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SHADOWING A SKI MOUNTAINEERING COURSE – Whistler/Blackcomb backcountry

I shadowed one day of a five day ski mountaineering course put on by Altus Mountain GuidesBackstory: West Coasties (myself included), have a tradition of being self-guided and finding their own adventure. In general skiers from the interior and the Rockies are much more amenable and likely to get instruction from professional guides. I’ve speculated that this is not just because Coasties are uniquely cheap but because we’re lured into a sense of security by a traditionally bomber snowpack. In the last decade or so I’ve seen lots and lots of people go from resort skiing to venturing into backcountry.

When movies and pictures glorify the bliss and joy of hunting pow it’s easy to understand why. Some of the people who get past the dabbling stage then get into more steep terrain where a combination of skills are needed; some of these skills involving a mixed bag of mountaineering and steep skiing skills. In the past few years I and others have noted a marked growth in the numbers getting into “ski-mountaineering” (or whatever fancy marketing buzzword you want to call it).


Preparing the rap station Getting in


Lots of people getting after it, which is great. Lots of people also going about it in ways that, to put it bluntly, seem nuts. Putting on the Monday Morning Quarterback hat, crazy routes under, through, or subject to exposure or hangfire; sloppy group management; bad safe zones; bad time management; overcommitment to objectives beyond group skill; inability to navigate terrain (entries or exits); weekender desk jockey mentality (I’ve only got the weekend to nail this rad line so better hit it now come hell or high water). It’s easy to call this out from the safety of a keyboard.

Anyone’s who’s spent time in the field will relate to the above list since they’ll almost certainly have made one or more of the same mistakes. Whistler seems to attract a lot of noob extreme ski touring ski-mountaineers. So what do you do? A recent Biglines article had some discussion about this (How to call out Backcountry Idiots without Making them Feel like Idiots) attracting a variety of comments ranging from “Eff them and let Darwin sort them out” to ways to politely educate people.

I don’t pretend to have answers but thought I’d shadow a friend of mine (Ross Berg of Altus Mountain Guides) who’s developed a bit of a reputation for bagging steeps in the Whistler/Blackcomb area to find out one way that people can get educated. In the self-taught method, you’d learn slowly over time. If you got lucky your mistakes were minor and would lead just to discomfort. If you were real lucky, you’d have a mentor who’d put up with your JONGass bull and prevent you from committing suicide by bro-brah wannabe radness and, provided you listened you might get a certain level of competence.


Getting out. Snow was “firm” Snow better in protected steep chutes


But not every one will have a mentor and many times, your options are to learn from friends, youtube, books (many excellent ones out there) and from taking the bitter pills of life. Bottom line is that I see a structured steep skiing/ski-mountaineering course run by someone who knows what they’re doing as a way as a way to supercharge the learning experience and hopefully this article will show how this happens. Now these courses aren’t cheap so it’s easy to understand why DIY dirtbags would never consider taking them. But I wonder how many North Americans don’t even know about such things (ie you’re trying to get into you fall you die terrain and how to get to it and ski it safely)? Is guided skiing thought of as glorified babysitting? Is guided steeps and guided ski-mountaineering just thought to be an Euro thing?

Altus Mountaineering’s 5 day ski-mountaineering course is Can $ 1,000 per person. This is taught in the Whistler and Tantalus Range area closer to Squamish. If you know of other comparable courses in your geographic area please chime in.

Some of the things taught in the course

  • Crevasse rescue
  • Glacier travel
  • White out navigation
  • Steep skiing techniques
  • Building natural anchors
  • Rappelling
  • Lowering
  • Belayed skiing
  • Advanced snowpack assessment
  • Managing Bergschrund’s climbing and skiing
  • Cornice Management.

Navigating the toe of the glacial lake Whiteout navigation plan in the field

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