Running Away from Scary Avalanches

My friends and I took up backcountry skiing at the same time. A few years ago, as broke students we all simultaneously realized that we couldn’t afford resorts anymore. The burden of rent, tuition and the need to eat overpowered our desire to shell out a hundred plus dollars per day on a lift ticket.

When we took up backcountry skiing we were terrified. Fresh out of avalanche safety training, we made our way to the slopes and realized that the strongest lesson we had learned, is that we knew nothing. Nothing.

We have since grown as backcountry skiers, and along with this growth came the development of a risk-reward balance. The more we began to understand.  We have grown more accustomed to the risks and developed our own balances between risk and reward. The group I have chosen to ski with though varied in our skill level and personalities have on thing in common. We are big mountain chickens. We run away more often then we reach the top. We jump ship at the first sign of trouble. Quite frankly I feel no shame in doing this.

A few weeks ago our party of 4 had tentatively skinned up into a heavily treed area. The sounds the snow was making were sounds I had never heard before. The amount of cracking and whumping, the sheer size of the settling areas was something I had never experienced before. We ran the hell away. We ran away from some amazing terrain and a *literal* foot of fresh because our risk reward balance was WAY off.

We ended up having an awesome couple of days hiding from avalanches. We convinced my (totally rad) parents to tow us up a fire road behind their SUV, skied down some mountain bike trails and had the best resort day in recent memory. We had a hell of a lot of fun and managed to stay out of any sort of avi terrain.

Backcountry sports require a serious re-adjustment of expectations on a regular basis. You have to be flexible, and willing to make last minute plans. Beyond all of that, you can’t take it too seriously (unless you’re somehow managing to pull a paycheck off of it). We can all get wrapped up in our plans, and lose sight of what is really important. Maintaining perspective is something that we all have to work on.

This season has been a particularly bad one. Conditions have flip flopped between “ungodly cold” and “trying to kill me”. It’s so easy to get cabin fever and head out in conditions that are less than prime and potentially dangerous. For me and my group, it’s a matter of keeping each others egos in check and coming up with safe places/activities to keep us busy until the hazard subsides.

Personally, my risk reward balance means that I run away a lot, and that’s fine. Other people may have continued up when we turned back and that’s fine too, provided there is an understanding of what risks are being accepted.

My life is so hard: Round One

Now that my weekend job of cross country ski instructing has wrapped up for the season, I’m doing my best to spend as much time as humanly possible in the backcountry.

Last weekend 6 of us packed up hellishly early and drove out to Bow Summit. Bow Summit is along the Ice-field parkway, and although it’s a fair distance from Calgary, skiers from the city are still drawn out there. There are a few reasons for this as far as I could tell. First off, there is essentially zero approach. If your descent is properly planned, it’s pretty easy to descend all the way to the parking lot without having to re-skin. Second, Bow summit pretty well always has good weather, and this weekend was no exception. Despite looming clouds on the drive out, we had clear skies all day, and with the exception of a bit of wind slab at the top, the snow was fantastic. There is also a great deal of good skiing below tree line, so even if the avi conditions are less than favourable, skiing isn’t completely ruled out.

We managed to get 3 laps in, and despite my super ancient 200cm skis, I managed to get in a fair number of turns. I mean, there was a fair bit of face planting as well, but my telemark guru has told me that if I’m falling on my face, at least I’m in the right position. I’m definitely feeling a dire need for a gear upgrade, backcountry skis just popped up to the top of the gear priority list.

After listening to so many of my friends go on and on about how awesome ice climbing is, I finally had the chance to get out for myself. My usual climbing partner and our mutual friend drove out to King Creek, which has three falls pretty close together, about 20 mins from the trailhead. They’re graded at WI 2/3+, so it was nothing particularly difficult, but it was so much fun!

I have a fair bit of climbing experience, but ice climbing is a totally different ball game. It’s sort of novel to be able to get a massive jug hold wherever you want it. It took a little while to get used to the crampons, and I had to consciously not try to smear my feet (shocking I know, but smearing on ice really doesn’t work.) I definitely have intentions of getting out again. Soon.