A Backcountry Rant

Posted by on Apr 9, 2010 in Ski | No Comments

Warning: Ranting and raving below:

I have a problem. I don’t like this “Back Tracks” program, highlighted in the video above. Why? Several reasons. My objections, however have nothing to do with any exclusive backcountry entitlement or authority. I myself am a relative newcomer to that scene, and I welcome anyone else to join “us”. I was tutored by patient companions. Something I hope to reciprocate when opportunities arise. So save your righteous indignation or your hasty, ill-conceived conclusions about snow-snobbery or some such for another day.

No, instead, my objection is rooted in self-preservation. And to a mentality of aloof, perfunctory indifference about the importance of becoming educated and prepared when intending to ski tour with other people. The very selling point that is so readily cheered in the glorified infomercial, concisely summarized by one of the featured clients is illustrative of my point: “I don’t trust myself. But you don’t need those [avalanche safety] skills, you’ve got a guide!” Yes, “you’ve got a guide” – until he gets buried. My fear, and perhaps it is ungrounded, is that afterward these clients will lay claim to those skills, based simply on the fact that they participated in a guided tour. They then venture into the backcountry unguided and ignorant – which would be their perogative to do so. But they’d better be certain that their partners understand that “you don’t trust yourself.”

It might be that I’m raising too firm an objection to what is probably a well run, safe, touring program. But what I have a growing intolerance for is people who assume that avalanche safety gear, knowledge, and awareness is optional. If you ski alone every day, and harbor no intentions of ever being found* or rescued, then by all means, don’t carry, or bother learning how to use, the needed gear. If, however, you plan on skiing with friends, do your homework. Otherwise you are nothing more than a liability.

*Before the spring thaw, I mean.

Reading the daily avalanche reports, taking classes, and researching snow safety and behavior is not merely a vague pastime or scientific hobby-horsing. And it’s not optional. One does not need to aspire to become the next Bruce Tremper, but listening to (and understanding) what he and his team have to say, as well as becoming well versed enough to make your own calculated assessments is paramount. After a short time doing so, you’ll stop wondering what the next day’s forecast will reveal, because you’ll know from your own observations the current stability trend and outliers – even if you aren’t in the field. More importantly though, is the trust you will earn among your companions. And despite the dismissive attitude displayed above, these are not skills acquired in two days, let alone “ten minutes”. They come with time and experience. I still learn things** each time I tour. And I know my partners are continually learning as well. Someday our lives may depend on that knowledge. Indeed, in one well documented case, they already have.

One does not carry a beacon, shovel and probe for their own safety. They are tools that enable one to rescue a partner. And as such, the lives of your partners are in your hands. There is a tremendous amount of trust that we all put into one another in our search for untracked powder. If that is a search you intend on engaging in, then by all means, come along.

But you’d better be prepared.

I’ve stepped off the daises now. Feel free to add your own rant or counter-rant in the comments section.

**Like how very dangerous tree wells really are. A story for another day, perhaps.

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