The Outsider: Of monsters and mentors

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the backcountry can be a dangerous place.  

Thankfully the Sea to Sky hasn’t had an avalanche fatality yet, but this past week saw a 36-year-old man from Calgary die in a slide in the Lizard Range near Fernie, B.C. Our coastal snowpack is quite a bit more stable than that of the Interior and Rocky Mountains, but we’re by no means immune. Close calls (the majority go unreported) serve as a visceral reminder of what happens when we make hasty or influenced decisions.

Knowledge truly is power when it comes to backcountry safety. That knowledge is gained through education such as courses or clinics, but as any ski touring veteran will attest, there’s no substitute for experience. Safely gaining backcountry experience is a fine line. You want to be pushing into new terrain in new places, but not at the cost of having a close call, or worse.

That’s where a mentor comes in. I’ve benefited from many mentors in my life, from other writers and editors, experienced home brewers and perhaps the most important, other backcountry skiers.

My first such mentor was Alex Wigley, a colleague and friend from the ski shop I worked at. He wasn’t a trained guide at the time but had taken a bunch more courses than me and had quite a few more backcountry years under his belt. Alex took me on my first mission to the Duffey, wisely turning us around from Mt. Matier after we heard an enormous whumpf under our feet about a third of the way up the final summit push.

The next season he lead me on my first one-day Spearhead Traverse, educating me on everything from nutrition to speeding up my transitions. But what I took away the most from those backcountry days with Alex was his conservatism. This was a guy who ran the 70-km McBride Traverse in 18 hours and 21 minutes and had skied some of the rowdiest couloirs in the Sea to Sky corridor. But he only ever pushed the risk level when he knew he could do it safely and within his skill set.

I’ve had a few other backcountry mentors since then, but it was those seasons with Alex where I gained the most useful experience simply because it was so early in my backcountry career. I had taken the entry-level avalanche course but I could have counted my field days on two hands.

I’m first to admit I’ve made mistakes in the backcountry. I’ve put myself in unnecessarily precarious positions to take photos, one time losing thousands of dollars of camera equipment in an avalanche that could have taken my life. I’ve dug out friends who were minutes away from suffocation. Despite my experience after all these years, I still catch myself getting caught in the heuristic traps of human factors. But I now operate on a conservative scale where I know that no single objective is worth risking your life.

Vince Shuley will be part of the Backcountry Mentor Panel at the Escape Route Alpine Demo Centre this Wednesday at 8 p.m. as part of the Winterstoke Backcountry Festival. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Twitter @vinceshuley.

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