Riddle of the Backcountry
By Sam Masters, Images by Mark Bridgewater
Lots of people talk about freedom. Others try to protect it with legislation, diplomacy or war. Backcountry skiers and snowboarders get to live it: experiencing total immersion in freedom’s joy and consequences.
This yin and yang provides the necessary tension for any worthy human endeavour. There’s no greater mission, no worthier cause, no higher calling or more majestic use of your time, than ripping the shit out of powder snow as often as you can!
The Powder & The Passion
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding sure doesn’t need a sales manager. The beauty, the fear, the solitude, the mateship, the powder and the passion combine to elevate even the most cynical to a higher emotional state.
Your heart pumps faster. Your perception sharpens and your mind becomes quiet. Time slows… Even as you speed up. You feel every snowflake, smash every turn and your line opens up like a freeway. You stop thinking, stop worrying, and drop into adrenaline autopilot. By the time your legs should be screaming in a lactic acid riot, the endorphins have already kicked in.
Like all the best things in life you need to keep it tidy; the dangers are real. They just need to be understood and managed - not cotton-wool wrapped or ignored, as they usually are in civilized life.
There’s a perception amongst resort skiers and snowboarders that backcountry touring is tough to get into without the right connections. Getting started is easy… Things only become complex if you want to do it safely or easily. These conflicting forces drive any backcountry adventure.
Risk is one of the few things you can take, but never give. Traditionally, backcountry touring is a risk-minimisation exercise. The most experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders have a sixth sense for where the snow is best, the danger minimal, the turns sweetest.
Innovation, new tricks, novelty and brand new gear are probably best reserved for the frontcountry (within the ski resort boundary), where even the most seriously injured are within grovelling distance of a meat wagon and morphine drip.
The backcountry isn’t Disneyland, but some risks are actually lessened outside a ski resort. Nobody ever cracked their head on rail, fell off a lift or collided with a hapless drunk on a crowded trail in the backcountry. Usually, however, the dangers are stark and the consequences max out; minor problems rapidly balloon into a shit-storm of trouble.
Isolation & Inconsistency
Isolation, the principle attraction of the backcountry, is also its greatest danger. In a resort, injury, fatigue, equipment failure, poor decision-making and getting lost can ruin your day. In the backcountry they can be fatal.
Inconsistency is the norm; every traverse, every landing and every turn is different. Minor variations in the snow can mean the difference between a graceful arc which would make Ted Ligety jealous, and a brutal yard sale which flings your goggles into orbit and pummels you like question time at Guantanamo Bay.
Unless you enjoy endangering the lives of Search and Rescue professionals, take an experienced guide for your first adventures. I’m not going to bore you with an extensive list of the things that can go catastrophically wrong on even the shortest backcountry mission... An experienced campaigner will, however, know the dangers, be prepared to deal with them and ensure they have the right equipment to avoid them.
The softest, fluffiest, cutest New Zealand powder snow is born of extreme violence. Storm clouds punch, tear and kick their way across the country. It’s an atmospheric bar room brawl; an altostratus upper cut, a cirrus knee to the midriff, and finally a cumulo-nimbular kick in the unmentionables. Ours is the WWF of weather! Hope for powder, but expect a healthy variation of snow, wind and precipitation on any backcountry mission.
Some people deal this variation by sitting curled up in front of a warm television - cursing the unpredictability of nature. These folks demand the average, worship the mundane and couldn’t keep their footing on a medium-sized pile of mediocrity. It’s the backcountry skier or snowboarder who steps boldly into this void – mopping up the freshies missed by the unadventurous, the blinkered or lazy.
Learning The Trade
Snow safety, navigation, mountain craft, first aid and general winter sport radness can’t be taught solely from a book, let alone an article in the Chill Manual. You need to get out there with the experts and practice. Taking a backcountry safety course is the best place to start.
Backcountry touring’s a bit like New Idea magazine: weight’s always an issue. Experience counts - knowing what works in the backcountry, where reliability is crucial, is half the battle.
After a few backcountry tours your gear tends to evolve. Weak and unnecessary equipment become extinct; your backpack contains a thriving ecosystem of effective, burly kit. Take everything you would normally take for a day in the resort, plus:
- First aid kit, layered clothing system, goose-down slippers (for padding about in alpine huts), cooking kit, food,
- Camelback, sunscreen, map, compass, GPS, EPIRB, head torch, phone
- Touring set up (skins, touring binding or snowshoes)
- Best sleeping bag you can afford & inflatable sleeping mat
- Gore-Tex bivvy sac or a four-season tent
- Avalanche kit (transceiver/probe/shovel), ABS pack for shorter missions
- Leatherman, duct tape, #8 wire, spares for essential kit
Where To Start (with a guide & decent snow):
- Temple Basin: Pretty much the entire resort is backcountry.
- Broken River: Allens Basin to the bottom of the Tindall Tramway. Avalanche Gully to the access road.
- Cheeseman: Tarn Basin laps to the access road.
- Mt Olympus: Ryton Valley, to just below the bottom hut.
- Craigieburn Valley: Hot laps to Avalanche corner. Traverse to Broken River.
- Porters: Crystal Valley September corn missions.
- Fox Peak: Off the peak.
- Mt Dobson: Sunny Face lookers right from the Tbar.
- Awakino: Plenty of scope from the top of the main tow.
- Rainbow: Basin to the NW of the resort.
- Treble Cone: Start with a walk, leaving from the Saddle Basin Chairlift .