What’s the first rule of travel in the wilderness? Never. Go. Alone.
This mantra is repeated over and over by search and rescue personnel, outdoor information resources such as AdventureSmart.ca and wise mountain town locals.
And for the most part, they’re right. Blindly following footsteps beyond a boundary rope into a thick fog — without a partner — is asking for trouble. So is taking off on a summer hiking trail into the boonies without anyone to assist if the unthinkable happens.
Why then is there a sub culture of outdoor folks that seek out this solitary, albeit dangerous, experience?
A survey on adventure-journal.com last year revealed that 65 per cent of respondents answered “Yes” to the question of whether people should go into the backcountry alone, with another 25 per cent agreeing that it’s safer in the backcountry than on the freeway. Of those same respondents, 15 per cent said that they always go out alone, 60 per cent do sometimes and 20 per cent rarely go out solo. It’s worth noting that this survey was conducted in May and likely taken in the context of summer backcountry travel, but it still says a lot about certain risk tolerance.
Soloing in the winter backcountry is a different kettle of fish for two reasons: the risk of exposure to fatally cold temperatures and the risk of avalanche burial or trauma. The former can be countered with sufficient gear on the person and in the backpack, but avalanche rescue is a minimum two-person job. Does that mean the idea of travelling solo into avalanche terrain should be shunned?
I think that depends.
The authorities obviously want to promote responsible backcountry travel, and soloing pretty much flies in the face of that. But let’s add some context; there’s a difference between heading out — adequately prepared — into the Musical Bumps for some soul searching turns and following tracks off the back of Whistler Peak into the Cake Hole with no gear and no idea. It’s not often that the prepared soloists require rescue.
Over the weekend I rode the chairlift on the way to the boundary gate with Jeff Slack (who often writes the Museum Musings column in these pages) and he expressed his desire to get out for more days of solo ski touring. “There’s no one else to question or direct your decisions,” he said. “It keeps you honest.”
And he’s right. Just like the soloist rock climbers who choose to expose themselves to seemingly insurmountable risk by climbing without the protection of a rope, every decision one makes by themselves in the winter backcountry must be carefully considered.
It should always be on familiar terrain where the risk of falling, triggering an avalanche or getting lost is low. And having done a handful of solo ski touring days myself, I can honestly attest that the conservative option never looked so good.
It’s hard to argue that soloing is a responsible option, but if carefully planned with next-of-kin aware of your location and expected return — as well as a proficient skill and experience level of the task at hand — it can be a fulfilling day in the mountains.
Vince Shuley will occasionally go it alone. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @vinceshuley.