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Shadowing A Ski Mountaineering Course in the Whistler/Blackcomb Backcountry

Editor's Note: Contributor Lee Lau checks in with TGR after shadowing one day of a five-day ski mountaineering course in and around Whistler/Blackcomb. With more and more of you folks looking to break into the ski mountaineering scene to access big lines and rappel through sketchy areas–or simply to combine your love of climbing with skiing or snowboarding–it's a great insight into what you can get out of a formal course.

Preparing the rappel spot. Lee Lau photo.

I shadowed one day of a five day ski mountaineering course put on by Altus Mountain Guides. West Coasties (myself included) have a tradition of being self-guided and finding their own adventure. In general, skiers from the interior and the Rockies are much more amenable and likely to get instruction from professional guides. I've speculated that this is not just because Coasties are uniquely cheap, but because we're lured into a sense of security by a traditionally bomber snowpack. 

In the last decade or so, I've seen lots and lots of people go from resort skiing to venturing into backcountry. Movies and pictures glorify the bliss and joy of hunting pow, it's easy to understand why. Some of the people who get past the dabbling stage then get into more steep terrain where a combination of skills are needed; some of these skills involve a mixed bag of mountaineering and steep skiing skills. In the past few years, I and others have noted a marked growth in the numbers getting into "ski mountaineering" (or whatever fancy marketing buzzword you want to call it).

Getting into the line via a rappel in the Whistler backcountry. Lee Lau photo.

Lots of people are getting after it, which is great. Lots of people are also going about it in ways that, to put it bluntly, seem nuts. Putting on the Monday Morning Quarterback hat, crazy routes under, through, or subject to exposure or hangfire; sloppy group management; bad safe zones; bad time management; overcommitment to objectives beyond group skill; inability to navigate terrain (entries or exits); weekender desk jockey mentality (I've only got the weekend to nail this rad line so I better hit it now come hell or high water). It's easy to call this out from the safety of a keyboard. Anyone's who's spent time in the field will relate to the above list, since they'll almost certainly have made one or more of the same mistakes. 

Whistler seems to attract a lot of noob extreme ski touring ski-mountaineers. So what do you do? A recent Biglines article had some discussion about this (How to call out backcountry Idiots without making them feel like idiots) attracting a variety of comments ranging from "Eff them and let Darwin sort 'em out" to advocating for ways to more politely educate people.

Getting out. In polite terms, the snow was "firm." Lee Lau photo.

I don't pretend to have answers, but thought I'd shadow a friend of mine, Ross Berg of Altus Mountain Guides, who's developed a bit of a reputation for bagging steeps in the Whistler/Blackcomb area to find out one way that people can get educated. In the self-taught method, you'd learn slowly over time. If you got lucky, your mistakes were minor and would lead only to discomfort. If you were real lucky, you'd have a mentor who'd put up with your jong-ass bull and prevent you from committing suicide by bro-brah wannabe radness and, provided you listened, might allow you to gain a certain level of competency.

The snow was better in protected steep chutes. Lee Lau photo.

But not everyone will have a mentor, and many times, your options are to learn from friends, YouTube, books (there are many excellent ones out there) and from taking the bitter pills of life.  Now these courses aren't cheap, so it's easy to understand why DIY dirtbags would never consider taking them. But I wonder how many North Americans don't even know such courses exist. Is guided skiing thought of as glorified babysitting? Is guided steeps and guided ski-mountaineering just thought to be an Euro thing?

I asked Ross why someone would consider taking a ski-mountaineering course.  According to Ross:  "Students tend to be people who already have some experience backcountry skiing and who want to get into more aggressive terrain.  That person might not have the time to learn by themselves but might have the desire to learn certain skills for aggressive committing terrain in a compressed course format in a structured fashion."

Some of the things taught in the course are:

  • Crevasse rescue
  • Glacier travel
  • White out navigation
  • Steep skiing techniques
  • Building natural anchors
  • Rappelling
  • Lowering
  • Belayed skiing
  • Advanced snowpack assessment
  • Managing bergschrund climbing and skiing
  • Cornice Management.

Altus Mountaineering's 5 day ski-mountaineering course is $1,000 Canadian per person. This course is taught in the Whistler area and the Tantalus Range closer to Squamish. If you know of other comparable courses in your geographic area, please chime in.

Navigating the toe of the glacial lake. Lee Lau photo.

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