Saturday, January 01, 2000

Backcountry Awareness

Sitting here in late August backcountry awareness is the awareness that in two or three months I'll be out there, hearing the rip of skins and feeling the arc of my skis through fresh snow. But what I want to write about is real backcountry awareness, the essential ingredient for safe and successful backcountry skiing.

Resorts, be they alpine or nordic, try to create a predictable environment for skiers. Groomed snow reduces the variable of natural snow, allowing the skier to concentrate on technique in a petri dish of consistent surface and texture. Resorts also seek to eliminate potential discomforts and hazards, and not incidentally, they make it easier to get up the mountain .

Backcountry skiing is different. There's lots of elbow room and the only lines are the ones you and your friends leave in the snow, be they little S's or figure 11's. 99.99% of the winter landscape remains ungroomed; wind blown, powder coated, crud encrusted, glop saturated, sun baked....... This means snow conditions are a big issue, from safety to ski technique. In fact, everything out there can be a big issue, the weather, your equipment, the company you keep. That's where backcountry awareness come in.

Backcountry awareness is the combination of knowledge and direct experience. Knowledge is needed to interpret the raw data of our senses but knowledge without direct experience is often reduced to belief and assumptions.

Most of us these days are urban animals and we do pretty well with the cognitive/knowledge part of awareness, but our senses tend to be hunkered down, taking shelter from the bombardment of information that is being hurled at us all the time. Backcountry skiing requires reengaging our senses. Whether it's as subtle as the hollow sound of skis on wind loaded snow or as obvious as natural releases on a nearby slope, our senses need to be tuned in. The information from our senses is what transforms basic knowledge into usable awareness.

Awareness is critical to traveling safely in the winter backcountry and it's also handy for finding the best snow. Careful observation of the surface texture might help you snake your way through the variations of a wind blown slope and snow lingering in the trees can often show you where the wind or sun hasn't made mischief with the powder. Following the sun as it ripens corn on various exposures can give you a long day of fine skiing while gleaning the first signs of a crust forming suggests it's time to head for the barn.

A lot of this can be learned by direct experience but big issues like avalanche safety should be approached through someone with lots of experience. If your new to backcountry skiing go out with some knowledgeable friends. If you don't have any, buy one. There are professional guides in most of the popular backcountry areas and divvied up between a small group, the price is a bargain. Once your out there, don't let yourself be the docile follower. Be a sponge. Ask lots of questions and use your senses to cooberate what your partners are saying. A good backcountry group should have open discussions on the essentials and alternatives throughout the tour. If you hire a guide, make sure he or she is willing to let you in on their body of knowledge.

For safer and easier travel, it makes sense to develop our awareness in the backcountry, but being sensible is not always the greatest motivator. Needing to be aware, with all systems working is what gives backcountry skiing it's richness and intensity. We live in an age where the ultimate oxymoron, virtual reality, says that if you put an electronic bag over your head you can see and feel it all. It feels great to go out and experience the virtual reality that has existed through the millennia, where cold nips at the fingers and snow crystals sting the cheek, where we get to choose a safe route or discover some new fallen snow. Where, be it the first time or the tenth time to a basin, a ridge, or a mountain, it's never the same, because the only constant in the winter backcountry is that snow always changes.


Home | Contact Us | Built By MtnEye.com | RSS Feed RSS Feed
2009 Freeheels, Inc. No content may be used without the permission of Freeheels, Inc.