Outward Bound

By Jim Humes

Photos by Cary Jobe

Don't confuse the Colorado Outward Bound Backcountry Snowboarding School with a snowboard camp. There's no lodge filled with deer heads, hot tubs, or cold frosties waiting after a day of riding. At base camp in Leadville, Colorado, we stay in a bunkhouse. In the field, we sleep three to a tent right on the snow. We hike miles carrying snowboards and packs, cook our own food, do our own dishes, and spend our days feasting on eye-popping scenery garnished with sweaty polypropylene. The school doesn't transform us into backcountry badasses. But it does teach us how to avoid the obvious blunders that claim lives in the backcountry, and instills confidence that with a shovel and avalanche beacon we could rescue a friend. And on a deeper level, the school reveals the simple pleasures surrounding a hike into the mountains and the ensuing ride down.

The course lasts eight days, the instructors filling almost every minute with activities. On day one, a shuttle takes us from Denver to Leadville, where we immediately hit a ropes course, followed by the issuing of gear to outfit us for winter camping. Day two finds us at Copper Mountain, where instructors divide up the group by skill level for a day of practice. A day hike on day three introduces us to transceiver practice and our first snow pit, then we're issued more equipment.

Each night, we attend classes ranging from snow science and cold-weather physiology to avalanche assessment and “WhisperLite 101,” a crash course on operating the tiny, kerosene-burning camping stoves preferred by mountaineers. The instructors constantly spice the curriculum with observations from their experiences. Nate Knecht informs us that the Sistine Chapel includes a panel entitled “The Creation of the Sun and Moon” that portrays God caught in a perfect heelside carve as one of his angels leads him into a toeside turn. Rosie Werner and Valerie Waldrop cover the psychology of dealing with a friend who wants to drop an unsafe chute, and how promises of double mochas or pizza dinners can save lives. Dave White reveals that his dog's pirate name is Black Lips, and Zac West dramatizes the history of snowboarding in a short skit drawing on his Northern Cascades roots.

On day four, we shoulder backpacks, load sleds, and head into the hills surrounding Leadville for the next three nights. There, we continue our beacon practice and snow-pit assessment and learn about safe routefinding, all the while getting in some wonderful turns each day. We grow handy with the shovel–from building kickers to constructing a kitchen out of snow, complete with seating for sixteen and candle lanterns that warm the night with a saffron glow.

Two events probably best define what the Colorado Outward Bound Backcountry Snowboarding School is about. The first occurs on the day we summit Mt. Twiney, a 13,400-foot peak near Independence Pass. Four hours into our hike, we stop to dig a snow pit on the steepest pitch we hope to ride. Under bluebird skies and classic spring conditions, a shovel-shear test reveals instabilities in the snowpack. Two separate test slabs give way with almost no effort. Surprised–and a little disappointed–we decide to hike the pitch rather than ride it on the way down. Knowing we've gained a valuable backcountry lesson, Nate is grinning ear to ear.

One of the hardest and most important things to learn in the backcountry is the discipline to admit when conditions aren't right. We probably could've bombed the slope; the sun has been shining on it for two weeks. But we decide that ten or twelve turns aren't worth the risk–as Dave succinctly puts it, “You get a lot more riding in when you're alive.”

The other culminating event happens on our final day in the field. To practice avalanche-rescue scenarios, our patrol divides up intto two groups of four. One team stands above a slope while the other buries two backpacks, each containing a transmitting avalanche beacon. Both teams have fifteen minutes to rescue the “victims.” Our groups log seven and nine minutes as rescue times. Almost worse than being caught in a slide would be watching a friend go under, and this exercise ends in high-fives and grins, making all of us realize we'd learned some truly valuable skills.

Unlike longer Outward Bound programs, only at the end of the snowboard course do instructors and students sit down to reflect on the experience. On our last night, we hold a final bro-down where we rattle on about the suckiness of getting out of your sleeping bag during the night to pee, elevation sickness, the kicker session above Shvedal Glades … lingering conversations relevant only to those who shared the experiences, but evidence that we all took part in a truly fun and meaningful adventure.