Snowboarder to Backcountry Skier: Switching Skill Sets
Guest Author: Bruin Alexander
My first trip up the Sea to Sky was sometime in the mid-nineties. That old highway sure dragged on – I was young and impatient. Whistler has always held a special place for me, home without being home. My folks didn’t care much for skiing or snowboarding, they were busy being young parents and making ends meet. So, it was my uncles who became my mentors, they bought me my first snowboard and took me up the hill.
Back in those days, I typically spent winter inside at the rink. Hockey consumed the months when snow was falling. Between school and tournaments, I only got to ride one or two weekends a year. I wasn’t very good, and I wasn’t very good at not being very good. Slowing friends down was the worst, and snowboarding didn’t come as easily as I expected, but that didn’t deter me from pretending it did. I remember hitting the park with a reckless inability to connect my skill and courage – that gap lead to a broken arm while trying a 360, which as it turns out was a few hundred degrees past my comfort zone. At the hospital I couldn’t have been prouder of myself. Clipping a backside edge and rearranging the bones in my right wrist was a rite of passage – I was ten years old.
In the early naughts, if you remember, snowboarding was hitting its peak “cool”. Skis were reserved for dads and Europeans, and I was neither. I got better, little by little, and those couple of weekends a year turned into weekday missions – anything to take my mind off my mounting study pile at university. When I finally finished my degree and my hockey days were over, I found myself drawn to the mountains even more. My love of both photography and mountaineering started to take priority. I’m not ambitious about climbing in the traditional sense, I care very little about the highest or the hardest peak.
“What I love most about climbing is the different perspective you get when you look down upon the world.”
The feeling of standing atop a summit is one I have trouble describing – it rewired something inside me. For the first time since I’d retired from hockey I fell in love with something. I realized I wanted to enjoy this new-found passion year-round, but winter posed a challenge to my usual climb up, hike down approach. However, some of my friends had an elegant descent plan – skiing. For my first few backcountry adventures I used a split-board. Some people love them, and they can be amazing if you’re a great snowboarder – but I’m not. So, after spring last year two things happened; I decided to check off the childhood dream and move up to Whistler, and I decided to switch to skiing.
As with any learning curve, heading back to zero is a tough pill. I wasn’t the best on a snowboard, but I was comfortable and definitely not slow. So, when I headed up resort last November, having never put skis on, I was nervous. Some of my friends are Olympians, many are professional in some capacity, and a bunch of others have put in a hundred resort days for a decade or so. I was about to drop-in for the first time. It took some courage, I didn’t think it would, but it did. I spent a lot of days riding alone, while playing music and working on the basics. If I didn’t have a friend to learn from I’d watch YouTube, make mental notes and try to apply them.
I had a goal.
I wanted to get into the backcountry, and to do that I needed to improve, be comfortable in less than ideal conditions, and ensure I wasn’t a liability for anyone I was out with.
There is a feeling you get in the mountains, a presence. The feeling is sharper in winter, for me, as snow blankets everything in a coat of white. Despite the beauty, it poses a threat, what is beautiful is also dangerous. Avalanches, variable weather and extreme cold all creep into the equation. Conditions in harsh climates, at high elevations, affect your decision-making everywhere. Risk assessment is critical. Understanding the danger requires a certain amount of education and that’s why I needed some.
Avalanche Skills Training Level 1
Before I took my first AST course I spent a lot of time doing mock searches with friends – I recommend you do the same. The course is both insightful and intimidating. That’s good, more respect for the mountains is the right amount of respect. I won’t go into the backcountry with people who haven’t taken their AST, simple as that. With that said, the course is a fraction of the education. Ask questions, study the Avalanche Canada app, understand the terrain and work on searching. The course gives you a baseline – practice is the key.
Wilderness First Aid
Last year was my first winter in the backcountry with any sort of consistency. Having switched from a snowboard to skis, I was always the weakest rider. What I was never weakest in was knowledge, especially in first aid. It helped the groups’ confidence, as well as my own, knowing I was the most prepared to assist in case of an accident. People were more confident bringing me along and I was helpful despite my lack of experience on skis.
The best piece of advice I received before buying my touring set-up was “pay to be light” so I’ll pass that on to you. Budget is budget, but look for as light a set-up as possible. You want to be comfortable and you want the climb to be enjoyable. I promise you won’t regret the added cost. That means pin bindings and a light boot. I ride different skis for backcountry and resort, but if that isn’t an option for you, look for a sturdier all-round ski.
As for the beacon, shovel and probe, buy them as a package. In my opinion, both Mammut and Black Diamond have excellent options. This is the only piece of gear I wouldn’t buy used, it isn’t only your life, but your friends lives covered in this $500 expense.
Backcountry skiing is a different animal to its on-piste relation. Snow is variable, condition changes are quick and dramatic and so, experience is the best teacher. While you’re looking to build your own experience, aim to supplement it with the wisdom of others. Don’t know anyone? Ask! Visit online message boards, socialize at your AST course – if you’re smart, befriend the instructor.
Whistler is one of the most incredible places on earth, with more backcountry opportunities than a lifetime could check off. Heck, it’s tough to touch every corner of the resort. The perfect line is always out there, atop a new ridge, down a hidden couloir, somewhere off the beaten path. Don’t be too intimidated to start. Everyone starts somewhere.
Remember it takes time, patience and a lot of days on skis or a board to be confident enough to venture off. But that time goes more quickly than you think, so if you feel overwhelmed or nervous, don’t be. Get out on the snow, feel the powder on your face. Don’t forget that it’s supposed to be fun! Enjoy yourself. Practice. Be informed.
“With planning and hard work, all the fresh tracks outside the resort are within your reach.”
Bruin Alexander is a photographer and explorer who doesn’t shy away from the challenge of trying something new. Read more about him on his website.