Get Up To Get Down: 3 Backcountry Rituals To Practice This Winter
You rise before the sun and wipe the sleep from your eyes. Your routine is dialed, and you flow through the motions like a Kata. The coffee is already prepared and ready to percolate. Your snacks and extra layers are neatly tucked away in your pack. Your skis? They’re leaning by the front door and already dressed with skins.
Preparing for a day of backcountry skiing is a solemn rite. And for good reason. With a plethora of fickle variables like snow pack and winter weather, it’s best practice to be over-prepared. Talk to any dedicated backcountry skier and they will likely expound on the virtues of their touring rituals. And for this article, that’s exactly what we did. We chatted with BD Athletes Mike Barney, Mary McIntyre and Tobin Seagel—three hard-charging rippers and total pros when it comes to the backcountry—about good habits they feel are essential for any skier.
1. Get Up … Early
You’d be hard-pressed to click into an AT binding without hearing the words “Dawn Patrol” these days. In fact, the term—which originated here in the halls of Black Diamond’s SLC HQ by none other than alpinist Alex Lowe—has become ubiquitous in the entire outdoor community. Going climbing early? Sweet. Dawn Patrol. Going for a sunrise hike? Sick. Another Dawn Patrol.
For skiing, however, there is actually a method to the madness. That’s right, you’re not just waking up at 4 a.m. for the hell of it.
- • It’s usually better skiing.
“It’s colder, so the snow has less time to settle if you’re looking to ski POW!” says Barney. “There’s a better chance for a face shot or two.” Plus, “Being in the mountains for a sunrise is hard to beat.”
Mary Mac loves first tracks (as do most skiers), so she willingly sets the alarm.
“If I'm going out for first tracks after a storm, I want to get on the snow before the sun hits it and starts the slow (or sometimes very fast) transformation of fresh powder,” she says.
“Unless it's extremely cold out, sun effect is going to be altering the snow as soon as it rises. Cold snow is blower. Hot pow is ... well ... kind of an oxymoron we use to make ourselves feel better about skiing rapidly warming blower that is no longer light enough to billow out in feathery plumes around our knees. Don't ruin your perfect line by being an hour late,” she adds.
Tobin has similar sentiments.
“Have you noticed the backcountry getting busier?” he asks. “Ever noticed that the best lines are shredded before you even got there? The early bird gets the worm. Always.”
- • More Time To Ski + More Time To Trouble Shoot
There is also a safety element to rising early for a day of backcountry pow. The simple answer is it gives you more time. Not only is this just a practical play—allowing you more time to ski—but there’s also a greater margin in case of an accident. More time gives you the ability to properly assess conditions, change plans if needed, and if something happens, more daylight hours to figure it out.
Barney, who also guides full time, weighs in:
“I’ve had to evacuate hurt backcountry skiers in the light and in the dark. It’s always easier when you can see,” he says.
For Tobin, he makes the point that less people are around during the later hours, so there’s less of a chance for outside help.
And he also explains: “Rescue helicopters generally stop flying half an hour before sunset (some exceptions).”
Mary Mac agrees, adding:
“A medium-to-low severity accident early in the day is manageable. There's time to bandage people up for a long and slow walk out, or time to call for outside help. As the end of the day approaches, everything takes on a much more serious note. The possibility of an over-nighter is much more real, and with that comes the issues of hypothermia for an already injured person, and finding shelter if the weather is bad.”
2. Plan, And Plan Again
Backcountry skiing is not jazz. In other words, it’s usually a pretty bad idea to just show up and improvise. In this game, planning is everything. We’ve already discussed waking up early. So, as you may have guessed, this means your day needs to be thought out in advance.
“Talk to your partners the night before—and not at the bar—to set yourself up for success and to get an early start,” says Barney.
And when it comes to planning, it’s not a one-and-done deal. You plan, and plan again. That means, pick option A, then option B, and if possible, option C.
“The less info we have on the snowpack, the group, and the weather, the more route options we want to give ourselves in the location we plan to ski,” adds Barney.
Mary Mac also follows this rule of thumb.
“Most of the time, we're going out to see what conditions look like, and make judgement calls about where the best skiing will be and where the safest travel is based on experience. If plan A has 10 tracks on it already, look for plan B. If plan B has roller balls coming down it already, maybe it's time to check out other aspects. It's never good to be stubborn about an objective. If it's not quite lining up today, the mountains will be there tomorrow, and next week, and next year.”
For Tobin, planning well means getting the most out of a ski day.
“Charging the center of the face might be the rockstar thing to do, but if you get there and don't like the feel of the snow or the amount of solar radiation soaking into the snowpack, it might also be the dumbest thing you could possibly do,” he says. “That's not to say you have to cut your day short and walk back down your skin track either. By planning ahead and knowing the terrain well, there's probably an alternate line that will be super fun and the right choice for the day.”
3. Pack Your Gear The Night Before
Again, you’re getting up before the a$$-crack of dawn, remember? Don’t leave your packing for the morning of. In your dreamy state, you can rest assured that mistakes will be made. Talk to any seasoned, crusty backcountry ripper and they’ll tell you that their bag is packed and their skis skinned before they hit the sack.
“I'm not good at mornings,” says Mary Mac. “It’s partially a safety thing (my brain is functioning more highly at night and I'm more likely to realize I've left something out) and partially a get up and go thing. Grab pack, skis, breakfast, coffee, and I'm out the door.”
“It's also much easier to change batteries, locate headlamps, and plan for a full day in the mountains the evening before rather than at four in the morning,” she says.
No surprise that for Barney it’s the same. He handles the pre-game mission the night before.
“Packing the night before gives me more time to think about the day,” he says. “Is this a good plan? What could go wrong? How can I be prepared?”
Tobin also explains that packing well and being prepared is not only good for you, but it’s also important for your partners.
“Just as important as having your gear ready is being ready yourself,” he explains. “No one likes a partner that is grumpy from lack of sleep, or unable to keep up because they're hungover. Being mentally and materially ready is simple and stacks the odds of a good day in your favor.”
So, there you have it, folks. A few good habits that are easy to ingrain in your winter ritual so you can make the most of the backcountry this season.