What I Learnt on my First Day Back Country Skiing

My alarm was set for 4:30 in the morning and when it went off I sat up bolt right in my bed. This day was a special day and I knew it before my eyes opened. There was none of the fogginess or the slowness that is usually with me on weekday mornings. I did not hit snooze. Instead I jumped out of bed and got my clothes on and finished up with the few last-minute preparations I had to make. Knowing it was going to be an early morning I had prepared everything the night before. I just made coffee and got dressed and flew out the door, looking up into the sky as I stepped outside. It was pitch black and still and warm despite the snow on the ground. My SUV grumbled to life as I tossed my backpack over the seat into the back where my skis, boots and other gear was already stashed.

I tore off down the road and west along the Trans Canada to where I would meet Joe the guy I was car pooling with out to the meet up spot at the turnoff to Radium. The roads were empty as I left town. The flood of my headlights poured out into the darkness, illuminating the asphalt in front of me. The radio was tuned to CKUA and this song Adventures in Your Own Backyard by Patrick Watson was playing as I left the city. You know when a song matches a moment exactly and it feels like every molecule of your body is dancing and spiraling up into the stars? That’s how I felt leaving the city that morning on my way to go back country skiing for the first time. Ready for an adventure, not sure what I was getting myself into but tingling in anticipation of anything that might come my way.

Joe and I made the drive in an hour and a half and sat waiting for the rest of our group and our guide. By 9 am we had parked on the shoulder of highway 93 with a group of 8, in front of a swath of forest that had been cut away to control forest fires. The cleared strip stretched up into the clouds that obscured the tops of the mountains.  It looked a loooong way up but there was no turning back now.

 Lesson 1: There’s A LOT of Gear

After we parked we started hauling all our gear out of the back of my SUV. We had all rented skis, boots, skins (a strip of material that fastens to the bottom of the ski so that your skis will grip to the snow), poles and helmets from the Universities Outdoor Center. As part of the course our guide was supplying the rest of the avalanche safety gear: Transceiver, Shovel and Probe. On top of that we needed to pack lots of layers and all the food and water that we’d need for the day because we were literally just parked off the side of the highway with nothing around.

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Lesson 2: It’s Dangerous – So Being Prepared is Essential

After everyone had strapped on their skis we congregated at the base of the slope for a debriefing on avalanche safety. Our guide began by telling us that there was a very high risk of avalanche at the moment. The tract of land that he had chosen was fairly safe because it was a clear cut and well skied and packed down. But in other places, avalanches were very likely. Having the right equipment and knowing how to use it is a matter of life and death when skiing in the back country. If something should happen there is no one except for the people who you’ve come with to orchestrate a rescue. Even if you call for help, if someone has been buried the chance of survival plummets after 15 minutes under the snow.  The guide showed us how to use our beacons to locate someone who had been buried and the probe to find the exact location and mark the spot. We practiced it a couple of times before we began making our way up the hill with hidden transceivers.

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Lesson 3: It’s Not as Hard as You’d Think Skiing Uphill

Leading up to this trip I had been a little anxious about this part of the ski trip. Skiing uphill was something that I imagined would be extremely strenuous and I honestly wondered if I’d be up to it. In the class that we attended before going on the actual ski trap I had secretly checked out the others physique’s to gauge where I was compared to them. Something that I hate, is being the person slowing everyone else down. Once we got going I was surprised to find out that it wasn’t nearly as hard as I had anticipated. I’d say its only a little bit harder than hiking up a mountain by foot. Something that get’s tricky when there is 4 feet of snow on the ground. Having skis and skins made hiking in the winter a thing and I was soooooooo STOKED on this! The mountains and the forests are so magical in the winter, frosty and white and sparkling and covered in pillowy mounds of snow. I felt like I was in Narnia and I couldn’t stop smiling as I slid through this winter wonderland.

Lesson 4: Dress in Layers

Starting off in a down jacket, within 10 minutes I had stripped down to my base layer, a long-sleeved shirt made of thin, almost translucent material. Skiing uphill is an amazing cardio workout and my body was heating up quickly. When we stopped half way for a snack, I put a sweater back on and at the top where it was windy I put my down jacket back on. Coming down I left the down jacket on but wished I hadn’t. The second round I had dialed in the layers and was really happy that I had packed so many. Maintaining your body temperature is an extremely important part of having fun when in the back country. Being too hot and getting all sweaty will be bad news at the top when you cool down.

Lesson 5: It is Not the Same as Resort Skiing

As many times as you’ve been skiing at a resort, back country skiing will be an entirely different experience. The cardio workout that I got on the trek up the mountain is not something I’ve had to contend with during my many ski hill experiences. Because I’m an athletic person and enjoy cardio it was a really cool way to get a cardio workout. For those who don’t have strong cardio it might be something to consider working on before attempting this.

Possibly my favorite part of my first back country experience was on the way up zig zagging through the trees. It was breathtaking skiing through the forest covered in snow and sparkling white. I just kept thinking to myself and saying out loud, “My god this is beautiful!”

I thought I could ski in powder and have skied in like a foot or so of powder at the ski hill. Powder in the back country is different though. At the ski hill it’s hard packed underneath and the powder on top is from the most recent snow fall. I found that in the back country there is just MORE powder. Unless you have skied in 3 plus feet of powder and have experienced what that’s like, there will be an adjustment period. I fell over more than once on this trip. And trying to get up once you’ve fallen is a challenge! Once I’d gotten the hang of it though, so rad!

 

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