tracked madness, the call of going beyond the boundary can be irresistible.

So learn the proper skills to get out there, and learn them from the right people. Friends can be good teachers, but often in a group setting the gregarious trump the wise and those human factors get magnified with people you know. By learning from a professional, one whose job is to keep people alive in the mountain environment, we manage some of those factors. That starts with an avalanche and first aid course. Don’t stop there: that’s just giving you the keys without a license. A little knowledge with no practical skill can be a dangerous. You can do an avy course, while not knowing anything about how to skin, negotiate a burly entrance or some of the basics of climbing and mountaineering and rope rescue. Not important? Of course they are. There’s a reason it takes about ten years to become a fully certified mountain guide, which is essentially a doctorate in moving through the mountains. They need those skills in the mountains, ‘cause when it goes sideways, hard skills will help save a life. But more than that, learning hard skills will open your eyes to what can really go wrong out there.

We’re happy to spend money on expensive gear and new iPhones but we’re reluctant to spend money on professional instruction. One option for that is coming up this winter in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Arc’teryx is partnering with Exum Mountain Guides to host the inaugural Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Academy in February. It’s different from some of the fluff out there. Sure, there will be a handful of big names in the ski world (Michelle Parker, Greg Hill, Eric Hjorliefson, to name drop a few) and live music as well. But those are the sideshow; the bonus.

The meat and potatoes are the clinics. Exum is doing the guiding, and the Teton Range is their backyard. The oldest guiding company in North America, Exum is about real, applicable education. The clinics at the Backcountry Academy will focus on practical mountain skills. There are intro clinics to touring, both the ski and board variety, with women’s specific clinics as well. But the progression goes from there. There are intermediate and advanced level touring clinics with top notch guides and athletes; ski mountaineering clinics, intro to advanced level, and specific clinics focused on things like rappelling into a couloir and negotiating a sketchy entrance. There are also avalanche and crevasse rescue courses to help you when shit gets real. Even the crustiest mountain narcissist will get something out of it.

Learn all you want about risk and snow, but take some time to learn how to actually do things like skinning, rappelling, crevasse rescue, short roping, getting into and out of hairy bits of terrain and just plain moving in the mountains. This is real world and will help to both humble you and make you a better decision maker. Don’t be one of those dingbats, rolling around the backcountry with your day ticket flapping in the wind and a born to lose patch on your hat. Instead, get educated so you can get after it when there’s a foot a fresh on the ground.

Be safe, ski hard

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D’Arcy McLeish is a Squamish, BC-based writer, professional ski patroller, rope access technician, mountain rescue specialist, coffee addict and CBC listener. When not doing any of these things D’Arcy is reading, climbing or riding his bike. 

Read more about Robin O’Neill.