Sacrifice your wallet for specialized ski touring bindings or a split snowboard, climb into the wild and glide back down, you are a backcountry rider. Stir in lofty goals such as high peak summits, glaciers, and tricky descents down intricate couloirs and mountain faces, you’ve crossed over to mountaineering.
The skills you need to survive and excel as a ski or snowboard mountaineer are built, not bought. The construction process can be complex, painful, and deadly. Following are a few ideas that may help you or your loved ones stay alive and enjoy the journey.
“Climb above all with your head. Always measure what you want to do, against what you are capable of doing. Mountaineering is above all a matter of conscience.” -French alpinist and author Gaston Rebuffat
More than anything, successful mountaineering is about brainpower. Make a life-long study of the sport. Drill yourself on the truth that knowledge becomes judgment when combined with experience and caution. Judgment allows you to plan excellent trips, deal with small glitches that could otherwise segue to disaster, turn away from avalanche slopes covered with perfect powder, and say no to peer pressure induced idiocy. With judgment you can be courageous without being bold.
“Clear your mind of the chatter. Don’t think about how your life or climbs will look to anyone else. Make choices based on your values, your analysis, your intuition and your dreams.” — Alpinist and former publisher of Climbing Magazine, Michael Kennedy
“If it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen.” Those words elicit a chuckle, but they illustrate a truth. More than ever, instant media pushes hard for how you look and what you do. When your friend welds her camera or you mount your GoPro on your helmet, be aware of that effect. Very aware.
“I want to solve a climbing problem in the mountains, not in the sporting goods store.” -Reinhold Messner
Cultivate a serious focus on your gear. Learn every aspect of your ski bindings. Practice with your beacon until it is second nature. Figure out quick and effective sequence for changing from climbing to downhill mode, and practice ’till you’re blue in the face. Figure out a small combined first-aid and repair kit, and always carry it. Use a checklist when you pack. You’ll be traveling light, so forgetting any gear is a critical mistake. But as Messner alludes to, don’t obsess on the latest goods. So long as you correctly judge the limits and capabilities of your gear, you’ll have a safe and rewarding day. Blame your misfortune on your kit, and you’re only misplacing the true cause. Run what you brung, but run it well.
Another important consideration with equipment is known by the big scientific term “risk homeostasis.” (There, I had to throw in a bit of intellectual English to stop the yawning.) Simply put, this means that it’s human nature to take more physical risk if you perceive yourself as protected from the consequences. For example, if you armor yourself with an avalanche beacon, airbag pack and helmet, it is axiomatic that you’re likely to go into terrain and situations you’d otherwise avoid. A bit of that is ok (e.g., most of us would at least occasionally make different choices if we skied without a beacon) — but beware the tendency to be fooled by the effectiveness of your safety gear. Today’s ski helmets offer limited protection. Airbag packs don’t protect you against rocks and trees. Even “safety” bindings are frequently not so safe.
“A high mountain ascent is first and foremost a pretext for friendship.” – Gaston Rebuffat
No other component is more important to the growing of a mountaineer than warm-blooded mentors. But who should such teachers be?
Learning from friends is common and effective, but may be problematic. Be sure your buddy guru is actually a top mountaineer, rather than someone just slightly ahead of you in skill. Beware of emotional involvement that can cloud your learning. A friend may be unwilling to criticize your mistakes, and may be reluctant to let teaching obstruct a warm relationship. Double the above if you’re learning from boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. Likewise, don’t let an individual’s physical prowess or number of ski days cause you to assume he or she’s full of wisdom. It is human nature to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, and luck can keep that going for years until such people kill themselves or unsuspecting companions.
A good (albeit pricey) way to learn is through an ongoing relationship with a reputable guide. Locate an experienced guide willing to teach, and clarify that you’re hiring him or her to do so. Most guides in North America are honored to be a mentor rather than a trail breaking pit slave, and they appreciate the financial benefits of having a steady customer. Nonetheless, the commercial relationship can block the ultimate state of mentorship, which is a mutual friendship. (If you do go the guide route, be sure your guide has an extensive and successful track record. For example, younger guides may in reality have little more experience than you do.)
While you can get part of your mountain education from clubs and college courses, don’t count on receiving true mentoring. Clubs frequently bias their teaching so it fits an institutional setting, and club teachers may lack deep real-world experience. More, some clubs are inconsistent with basic safety practices, so go into club activities with your eyes open and check leader credentials. A reasonable question to ask any trip leader, or for that matter a would-be mentor or guide, is “have you ever had any fatalities or rescues on your trips?” If yes, have a frank conversation, find out if they have a pattern of such events, and consider looking elsewhere for guidance.
The best mentor is an “Elmer.” A guy who’s been around the block a few times — usually quite a bit older than you are and sometimes may appear overly cautious. Such mentorships are based on friendship and mutual respect. How to create? Reach out and befriend that fellow you met on the skin track, or at the hut. Listen to his stories. Ski with him. Soak it in.
In today’s millenium culture, mentorship tends to get shrugged off or simply not understood, perhaps looking odd because it doesn’t worship youth culture. But mentorship is still a valid concept and key to reaching that top level of alpinism.
“Every evening I turn worries over to God. He’s going to be up all night anyway.” -Mary C. Crowley
Many mountaineers believe a power outside of normal experience can help with important decisions, and even extricate us from scary situations. For example, John Muir wrote of a spiritual experience that saved his life in the Sierra. Other mountaineers share countless tales of having a feeling that led them from harm. If nothing else, such hunches may be a subconscious amalgam of your situational awareness combined with past experience–a sort of mystical judgment. Whether the source be God or brain, learn to hear your feelings. Stop, let your breathing slow down, and soak in your surroundings. Make a point of traveling with others who hear and trust their feelings. Be cautious about intuition blockers such as psychotropic drugs, summit fever, schedules, and the worst culprit of all, testosterone.
Quest for Excellence
“It is the ultimate wisdom of the mountains that a man is never more a man than when he is striving for what is beyond his grasp.” -James Ramsey Ullman
Style is the magic that brings your mountaineering life together. It’s as unique as your face — as important as your skills. Humor, optimism, delight in challenge, skill set, all are aspects of a successful mountaineer’s manner. But no other component of style exceeds the importance of excellence. From the moment you wake up and carefully load your pack, to the second your head hits the pillow, strive for the best of everything in your ski mountaineering. Functional gear, safe snow, nutritious trail snacks, fine friends — quest for excellence, and all soar into place like a home run baseball hit.
Risk vs. Reward
“A momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.” -Edward Whymper, after his rope team’s cord broke during the first ascent of the Matterhorn.
Willingness to acknowledge and communicate about risk/reward issues is a primary separator between novice and accomplished mountaineers. When you suppress doubts about the propriety of your actions, uncertainty will eventually bubble up, perhaps stifling the fun, at worst clouding your judgment. What’s more, you must cultivate an ability and willingness to find out how much risk your companions are comfortable with, and ascertain if their redline fits with yours, otherwise you will blunder.
“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Talk it out. Bare your heart to friends, loved ones and especially mentors. You’ll have powerful experiences that need analysis. Such experiences run the gamut from shattered friendships on expeditions to rescue situations involving friends or loved ones. Communication with fellow humans helps cognate it all to continue your learning. Along with that, if you make mistakes, share them to help others as well as enhancing your honesty and humility. With all the present emphasis on mountain safety, mistakes such as avalanche near misses are sometimes treated puritanically, almost like a sin that has to be hidden from peers and the public. Wrong. Share it. Be humble. To do otherwise is selfish.
The Social Contract
“I was swept 300 meters… down the mountain and came to a stop still in my sleeping bag, still inside the tent… so I punched my way out of the tent and started searching…searched for 10 minutes when I realized I was barefoot.” – Glen Plake, on his involvement in 2012 Manaslu avalanche
Would you rescue a stranger? What if doing so put your own life at risk? More, when you enjoy the backcountry you’re probably assuming someone will come to your aid if you need it. Think that through. To help rescue teams and in deference to your loved ones, carry some form of emergency communication device (rescue beacon, satphone, or cell phone). Always carry standard emergency equipment (emergency kit, avalanche beacon, etc.) Most importantly, consider the greater consequences of your decisions.
This is how you make yourself call your mother
And this is how you make yourself closer to your brother
And remember him back when he was small enough to help you sing
You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In 24 frames
— Jason Isbell (Driveby Truckers)
Reading and Education
“There is no end to books; much study is wearisome to the flesh.” – King Solomon
As the wisest man to ever live alludes to, bombarding yourself with printed words won’t give you bigger lungs or brilliant ski technique, but it is still key. You can find a phenomenal amount of mountaineering knowledge in books. More, alpinism is about ethic and spirit as much as athletics, and books help carry that tradition from generation to generation. But as Solomon wisely points out, no need to fry neurons.
To that end, three top books for novice ski mountaineers: Starlight and Storm, by Gaston Rebuffat (written a long time ago, but lofts you to higher alpine motivations), Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills current edition, (compendium of everything, memorize it), Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, by Bruce Tremper.
Beyond reading, know that education is not a dirty word. On the other hand, while everyone should take at least a Level 1 avalanche safety class, doing so is simply a start. Be humble and know that the only true education is careful experience.
Your feedback: WildSnowers, can you comment and suggest more headings? What worked for you if you’re an “Elmer”? And what seems to be helping if you’re a newbie?
To summarize, here is a bullet list if you’re anxious to get out skiing:
1. Judgment. Combine fear and respect with knowledge.
2. Peer Pressure. Watch for it, we all succumb.
3. Equipment. Use it well, but don’t let it fool you. Your body is fragile.
4. Mentors. Be bold and reach out to someone.
5. Intuition. It’s a bit woo woo, but important as it’s your subconscious working overtime.
6. Excellence. Make this your attitude.
7. Risk vs. Reward. Be risk averse.
8. Debriefing. Talk it out.
9. The Social Contract Think of your mother, your wife, your friends.
10. Reading. Education is not a dirty word.
Commenters, anything to add?
(This article was originally written for magazine publication, and is heavily re-written for current publication)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.