For all its beauty and allure, backcountry skiing is no joke. Between the open bowls, sweeping canyons and gladed runs that draw us into the snowy wilds, there is a serious side to leaving the resorts for new adventures. Avalanches, no matter how big or small, have the potential to injure or kill you. And they aren’t the only objective hazard. There is a reason why more people are signing up for avalanche education throughout the US and Canada. Near misses abound in the backcountry, many without us even knowing it. Throngs of people have gone in search of powder and came back with more adventure then they had bargained for. On your first time into the backcountry, it’s very easy to bite off more than you can chew. But it shouldn’t be that way.
Once you get a taste for skin tracks and virgin snowfields, taking an avalanche class is the next obvious move. Naturally, you’ll start with a level 1. You’ll learn the basics of the backcountry triangle: weather, terrain and snowpack, as well as route-finding skills, basic rescue protocols and the importance of personal responsibility. To fully explore the what and how of backcountry skiing is beyond the scope of this piece. That’s why we go to school.
There are several accredited programs that exist. First-time surfing through the web should take you to the American Avalanche Association (AAA), the governing entity that promotes and supports avalanche safety, education and research in the US. For a directory of avalanche classes nearby, you can search their site here.
For the record, completing a level 1 avalanche course is only the first step into a long apprenticeship with Mother Nature. Several institutions offer more advanced instructional courses that focus on rescue, forecasting, snow metamorphism, guiding—all providing guidance to better travel and enjoy the backcountry safely. Depending on your scene, there are recreational and professional paths.
The United States Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center is another wonderful resource. Throughout their network, scores of associated avalanche centers post daily weather and conditions forecasts to better keep you informed of current trends, hazard warnings, and safe backcountry traveling considerations.
If there is one thing you should take home from your first class, it’s one of the primary tenets of backcountry skiing: companion rescue. If someone in your party is swept away in an avalanche, you are the rescuer. Personal responsibility is very real when there’s no ski patrol headed out when your binding breaks, let alone your leg. We owe it to ourselves and others in our party to be versed in basic first aid and some semblance of self-evacuation in the event of broken gear or worse.
Enter Brooks-Range. We’ve been producing backcountry specific gear that is swift, efficient and strong—virtues of intelligent mountaineering. Below are three products that will add value and protection to your burgeoning backcountry lifestyle.
Next to your brain, one of the most important tools you always take into the backcountry is a shovel. Brooks-Range shovels are made of high-tension aluminum for maximum strength, minimum deflection and long-time durability. They are also anodized to repel oxidation so the blade remains strong for years of dedicated use. And the yoke of the blade is extended to create a stronger interface between the blade and handle. It doesn’t matter if you scoop or paddle when it matters most, they won’t break down on you in the event of an emergency. There are also laser etched rescue reminders in the back of the blade. We recommend our standard Compact EXT shovel with telescopic handle and D-grip.
During the Level 1 you’ll be introduced to the many layers of the mountain snowpack. Next to the shovel, the snow saw allows you to get close and cozy with pit walls, snow crystals and snowpack structure. Brooks-Range Scientist Saws are built from stainless steel for enhanced strength and durability in the field. For additional efficiency and pit tool management, they come with imperial and metric rulers etched on either side of the blade, along with snow crystal identification grids in 1mm, 2mm, and 3mm patterns for added ease of use and accuracy. Two ski straps can affix the saw to a shovel shaft or ski pole for a longer-reaching tool when isolating larger snow columns, cutting small cornices, or establishing an igloo quarry.
Lastly, the value of a down jacket in the backcountry is immeasurable. Light, compactable and oh-so-warm when you need them, the down jacket should accompany you on every outing. Weighing in at exactly one pound, the hooded 800+ fill Mojave down jacket can accommodate a helmet, has an athletic cut, longer arms for alpine pursuits such as ice and mix climbing, and features horizontal baffles that prevent balling, and an sleek Pertex Quantum face fabric that is wind- and downproof, and maintains a high strength-to-weight ratio as well as high abrasion resistance. Simply put, the Mojave is a go-to safety blanket that is appropriate for standing in a snow pit, having lunch or hunkering down during a storm.