Powder and solitude. When asked why riding outside the resort is worth extra effort, those two words are often the first that come to mind. But since backcountry exploration isn't all fun and face shots, it's important to make smart decisions and consider the well-being of others, including Mother Nature. Here are some tips to up the enjoyment for everyone.
RESPECT EVERYBODY'S DESIRE FOR SAFE TRAVEL. Marie-France Roy says, "I like touring with people who don't let their egos get in the way of making solid safety calls." Choose routes that don't expose other parties to avalanche paths, even on low-danger days. Marie adds, "Not endangering people below you is critical"—meaning not crossing above others in terrain that has a chance of sliding. We don't always know when other people are below. They could be out of view in the woods, under a roller or ridge, or far, far below but still in a potential slide path. Study topographic maps and know where you're traveling, including the area surrounding your planned route. This is also smart because you never know when you'll need a backup exit strategy.
CONSIDER YOUR PARTNERS. The more people involved when making a decision, the more lines of communication and chance of error or misjudgment. Also, consider others when setting a skin track. Switchbacks and traverses should be set safely to avoid triggering a slide. Just because you want to walk straight up a 35-degree slope doesn't mean everyone else does.
DON'T HIKE IN THE SKIN TRACK. Boots dig deeper than snowshoes, but both tear up smooth tracks set by climbing skins. The occasions when snowshoes or boots add traction to an iced-over track are an infrequent exception. The same goes for descending via the skin track: Retracing the path can be a safe bet on deep days in steep terrain, but when you cross over, it gets beat up. If you follow the track down, cross it as little as possible.
LET OTHERS PASS. Ever play golf? Heard the term "play through"? If a faster party approaches from behind—and no matter how often you go or far from others you think you are, it'll happen eventually—let them pass. We all have different goals and travel at different speeds.
Devun Walsh puts in effort to reap the rewards of powdery hangtime in the Whistler backcountry. Photo: Andy Wright
LOSE THE HEADPHONES. Sure, we all have different objectives out there, but one of the most common denominators is the solitude we seek. Communication is key in the backcountry, and you won't find many people who appreciate your music drowning out the sound of wind rustling dry leaves, snow crunching beneath their feet, or distant distress signals. The backcountry is best enjoyed quietly.
KEEP YOUR HEAD UP AND EYES PEELED. Zach Guy, director of Crested Butte Avalanche Center in Colorado, suggests taking a few moments to get off the skin track, catch a breath, poke at the snow, and discuss observations and options with partners. "You'd be surprised how many people are so focused on the track that they walk right by a natural avalanche without seeing it," he says. "If you get off the track, you might hear a collapse that you would have otherwise missed. Or maybe your partners want to discuss the route up, but they are too far behind or too winded to speak up."
SPEAK YOUR MIND ABOUT SAFE TRAVEL. It's easy to let others make decisions, but even the most experienced traveler in your group could be hesitant to express concern for one reason or another. Egos tend to fly high in the backcountry, so it's important to know when to pump the brakes. Think your partner's a sissy for questioning the safety of themself and those around them? Go ahead and let them know. They just might tell you to piss off and find another touring partner.
STAY WITHIN SIGHT AND SOUND OF PARTNERS. …And don't blow past meet-up zones. Who wants to travel through avalanche terrain with someone who can't stay with the group? Consequences in the backcountry can be substantially larger than within resort boundaries. Nobody wants to work their ass off to dig you out or worse yet explain to your family that you "died doing what you loved."
DON'T SMOKE OTHERS OUT. We mean with your sled. Burnt gas doesn't smell good. Trees do. Roll slowly past non-motorized travelers and avoid poaching rideable lines. When asked about his biggest pet peeve in the backcountry, Devun Walsh says, "Probably all the random snowmobilers that come and rip everything to shit. They're just really, really annoying." This comes from someone who's been braappin' the backcountry, using a snowmobile to access remote zones, for two decades. But it makes sense—nobody likes an inconsiderate jackass.
Iikka Backstrom, Ryan Tiene, and Devun Walsh assess terrain from their sleds. Photo: Brad Heppner
FIRST TRACKS UP MEANS FIRST TRACKS DOWN. If someone's willing to put forth extra effort to break trail to the top, clearing the way and easing the climb for those behind, they should get to choose who drops in first.
LEAVE NO TRACE ASIDE FROM TRACKS. Don't drop wrappers or piss in the skin track. Step a few feet away and go in a tree well or bury yellow snow with white so nobody else has to look at it. Eric Layton of Splitboard Guides International encourages backcountry users to utilize existing tracks. "This in return creates a beautiful trail through the landscape and keeps safety contained, as opposed to multiple tracks scattered throughout," Eric says. "If I put in hard work to get to a remote location and those pet peeves show up, stoke is lost!"
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR PETS. We love dogs, but they're not cleaning up after themselves, and they shouldn't be allowed to wander off and trigger a slide above other travelers. Dogs can be great company when avalanche hazards are minimal, but a line needs to be drawn somewhere— for example, long before that overhanging cornice near the summit. If you tour with a dog, clean up their waste and remain mindful of their whereabouts.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK OTHERS THEIR PLANS. If they don't want to share, they won't, but knowing the whereabouts of another party could come in handy. If someone asks your plan, consider their reasoning before blowing them off. It's not hard to provide enough data to potentially serve purpose in an emergency without going into too much detail about the location of your secret pow stash.
Ignorance is one thing. Disregard for others' safety and their good time is another. There's a reason we venture outside the resort, and there is no "I" in "backcountry." Let's do our best to keep the peace.