I don’t think that I’ll ever forget the first time that I went ski touring. Standing on top of that un-touched run, with only my crew next to me and the sky above me, I was completely hooked. There’s something to be said for earning your turns instead of riding the chairlift up run after run. With the added hard works comes a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of freedom that only exists when getting to your destination through human power. But with that freedom also comes added risks.
Written by: Shannon Mahre. Shannon is a professional photographer, writer, coach, athlete mom and wife based in Washington state. She enjoys running ultra-trail marathons. Shannon, along with her husband Any, own MADE (Mahre Athletic Development Experience) and teach adventure clinics, retreats, classes and events for the entire family. Find Shannon on Instagram: @shannonmahre.
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Before heading out into the backcountry, the first thing you need to get is knowledge – because without that, not even the fanciest gear in the world will save you from an avalanche or other backcountry hazard. Take an Intro to Backcountry course at your local mountain, take an Avalanche Certification Course and ask your friends as many questions as possible, because when you go through that backcountry gate, you better have all of the proper gear, know how to scope out potential hazards and you better have the skills and maturity to be able to put that knowledge and gear to the test if an emergency does occur.
Scared yet? You should be. Going into the backcountry is serious business. Even if a slope “looks safe” or is “right next to the ski area” doesn’t mean that it actually is safe. Choose your backcountry days wisely (always know current avalanche reports, forecasts as well as weather reports) and choose your backcountry partners wisely – because they just may end up saving your life.
The basic gear that you should always have in your backcountry pack are a shovel, probe and a transceiver – even if you are just skiing side-country that doesn’t require you to actually “ski tour” (meaning you can ski in and out of the resort by traversing). Why? Because these are the items that you will use to find someone and then dig them out of an avalanche if one should occur. Once again, if you do not know how to use these items in an emergency, they are useless, so make sure that you practice using your transceiver as well as shoveling and probing techniques at least yearly to ensure that you can do what you need to do if needed.
Beyond the above safety gear, you will want to get skins (these have one side that is a reusable adhesive that sticks to the bottom of the skis and the other side which is made of mohair or synthetic fur that allows you to walk uphill on snow with minimal slippage) and touring bindings (when in “walk mode”, the heels on these bindings releases so that you can walk rather normally up the mountain with your skis on). I also like to ensure that I have the following in my pack whenever I go out: an emergency space blanket (these are cheap and fold up into a small square – they may be small but they could save your life), sunglasses, extra layers, liner gloves to tour in (your hands will get warm if it’s a sunny day, sunscreen, a trucker hat to tour in (your beanie or helmet will head hold a lot of heat in so I like to wear a trucker hat and sunglasses when we are going uphill to stay cooler), a camera (I always have my big camera with lenses, but even a small camera can get some great shots), a phone (when wearing your transceiver, try to put your phone in a pocket as far away from your transceiver as possible), and a small first aid kit.
Image credit: @shannonmahre
My husband, Andy, and I have been on countless backcountry adventures – for work and for fun – and no matter what, safety always comes first. A line, run or feature will be there tomorrow, but if you don’t make the safe decision, you may not. As a ski coach, I am a firm believer in pushing yourself and always trying to improve your skills, but in the backcountry, you have to take into consideration the added risk vs. reward. Does that mean that I don’t push myself in the backcountry? I totally do! But I wait until conditions are as safe as possible to take those risks, to hit that cliff or to ski that line that I’ve been eyeing. Be safe and have fun out there, everyone!
Interested in getting into backcountry skiing? Andy and I teach Intro to Backcountry Skiing Clinics as well as Ski Lessons and Clinics for all ages (intermediate-expert levels only) out of Yakima, WA and at White Pass.