The first time I wandered into the backcountry, it was on a snowboard. I was living in a cabin in Montana’s Madison Range and my friend Jay and I hiked out into the wilderness with our snowboards strapped to our packs, sweating bullets and getting smacked in the back of the head every time we took a post-holing step up to earn turns. We had no idea what we were doing and backcountry snowboarding gear did not yet exist—most days we would lumber along far enough in waist-deep snow to get in a few turns.
That riding felt magical since it was all ours out there. By the spring, we managed to hike and ride a peak called the Sphinx, shaped like a massive ready-to-break wave. We railed the gully down the gut of the thing in long swooping turns on perfect corn snow.
I learned how to telemark ski because I was going to join a group who planned to climb Denali. They told me flat out that I couldn’t bring a snowboard and I would have to learn how to freeheel if I wanted to join them. It changed my life.
I took to telemarking immediately. I fell in love with the beauty of the turn, with the discipline of learning it, an art that I continue to perfect and open myself to some 20 years later. And most of all, I loved the way it got me out exploring the Montana backcountry with a tribe of other like minded freaks. We were mobile, free of the costs of the resort. We were out skiing mountains on their own terms.
Skiing the backcountry became my one true passion. We would seek out deep quiet powder stashes in the Madisons. We would scare ourselves on steep lines in the Tetons in the spring. I moved to Washington and skied massive volcanoes like Rainier and Adams. I moved to Colorado and discovered powder stashes deep in Rocky Mountain National Park. I skied off-piste lines in far off parts of the globe like the Dolomites, Switzerland and Japan. This life became my story.
I realize now that in the midst of all that fun and exploration, I made some dumb choices. And that awareness has only increased for me now as the backcountry gets more and more popular, as more people push the limits, as friends die. When I was interviewed about the 2012 Stevens Pass slide that took the lives of three skiers and that some of my friends survived, it dawned on me that I would have been right there with them had I been on that trip. A glaring fact hit me sqaure on: I have simply been lucky out there. But luck is not enough.
So I began to better educate myself on how snow behaves, on how my mind and decision making process can influence the way I read the dangers in the backcountry. I love the freedom of dropping turns in the wild too much to give it up. But I love my family more and I know, too, that the mountains deserve respect.
The truth is you need education if you want to earn that backcountry bliss. Backcountry gear keeps improving and I personally am a big proponent of avalanche air bags since I have interviewed people who have survived slides with them, but your gear is not going to keep you out of a slide. Look, I don’t want to suck the joy out of riding the backcountry, but I do want you to be safe out there. So take an AIARE Level 1 course. Read up. Learn to think when you are out there. Because when it comes down to it, living life to the fullest and continuing to come back (and tell stories) is what the joy of the mountains is really all about.