Part of planning each day in the mountains is knowing who you’re out there with. I think one of the key pieces of great days in the mountains is alignment with your partner: we’re excited about the same things, we both get something we want out of the day, nobody is in over their head, nobody is underwhelmed.
The goal of this post is to help you become more aligned in your partnerships. And what authority do I have to speak about this? I’ve had many great days in the backcountry, and a lot of bad days too. I guess I’ve also had several medium days.
Step One: KNOW THYSELF.
The foundation for being able to choose the right partner, IMHO, is knowing what you bring to the table. What skills and qualifications do you have? If you’re a beginner, that’s okay! You have to know that and have some semblance of what you don’t know. Nobody likes being out there with someone that’s the walking-talking definition of the Dunning-Krueger effect: “a cognitive bias whereby people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a certain type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge.”
You can always improve on your skills by taking the time at home or investing in courses and further education. You also have the opportunity to improve your skills every time you go out by adequately preparing for a tour, actively participating in decision making processes and debriefing the day.
It’s important to acknowledge that a ton of education with little experience doesn’t do much to help. Instead, if you gradually build your backcountry skillset by repeating tours, operating in the same zone throughout the season, building confidence with consistent partnerships, etc. You’re going to do a lot more to set yourself up for success. If you’ve followed along on a lot of big and badass tours but have done little in the way of leading the party or steering the decision making, it’s good experience, but being engaged in the decision making process on simpler tours is what’s going to ultimately make you a better ski partner.
Step two: KNOW THYSELF… EVEN MORE.
Once you have a baseline understanding of your ski ability and your backcountry decision making ability, it’s time to choose a tour that aligns with those traits.
Get really clear on what you want from your day of skiing, for yourself. The more clearly you can communicate what you’re looking for, what skills you have, and what terrain is going to be fun for you, the easier it will be to align with your prospective partners.
- How is your uphill fitness? What’s your pace like?
- What are tours that you’ve done that made for an enjoyable experience? What was the distance and elevation like?
- What’s your downhill fitness like? Are you in the beginning of your season, or have you already been out several times?
- Are you looking to go out and ski a run? Or are you not satisfied until you’ve skied 10?
- What zones are you familiar with? Are you open to exploring new zones?
- How are your navigation and mapping skills? Do you know exactly where the skiing is in the zone? Don’t get yourself caught in ultra-dense Snoqualmie or Stevens trees! That’s never fun.
- Recognize that navigating a new zone takes time and reduces your bandwidth for getting to know someone. As the uncontrolled variables increase — new person, new zone, weird/unknown snow conditions, etc. — I like to dial back the complexity of the tour.
- How confident are you reading and applying what you learn from an avalanche forecast?
- Are you going to be more reliant on your partner to interpret information from the forecast? Is your partner going to be more reliant on you? Are you equal in your ability to identify avalanche terrain and understand where the avalanche problem may exist in that terrain?
- How are you, really?
- Where’s your head at? Do you have any stressors that might be detracting from your ability to be present during your day in the mountains? How’s your heart? These might be questions you wouldn’t expect to consider, but they absolutely have an impact on what you bring into the backcountry. Get clear on these things so that you can convey to your partner your needs for the day.
- What’s your communication style? Are you direct, do you need prompting? Share this with your partner.
These are just some ideas for things to know about yourself. The next couple of questions are things that you’re going to want to have a definitive answer to for your partner.
FOR MYSELF, A SUCCESSFUL TOUR ACCOUNTS FOR:
- Begins at what time?
- Ends at what time?
- What’s the tone of the day: are we going to ski for conditions, fitness or connection?
- Conditions: was there a recent storm that’s going to make for great skiing? Is it spring and do we feel comfortable stepping into complex terrain? Etc.
- Fitness: are we going fast and taking no prisoners? Is our fitness aligned? Is our idea of where we’re going and how we’re getting there aligned?
- Connection: are we going into the backcountry to spend the day together to enjoy each other’s company? Are both parties aware of each partner’s social needs?
- Are we skiing simple, challenging or complex terrain? This is in reference to the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale.
- Are we seeking familiar terrain or novelty? Who in the party is familiar or unfamiliar with the terrain?
- How many people are we skiing with? Is everyone comfortable with the number and participants?
For example, I’ll introduce myself:
Most days in the winter, I want to begin the day just after sunrise. I don’t like being up before 6am, unless the conditions or distance require it. I do enjoy skiing bell-to-bell, usually all day. My goal is to prioritize conditions and maintain a moderate pace throughout the day. Not too fast, not too slow. All members of the party are able to maintain a conversation on the uphill if they choose to. Admittedly, most of my tours are more focused on the conditions or the objective, with the social element being a natural biproduct. The appropriate terrain is dictated by the conditions, but I feel comfortable and confident navigating simple, challenging and complex terrain. I find that most of my more rewarding days happen in challenging and complex terrain. If conditions are favorable, i.e. new storm snow, I might seek familiar terrain where I know I’m going to be rewarded and I feel comfortable navigating the avalanche problem. I’m less inclined to seek out the novel and the obscure if I know with a high degree of confidence that I’m going to have a more rewarding experience in familiar terrain or closer to the car. My preference is to ski with 1-3 other people, but I generally prefer skiing with just one other person.
And those are just my answers! I share all of that not so much to tell you what your answers should be, rather, this is just how I like to experience the backcountry.
Step three: KNOW THE CONDITIONS.
What’s going on in the snowpack, generally? In the last week, what has the weather been doing? When was the last storm? What has the weather been doing for the last 72 hours? What does the avalanche forecast say for today? What weather events are you expecting for the day of your tour? And finally, what’s the avalanche forecast for the day you’d like to go out?
Step four: KNOW WHO YOU’RE GOING WITH.
This part is my main reason for writing this post. It’s all the same questions from step two, but from your partner’s perspective.
The secret sauce to great days in the backcountry is alignment with your partner. If they’re a highly experienced backcountry skier, there are going to be tours that they find underwhelming. If they’re a beginner, stepping into complex terrain is likely going to be overwhelming. We want to achieve the perfect level of whelm where both parties are engaged, and the needs of each partner are accounted for. Just because they’re a backcountry boss doesn’t mean they disregard the social and connection element of the tour. Just because they’re a beginner doesn’t mean they’re lacking for uphill fitness, etc. If you’re unclear about their goals for the day, just ask! Hopefully my prompts help you to ask some questions that distill useful information.
Scroll back to step two if you need a reminder.
Step five: KNOW YOUR OPTIONS. HAVE A FEW.
Living in Washington, weather is always changing. I don’t trust a forecast that’s more than 72 hours out. But usually folks like to have plans in place a week in advance, generally speaking. The way to merge these two realities is to have plans with someone, but be flexible on the implementation. Let’s ski on Saturday, but plan to touch base on Wednesday about where we’ll go. We can finalize our tour plan on Friday night.
When you’re familiar with the conditions, you can develop a better sense of what tours are going to be appropriate. Has it been storming? Do you have uncertainty about the stability of the snowpack? Dial back your terrain exposure. As the snowpack becomes more stable and as avalanche problems heal, maybe it’s appropriate to take on a tour on the more challenging or complex end of the ATES spectrum.
I reference the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) often because it’s a great tool for honing your decision making process. As the hazard increases, either due to weather or human factors, I’m likely going to seek out a simple tour option. Once I have trust with my partner and confidence in the forecast, then I can dial up the complexity.
When we’re building out our tour, it’s ideal if we can choose a tour that offers many options in the same zone. Guidebooks and maps can help us decide on a zone. And once we’ve selected a zone, looking at Google Earth is a handy way to get a better sense of what the runs will look like once we’re out there.
The right tour is going to consider both parties. What’s going to be fun for each person? How far? How much vertical? When do we need to be back at the cars? Etc.
Step six: IMPLEMENT! REFLECT!
How to become better backcountry travelers? We travel in the backcountry! And we do our best to prepare ourselves with the knowledge and tools we need to be successful. When things go wrong, we reflect on why that happened. When we have great days, we still reflect on what made that day so special so that we can repeat those things or maybe implement those things in the future. Sometimes we’re the leader, sometimes we’re the follower. Always, we try to engage respectfully and mindfully with the people and lands we recreate on.