Backcountry Access: Overcoming the Human Factor
Guest Author: Abby Cooper
Action sports photographer, freelance writer and avid splitboarder, Abby Cooper took some time out of her busy winter schedule to share lessons from her backcountry experiences – the good, the bad and the life-changing.
When I peer out my window and see the majestic mountains that adorn the Sea to Sky Corridor I feel the urge to explore them. In the summertime it’s as easy as following designated hiking trails to summits, lakes and viewpoints, each offering their own reward. Escaping the daily grind and disappearing into the backcountry for fresh air, exercise and a sense of accomplishment is both therapeutic and rewarding. The need to explore my backyard isn’t mine alone, nor does it disappear in the winter. The ability to climb a mountain by gliding up on skis and being able to ski down instead of a long knee slamming walk? Now that is the dream.
LEFT: Risk vs Reward – exploring our backyard is very rewarding and the risks are real. RIGHT: Author Abby Cooper. All images courtesy Abby Dell Photography
Although ski touring isn’t a new concept, it has recently been trending in the ski/snowboard industry. Nearly every major ski and snowboard manufacturer is offering backcountry specific set ups. The backcountry touring fever is contagious, and for a good reason, it’s fun! The one aspect that isn’t so lighthearted and simple is the safety aspect. When the mountains are covered in snow it adds multiple new concepts to consider when venturing in them. Careful calculations should be made to analyze the existing snow pack, current weather and weather forecast, terrain type, group dynamics and proper gear. Sound intimating? It should be.
LEFT: Route planning with Extremely Canadian on a splitboard specific AST-1 course. RIGHT: Michelle skis a safe line after a big morning tour.
The backcountry has stolen my heart, broke it and repaired it. The backcountry had always been a positive experience for me filled with great powder, good choices, and learning experiences, until December 26, 2014. Poor group dynamics this particular day lead to multiple bad decisions and unfortunately I learnt a very life-changing lesson the hard way. An avalanche was triggered above me in steep terrain and I went for one wild ride that I was lucky to walk away from – not without injury, but on my feet. At the time I had years of backcountry experience under my belt and I felt comfortable making decisions about terrain, weather and route finding. I realized that while I understood the potential power of the mountains, I didn’t understand the power of “The Human Factor.” My avalanche training saved my life, but my rationalization and complacency almost cost me my life. (Read the full story here.)
This event carved a new thought process for me that I wanted to share with others. The training, the gear, the physical ability, this is only half of what makes a good day in the backcountry. One small choice to not speak up when your gut is begging you can make the difference between a good day and a bad day. Even if it’s just to speak up for a water break, to adjust your boot to avoid a blister, to notice that the temperatures are changing, it doesn’t have to be big problem because the little things make a difference – a really big difference, in fact.
The true meaning of ‘earn your turns’. LEFT: Connor from Extremely Canadian demonstrates a snow compression test to check for snowpack stability. RIGHT: A group practices companion rescue.
This concept inspired me to help breakdown the “scary” factors for first timers and help the community build a platform for backcountry users where communication is key. A way to welcome newcomers and make them feel that their voice is heard and at the same time for those involved for a long time to share their knowledge without letting their ego get in the way.
In December 2015 I held my first ever Split Social event at Showcase Snowboards. While it was geared towards splitboarders, all backcountry users were welcome to attend. The idea behind Split Social was to make all the tools necessary for a great and safe time in the backcountry easily available; good gear, good crew, education and safety resources. As I tested the waters with the event to see how many people would be interested in the idea, I was blown away that it sold out days in advance! At the event we talked about splitboard specific gear including different price points and the differences in technologies and G3 lead a skin cutting demo. Connor from Extremely Canadian had a safety chat with us and spoke about the Avalanche Safety courses Extremely Canadian offers. Since there was such a large interested in a splitboard specific Avalanche Skills Training (AST) courses at the event, Extremely Canadian has been able to offer a series of split specific AST courses since. It was so exciting to see such a large turn out at the event and to see their interest keep growing through the AST courses. I’m looking forward to planning another Split Social event in the near future.
The ability to read avalanche terrain, trust your crew members and make complex decisions isn’t something that you can learn overnight when referring to the backcountry. It takes time to understand and respect the mountains, but having the right tools and resources helps! Fortunately, Whistler has a wealth of backcountry resources for you to draw on whether it is your first time in the backcountry, or you’re an avid user looking for more insight. You can never over research a trip, but don’t forget about the mental aspect of planning, only you know your comfort zone, so speak up!
Stepping into the backcountry is intimidating – let’s make sure that the risks are the mountains, not ourselves or each other.
LEFT: Local guide Christine Felki leads a crew. RIGHT: Standing room only for the first ever Split Social in Whistler.
Author’s Note: During my recovery process both physically and mentally, I have been particularly grateful for the incredible Whistler community for their concern and also for local businesses Yyoga and the Scandinave Spa Whistler. Recovering from such a life changing event isn’t a quick fix, but having the healing tools and support around me has been a key ingredient. Thank you Whistler!
Keen to see what the backcountry buzz is about? You can book a backcountry ski or splitboard tour with an experienced guide through Whistler.com
Editor’s Note: The video is an oldie but a goodie. The technology may have changed since 2013 but the stoke, on the other hand, is timeless.