Backcountry Skiing – A Beginner’s Guide Part 1 – Motivation

Three tracks in the entire valley
Three tracks in the entire valley

Regular readers of will know that over the last couple of years I’ve been doing more and more skiing in the backcountry. Rather than offering this from an expert’s perspective, which it most certainly isn’t, I’m writing a series of posts which are an account of my own personal transition to skiing in the BC. The aim of this series is to give never-evers an insight into the basics if they are considering a transition of their own.

Part 1 – Motivation

The first question people ask me is why it took so long? Why did I wait until my early 30’s to discover this latent passion for skiing beyond the ropes? Especially considering I spent 10 years skiing full time, back-to-back winters, with well over 2000 days on snow in this period.

The main answer is that I was busy. As you move up the ranks of instructing your time becomes more scarce – request private lessons, work with the APSI, training for exams etc quickly gobbles up whatever free time you may have to the point where a day out of boots is bliss and if you do ski on a day off the concept of walking up the hill is somewhat abhorrent to your battle-scarred body.

Add to that concept the notion of expert local knowledge which meant that you became very proficient at putting yourself in the right place at the right time to ski the best conditions that the local resorts had to offer.

Richard Skiing Powder at Snowbird
Richard Skiing Powder at Snowbird

So even though I spent hundreds and hundreds of days in Utah’s Wasatch I was perfectly content with skiing the resorts, maybe heading out the gates to the very sidecountry, not feeling like I was missing out on very much at all. It’s hard to say whether I would change anything in hindsight. However there was always something nagging in the back of my mind about heading further afield. Part of this was due to reading the fantastic Utah Avalanche Report – these guys literally depended on the weather for their lives and I found that it was bar-none the best forecast at the time. So I read it religiously every day and at the same time absorbed quite a lot of knowledge about snow conditions and avalanche safety and a rudimentary notion of ski touring.

But it wasn’t until a ski trip to Europe in 2009/10 and a chance meeting with our now good friend and Chamonix guide Jerome Para that we realised the potential of human powered skiing. While the first week we spent with Jerome was all lifted with the odd bootpack/sidestep here and there, even though it was mindblowing there was the overwhelming feeling that we were missing out. We saw the lightweight Dynafit gear that he was skiing some pretty extreme terrain with which made us confident we could find gear that got us up the hill but didn’t noodle its way down.

Three tracks in the entire valley
Three tracks in the entire valley

But I must digress for a moment. Regardless of the time it took to make my transition to the BC, I’ve long been of the opinion that skiing on groomers isn’t really skiing. It serves a purpose to get the legs going in the early season, and for working on technique, but at the end of the day, it’s glorified rollerblading in a particularly artificial environment. Nicole and I would go for entire three week ski holidays and only ski groomers to get from A to B – they were a conveyance rather than a goal. So we always had the mindset that skiing on snow in its natural state was our primary objective.

So after our 09/10 trip to Europe (Verbier, Chamonix & Val d’Isere) we resolved to purchase ski touring gear over the following winter and then head back to Europe, based in Chamonix for 3 weeks in Feb/Mar 2011, with the express goal of spending the whole time off-piste and a number of days ski touring – you can see all our trip reports here: Chamonix 2011. This was a superb trip and we have since followed up with expeditions in Japan, another trip to Europe and also the Victorian Alps.

So it’s fair to say that we are sold on the concept, though not turning our backs on lifted skiing entirely. Our weekend trips to Buller are very much an important part of the yearly ski program – keeping the legs working and the technique sharp, though I’m looking to incorporate at least two BC trips to either the Vic or NSW Alps each Southern Winter on top of our overseas adventures.

Keep reading, Part 2 on Backcountry Safety and Part 3 on Backcountry Equipment are available now.