Backcountry Ski Camp

After months of anticipation around my Women’s Backcountry Ski Camp it is finally over! I am relieved to have the experience behind me and am pleased to report that I came away with an appreciation for the backcountry and an admiration for people who care to spend time back there – I can certainly see the allure. My experience was filled with mixed emotions, but I learned an enormous amount and enjoyed myself and met some really nice ladies.

{The crew of ladies I spent the weekend with}

{The crew of ladies I spent the weekend with / photo credit: Erin}

The week or two leading up to the class was filled with much uncertainty. I was really nervous about skiing in the backcountry because it is an area that is outside of a ski resort, which means that it is not patrolled and there is no avalanche control. Separately, mother nature has not been very kind to Pacific Northwest skiers this year and our snowpack has been very, very low and our weekends full of rain instead of snow in the mountains. The forecast for the weekend looked pretty dismal for the mountains – snow levels were at 12,000 feet and there was a lot of rain expected.

{windy, foggy, drizzly conditions on our first day}

{windy, foggy, drizzly conditions on our first day / photo credit: Erin}

It wasn’t until the day before I was slated to leave for the course that we got the final go ahead from the instructor of the class that confirmed it was going to be held for sure. At the very last minute she changed the location for the first day to a different area because the forecast looked better, which turned out to most certainly be the right call. I felt like I was able to go with the flow for those elements fairly well, though it was just difficult to know for sure if I was going to have the class or not. I still struggled with nervousness of being in the backcountry.

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{photo credit: Erin}

 

Alex and I headed out to Leavenworth after work on Thursday so that I didn’t have to leave Seattle at 5 a.m. the next day to make it for the start of the class on Friday morning. We spent the night together at Sleeping Lady, a really neat resort in Leavenworth, which is also the location I was to stay for the remainder of the weekend with the class. It was nice to have Alex there to help me get settled and feel comfortable and run through my gear before the class.

A little terminology before continuing on:

*Beacon = a device that is worn on your body that transmits a signal of your location. This can be used to locate yourself or you can use it to search for someone. It is vital to wear a beacon when backcountry skiing in case you get buried, as that allows your searchers to find you.

*Ski touring = basically the act of moving up a mountain on skis. It is similar to cross country skiing. Special ski bindings are used so that you can essentially glide or scoot forward without picking up your skis – these bindings keep your toes attached to your skis but allow you to pick up your heels. When touring you slide your toes down while picking up your heels and keeping your skis flat against the snow. Skins are attached to the bottom of your skis to prevent you from sliding backwards.

*Skinning = kind of interchangeable with ski touring, but it implies that you have “skins” on the bottom of your skis. Skins originally were literally animal skins, but today are more like a fabric that feels like carpet that is attached to the bottom of your skis and helps provide friction so you don’t slide backwards when you are ascending a mountain.

{getting my gear ready to go skiing}

{getting my gear ready to go skiing / photo credit: Erin}

Friday morning we headed to Mission Ridge, a small ski area in Wenatchee, Washington, where our class was re-located to. I arrived and met up with the group where we got acquainted and learned about each other’s past experiences and goals for the class. I was surprised to find that I was the only one with no backcountry skiing experience, though it was an “intro to touring” class. One of the girls on the trip had done the Haute Route, which is a guided backcountry ski trip in Europe where you’re up on the alpine (very high elevations) skiing from hut to hut. It takes several days. Another lady’s husband is an avalanche forecaster and instructor. There were two gals who had done a bit of backcountry skiing before but were a bit unsure of their abilities. I was definitely the least experienced, though I thought I was going to be in good company.

{Olivia showed us what she puts in her backpack before we even got outside}

{Olivia showed us what she puts in her backpack before we even got outside / photo credit: Erin}

The morning was spent chatting, learning what Olivia, our main guide, carries in her pack and doing beacon testing drills before hitting the slopes.

{running through beacon drills / photo credit: Erin}

{running through beacon drills / photo credit: Erin}

We skied a few runs in bounds which allowed me to warm up and test out my brand new skis for the first time {LOVE them!}. The wind was howling and we found a bit of shelter in a flat section to learn and practice kick turns, which is a technique that can help you make very short/narrow turns on skis.

{practicing kick turns / photo credit: Erin}

{practicing kick turns / photo credit: Erin}

After the next chairlift ride up we met up with the assistant ski patrol director who took us to the backcountry gate. We chatted for a few minutes about how to put skins on and how to transition from skiing to skinning and skinning to skiing. I had never done this before on snow, but thankfully Alex had shown me how to do this at home so at least I had one prior experience.

{the group just before we headed out to the backcountry}

{the group just before we headed out to the backcountry / photo credit: Erin}

At this point in the first day I was really struggling to hold it together. The day hadn’t gone as I had expected it to and when we began to put our skins on I had no idea where we were, where we were going or really what we were doing. I had anticipated we would have done more skiing in bounds and that we would have broken out into two smaller groups. I expected to have some conversations about the avalanche danger that day, the weather, things to pay attention to and just basic information about what we were doing. To make things worse, the weather was horrible by this point. I felt like I was going along for the ride completely blind. Oh, and I also had expected we would have eaten lunch, which we did not that day!

{the terrain above us - not too gnarly, but still worth paying attention to}

{the terrain above us – not too gnarly, but still worth paying attention to}

With my unmet expectations and nerves running high I slowly trailed along as we skinned our way out of the resort and into the backcountry. I eventually stopped and talked with Solveig, one of the instructors and mentioned how nervous I was. She did her best to understand and try to get me to calm down, but I was already having a hard day.

{transition time!}

{transition time!}

After skinning for what felt like four days and was probably 20 minutes we stopped at a clearing and began to transition to skiing. At this point the guides were discussing that yes, as a matter of fact, the terrain above us is avalanche terrain (slopes between 30-45 degrees), but no they’re not worried about it even though there are pinwheels (signs of avalanches) because it had just started raining at that point and the slope above us was so small that it wasn’t a huge concern. If it had been raining for a longer period of time or rained heavily, they would have been much more concerned, they said.

{not the best ski conditions, unfortunately}

{not the best ski conditions, unfortunately}

We skied down a very low-angle slope of absolutely nasty snow, one at a time, and met way down at the bottom and transitioned to skinning again. Once we skinned back into the ski area boundary I was able to realize that once I got comfortable I could definitely see myself enjoying ski touring.

{new skis, new ABS pack}

{new skis, new ABS pack}

After we got back to the resort I had some texting conversations with Alex and my dad and let them know I wasn’t sure I was cut out for the backcountry. As always they were both very supportive and encouraged me to hang in there. I did speak with Alex on the phone that night and he was very understanding and suggested having a good talk with the guides to make sure they knew what I was so uncomfortable about.

{chatting with Solveig}

{chatting with Solveig / photo credit: Erin}

After our wonderful dinner at the resort I did get a chance to speak with Olivia and Solveig about my nervousness and asked if they could share our plans for tomorrow a little bit more openly with me as a way for me to feel more comfortable. They agreed and then we headed to the Grotto Bar for an after dinner drink and to discuss the plans for the next day.

{Olivia giving the run-down}

{Olivia giving the run-down / photo credit: Erin}

On Saturday we ended up staying in the breakfast restaurant all morning and discussed avalanche dangers and route planning. The forecast was abysmal at Stevens Pass so we opted out of skiing that morning. Eventually everyone got antsy so we packed up and headed up the pass to do a quick tour to Skyline Lake.

{crossing the boundary line}

{crossing the boundary line}

I rode in the car with the guides and got to ask them a hundred or so questions about what we were doing, where we were going and the avalanche risks for the day and just things they were thinking about and things that I should be thinking about. That seemed to set my mind at ease a bit, especially when we arrived at Stevens Pass and found that we were skinning up a snow-covered road that wasn’t even in avalanche terrain.

{getting ready for our beacon drill}

{getting ready for our beacon drill}

Even though it was raining and hot, the Skyline Lake tour was so much more enjoyable for me. We broke up into two groups and I chose to stick with the slow group that wanted more instruction along the way. There were four ladies plus Solveig, the instructor, in my group. It was a fairly steep tour and not having alpine touring boots {special ski boots that offer a lot more flex than regular ski boots} I tired easily. We made it up a bit then stopped to do some beacon practice. The snow was so heavy and wet that we opted to ski down the road we came up to avoid any injury. The biggest risk of the day was personal injury, as opposed to avalanche danger. We did one more beacon drill on our way down and then headed back for a hot tub and dinner.

{Skyline Lake road terrain}

{Skyline Lake road terrain}

We had another nice evening at the restaurant and Grotto Bar and I got to chat with most of the ladies on the trip. Everyone was extremely nice and friendly and it was fun to learn about their backgrounds. I think our ages ranged from 28-50, which was a much bigger difference than I expected.

{skinning up / skiing down through the trees on Sunday}

{skinning up / skiing down through the trees on Sunday}

Sunday was a full day of touring. We packed up right after breakfast and headed to Stevens Pass for our final day. The rain had moved on and the sun was out. The anticipated high on Sunday was 50 degrees in the mountains, which is unusual, of course. The warm temperatures combined with the rain the previous days made for very low snowpack and very heavy, gross snow.

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We took the chair up to the top of the mountain, skied halfway down to an area where we could get out of bounds, then we did our beacon checks and put our skins on to get ready to begin our tour.

{getting my skins on}

{getting my skins on / photo credit: Erin}

The final day was a much longer tour that covered more distance. We ended up losing two skiers this day because one of the gals, who was five months pregnant {I know, right?!} and a snowboarder decided that she was just too tired to keep going, and then another woman fell getting off the chairlift and hurt her knee. This meant we were down to seven of us. Myself and another less experienced skier, Allyson, joined Solveig again, just the two of us, for a slow-paced day full of stops, explanations and questions.

{going through our route plan with Solveig}

{going through our route plan with Solveig / photo credit: Erin}

Our last day seemed to pull a lot together for me. I was able to recognize various elements on the slopes, I measured the slope angles, I asked a lot of questions about what I was seeing and discussed scenarios for skiing this terrain but under different avalanche conditions, and really got a little more confidence in my decision making abilities when it came to backcountry skiing.

{mid-tour pow wow to discuss our options}

{mid-tour pow wow to discuss our options / photo credit: Erin}

The tour we did on Sunday was much different than I expected, though. I really didn’t ever think of touring through the forest, but that’s just what we did. I can’t believe we skied back through very tight trees and on the snow we did it’s really quite surprising that no one got injured.

{just scooting along through the trees... yes we skied down this too!}

{just scooting along through the trees… yes we skied down this too!}

{the other group heading up the mountain}

{the other group heading up the mountain / photo credit: Erin}

{gorgeous, warm weather for our last day}

{gorgeous, warm weather for our last day}

Overall, I learned an enormous amount, both about avalanches and myself. I was able to push my own limits immensely, but I spoke up when I felt I needed to. I was so far out of my comfort zone, but some of the things I was nervous about were easier to deal with than I thought, which was good. I think it’s always good to push yourself a bit and have new experiences. It’s how we grow and learn, right?

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I’m not sure if or how often I’ll find my way into the backcountry. If I do, you can bet it will only be on low or moderate avalanche danger days and I will absolutely be very involved in terrain selection and research about the dangers to pay attention to that day. We’ll see if that time comes… Until then, I’m doing my snow dance and sticking to the resort.

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