Taking The Next Step in Backcountry Safety

“Your partner fell into a crevasse! What are you going to do?”

Six of us gather around Christian, our instructor, as he sorts through a mess of pulleys and tools looped through a carabiner dangling on his harness.

He walks us through a crevasse rescue scenario, using his skis to build an anchor in the snow and rigging together a complicated pulley system with a basic glacier travel kit to rescue our “victim”—my bright blue 30-liter backpack dangling over a large hole right under the lift at Snow King Mountain Resort.

We’re in the middle of the first annual Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy in Jackson, a weekend-long event filled with safety clinics, guided ski tours in the National Park, athlete talks and live music.

Building on the success of their Alpine Academy in Chamonix and Climbing Academy in Squamish, Arc’teryx set out to develop a variety of backcountry ski and splitboard clinics for athletes of all levels. Accomplished ski alpinists tested their skills in advanced ski mountaineering classes alongside Arc’teryx athletes, while eager newcomers got to learn the basics in introductory ski touring and splitboarding courses. Specialized classes such as crevasse rescue, glacier travel and rope skills allowed skiers like myself to get comfortable in more complicated terrain.

As Christian walks us through the basics of unweighting yourself from the rope, building an anchor, setting up a pulley system, and ultimately hauling your partner out of a crevasse, a couple things dawn on me. One, this is way more complicated than I had anticipated, and two, why the hell have I never bothered to practice this before?

I have been on a handful of trips travelling through glaciated terrain in the Cascades and the Alps, and although I was never the trip leader, I shuddered to think of how the situation might have unfolded had our leader taken a fall into a crevasse.

Like many, my introduction to backcountry skiing involved a steep learning curve. I got my first taste of earning fresh turns with some hike-to terrain in Southback at Crystal Mountain before I purchased my first pair of skins and timidly began to venture outside the resort boundaries. Trudging around on a creaky pair of Alpine Trekkers in Mount Rainier National Park, I fell headfirst in love with the exhilarating treasure hunt of chasing powder.

I began to plan more and more trips into the backcountry, infatuated with the art of trip planning, route selection and learning to read the snowpack. I became enthralled with the taller peaks that surrounded me, turning my attention to bigger and more technical lines. It became more than just a chance to escape into the peaceful wild and search for untouched powder—skiing became a method for me to access faraway places and push my own limits.

Moving on to bigger objectives you rely more and more on your skills, especially when shit really hits the fan. When you’re out with your friends, the sun is shining and you’re having great success in the mountains, it’s easy to start to feel invincible. But that sparkly façade can quickly come crashing down in a colossal reality check.

Increasingly consequential terrain inevitably comes with a higher ticket of entry, and I knew as I dipped my toes in the taunting ocean of extreme terrain that it was time to develop the skills to do so in a safe way.

That afternoon, another guide, Eric, led us through a few hours of rope management, rappelling, and proper crampon and ice axe use. With a little practice I was able to transform my clumsy crampon-clad stumble into an efficient method of travel. Afterwards we practiced setting up anchors and rappelling with our skis on. “These aren’t just skills you’re going to use if you set out to ski a big line with mandatory rappels,” Eric explained to us as we partner up to practice skiing on belay. “Sometimes your route doesn’t go as planned and you’re forced to improvise.”

Just as I start to feel like I’m getting the hang of it, I forget to let out enough slack and am jolted to my senses as the rope goes taught and my partner yanks me out of my anchor down the hill. “That’s why we practice,” Eric laughs, helping untangle me and showing me a more efficient way to pay out rope from above.

Whether it’s wilderness first aid, snow safety, or a ski mountaineering course, I always walk away from a class like that with the same general feeling: I can’t believe how unprepared I was before. It’s amazing and slightly horrifying to take a multi-day course and walk away feeling like you only now know the basics—that now you’re finally at baseline.

“I remember standing at the top of a pitch getting ready to rappel” Eric told us of his pre-guiding days. “I dropped my belay device and my buddy was shouting at me from below, trying to explain how to tie a Munter hitch. I could barely hear him and I was just praying that I’d done it right.”

Carrying the proper equipment is imperative but those shiny tools are useless if you don’t know how to use them. What’s the use of wearing a transceiver if you don’t know how to use it? Or carrying around glacier travel kit without knowing how to use it to haul your partner out of that deep crack in the earth?

Developing skills from personal experience is invaluable, but it’s important to base that on some sort of professional knowledge. Taking a course won’t get you all the way, but it puts you on the right track. It gives you the tools to build a solid foundation that you can rely on, and ultimately, enjoy a lifetime of adventure in the mountains.

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