John Buffery Interview

By Craig Kelly

As we journey through life, we all run into people who guide and lead us in new directions. From Terry Kidwell with his grasp on freestyle early on, to George Dobis’ philosophy and adventure up at Mt. Baker, to Steve Mathews and his worldly backwoods conquests, my influences in the mountains have been many and varied.

When I met John “Buff” Buffery, a certified guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, he was assigned to be our leader on a remote film shoot deep in Kluane Park up in the Yukon. It was immediately obvious to me that he was exceptionally comfortable with his life in the mountains. It’s rare to find a guide who’s able to relax and trust us to do our job as pro snowboarders yet has the experience and competency to ensure the safety of the project. It wasn’t until we spent a month together up in Juneau, Alaska working on the IMAX Extreme movie, and then a few more trips working on Dave Seaone’s new film The Haakonsen Faktor, that I really got to know and appreciate Buff as a friend and mentor.

As it turns out, between his limelight jobs as mountain-safety coordinator for feature films and snowboard-media projects, Buff works as a splitboard guide in a remote backcountry touring lodge in the Canadian Rockies. Since he probably puts in more true backcountry days on a snowboard than anyone else I know, I figured his would be the perfect brain to pick for this issue. We sat down for a little chat after an epic mountain-biking misadventure near his home in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia.

Craig: How did you get started playing around in the backcountry?

Buff: When I was young and living in the suburbs of Ontario, there was a garbage dump that would get snow on it and we’d hike up to the top. I’d bring my skis for the ride down.

I’m trying to go chronologically–what led you into becoming a skiguide and eventually a snowboard guide?

Going into the mountains all the time back in the 70s and just seeing the dynamics of the mountains. It was all intriguing to me; I had just finished school, and having seen all these avalanches, I thought I should know about them before I got myself into them a bit more. I took an avalanche course and just kept going into the backcountry. Then I did this ski-patrolling gig for nine years professionally and got my accreditation with blasting avalanches, and I saw lots of results from that. I was really intrigued by the dynamics and the tensions of the snow.

What were your first impressions of using a splitboard?

I found that it was the future, and more and more people were going to do it. I thought about it, too, more surface on a snowboard, better for breaking trail going up. Trying to convince people that you can do this with your snowboard and have them follow you with skis is a bit tricky for a guide. I don’t think there was much performance sacrifice except for the homemade equipment that I’d just thrown together, which wasn’t all that great.

Do you see some room for improvement with splitboards?

I think what I would like to see is improvement to the ease and speed of how it a splitboard is to be used. Once that’s figured out, people will start to want to use them more. What I’ve heard from other people is that they don’t trust it, they don’t feel that the board will hold up to their speed and jumping and stuff like that. So I think it has to have some sort of durability, and then you have to prove it and have it researched. Having somebody like you riding it and researching it, people will trust it.

What motivates you to teach your Canadian Avalanche Association avalanche safety courses?

I think about when Ias young and curious, running into people who had knowledge and experience in the backcountry was inspiring. It’s also inspiring to see guides who are still stoked on skiing. A couple of incidents I’ve seen over the years, where friends of mine have been caught in slides and perished, is also a big motivating factor. I think it’s great that everyone gets to know about avalanches.

I’m really stoked to specialize in teaching snowboarders, doing the Level-One courses. It seems like the learning curve for snowboarders has been a lot faster than it was for skiers. Telemarkers tumbled around the ski areas for awhile before you’d see them in the backcountry, and they never went to the terrain that the snowboarders get into right away. There’s a big need to have snowboarders all tuned up on awareness, for sure.

Have you observed any tendencies as snowboarders are introduced to the backcountry?

Yeah, with the nature of the beast there are a couple things. One is that the terrain they try to jump into right away is generally steeper than with the skiers, and again even more so than with telemarkers.

Snowboarders tend to be pretty good at high speeds, especially in the open bowls, and they can deviate and use the terrain really well. There’s a sense that if they’re in moving snow, caught in a slide, they’ll be able to run out of it. That would be more likely than if you were telemarking because of the stability of the snowboard platform. Until you’ve been in a real avalanche–all that mass moving and all over and on you, and you’ve experienced the chaos of it all–the thought of outrunning it is a common misconception. People think they can basically outrun them, and although occasionally it’s done, I don’t think that’s always true.

What is it about the backcountry experience that makes you love it so much? How you can bring it all together to make it such a big part of your life for so long?

The sensations you get out there are just indescribable; they are all individual. I just know that for a long time, being in the hills has given me a certain peace, and from that a graduation of the questioning of peace and what it stems from. Having found a connection, that peace in the mountains, I feel that I have a connection between the Earth and myself. I can feel the Earth. I can feel a sense of purpose in some way.

Nice! Sort of on that note, I have seen you riding this older Terje Balance board that has the tai chi lady on the topsheet …

The move that she’s doing is the Golden Cock Stands On One Leg. I didn’t really notice it was a tai chi move until later when I was looking down on her.

Is there a connection between tai chi and the feelings you experience in the mountains, and how you deal with challenges in the backcountry?

Yeah, a little bit. When I do tai chi, be it at home or wherever, it grounds me to the Earth, making me feel that I’m a rod of energy between the heavens and the Earth. In Japanese, I think they call it satori.

There are parallels between of doing tai chi in a controlled quiet place and being on a snowboard in the backcountry. There’s also the conscious knowledge of the exercise and energy you have exerted to get to the top–you know things taste better when you had to work harder to get them. You walk all day to get to some high point and then put your board into downhill mode, and suddenly you are focused and nothing else exists. That’s the same place I get to with tai chi.

Right on. For me, my snowboarding experience can be a reflection of my outlook on life at times. I’m wondering how snowboarding in the backcountry might symbolize other things in your life.

Y’know, you keep learning about yourself in the reflection of what you do. It seems I have this control issue, and I really like to know as much as I can about what’s going on. I’ll ride terrain I think I can handle, and I ride in snow I think is not going to go. But it’s not very often I’ll take air. I stay on the ground, but I go in steep terrain if I think it’s good and I think I have the ability. But when it comes to the lack of control I get into when jumping, I have a bit of a control-freak issue with it all.

Any high points or especially memorable moments in ski-guiding or backcountry adventure?

Oh yeah, there are a million of them. I think of our first connection up in Kluane a trip Craig, Tex Devenport, and Jason Ford did with Buff in the Yukon several years ago, getting a call to go into a park that I always wanted to visit and to be with these seemingly crazy snowboarders. Going up there to ride such big terrain and being in the national park for the first time was pretty cool. Watching you guys was pretty exciting.

When I’m stretched and pushed the most–where I have to stretch my brain–I’m happiest. I remember guiding groups in whiteouts and doing weird stuff like piling rocks in my pack. People were looking at me and thinking what the hell are those for? And then getting to the col and throwing the rocks down, watching them roll and having them for reference to ski, that was pretty exciting.

Is there anyone who has served as an inspiration to you in the backcountry?

There is this guy named Rob Wood, an old British climber I met at Strathcona Park in 1982 who has done lots of backcountry climbing and venturing. He and I and some other friends went up to Mt. Waddington in 1984, and we learned a lot from him. We spent 24 days in a snow cave with him and his wife and a bunch of his other buddies. He’s written a book called Toward The Unknown Mountains. Funny as it is, John Long, the director of the IMAX Extreme film that we just worked on last year, read that book, and it was kind of inspirational for him in creating Extreme.

Any general thoughts for people interested in exploring the backcountry?

You should be careful not to just get the tools and assume that you’ll be okay. Like when beacons first started becoming popular, skiers were wearing a beacon and ignorantly throwing themselves into avalanche terrain. Even though they were better off because they had their beacons, there is nothing in all the gear you carry that is as important as having the information on how to use it and how to avoid having to use it.

I also think it’s a really good idea to have a compass, a map, and a plan. Know where you’re gonna go, have an alternative, and a turn-around time. Think about not getting caught in the dark. Or if it storms, then think about not getting caught in the whiteout. People have kept walking in a storm, not knowing where they were, and found themselves in terrain where they didn’t want to be–bigger than what they anticipated–and with the storm having created avalanche conditions. They’re in way over their heads.

That’s a scary feeling, being tossed into a situation that is immediately beyond your control!

Totally. It’s shitty. Think about it, and talk it over with your group. Everybody should agree upon an individual to lead. In any backcountry party, I think that there is a protocol on how to work the group. Make it clear before you go that everyone knows the objective, the general route plan, and if somebody wants to head back, don’t send them back alone. I remember Rob Wood talking to me about the synergy of groups: He talked about creating synergy, a combination of people’s individual energy, which is greain the reflection of what you do. It seems I have this control issue, and I really like to know as much as I can about what’s going on. I’ll ride terrain I think I can handle, and I ride in snow I think is not going to go. But it’s not very often I’ll take air. I stay on the ground, but I go in steep terrain if I think it’s good and I think I have the ability. But when it comes to the lack of control I get into when jumping, I have a bit of a control-freak issue with it all.

Any high points or especially memorable moments in ski-guiding or backcountry adventure?

Oh yeah, there are a million of them. I think of our first connection up in Kluane a trip Craig, Tex Devenport, and Jason Ford did with Buff in the Yukon several years ago, getting a call to go into a park that I always wanted to visit and to be with these seemingly crazy snowboarders. Going up there to ride such big terrain and being in the national park for the first time was pretty cool. Watching you guys was pretty exciting.

When I’m stretched and pushed the most–where I have to stretch my brain–I’m happiest. I remember guiding groups in whiteouts and doing weird stuff like piling rocks in my pack. People were looking at me and thinking what the hell are those for? And then getting to the col and throwing the rocks down, watching them roll and having them for reference to ski, that was pretty exciting.

Is there anyone who has served as an inspiration to you in the backcountry?

There is this guy named Rob Wood, an old British climber I met at Strathcona Park in 1982 who has done lots of backcountry climbing and venturing. He and I and some other friends went up to Mt. Waddington in 1984, and we learned a lot from him. We spent 24 days in a snow cave with him and his wife and a bunch of his other buddies. He’s written a book called Toward The Unknown Mountains. Funny as it is, John Long, the director of the IMAX Extreme film that we just worked on last year, read that book, and it was kind of inspirational for him in creating Extreme.

Any general thoughts for people interested in exploring the backcountry?

You should be careful not to just get the tools and assume that you’ll be okay. Like when beacons first started becoming popular, skiers were wearing a beacon and ignorantly throwing themselves into avalanche terrain. Even though they were better off because they had their beacons, there is nothing in all the gear you carry that is as important as having the information on how to use it and how to avoid having to use it.

I also think it’s a really good idea to have a compass, a map, and a plan. Know where you’re gonna go, have an alternative, and a turn-around time. Think about not getting caught in the dark. Or if it storms, then think about not getting caught in the whiteout. People have kept walking in a storm, not knowing where they were, and found themselves in terrain where they didn’t want to be–bigger than what they anticipated–and with the storm having created avalanche conditions. They’re in way over their heads.

That’s a scary feeling, being tossed into a situation that is immediately beyond your control!

Totally. It’s shitty. Think about it, and talk it over with your group. Everybody should agree upon an individual to lead. In any backcountry party, I think that there is a protocol on how to work the group. Make it clear before you go that everyone knows the objective, the general route plan, and if somebody wants to head back, don’t send them back alone. I remember Rob Wood talking to me about the synergy of groups: He talked about creating synergy, a combination of people’s individual energy, which is greater than the sum of individuals working alone. So when you and I work together, it’s better than yours and mine synergies added together. Do that with a group, and you can have amazing trips.

greater than the sum of individuals working alone. So when you and I work together, it’s better than yours and mine synergies added together. Do that with a group, and you can have amazing trips.