Beau Fredlund takes a belay for the first few turns. Kt Miller photo.
Finding really good backcountry ski partners is hard, really hard. Personality, style, and ability level all influence who you might jive with during a day out in the mountains. Overall though, there are some common themes that make a good backcountry ski partner great.
#1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Ben Hoiness on his way up Murphy Peak outside of Missoula, Montana. Leslie Hittmeier photo.
Read the avalanche report every day. Follow the snowpack for the entire season, and take the time to take courses and get educated on partner rescue, analyzing snow stability, and terrain management.
Get your kit dialed with everything you need, but nothing more. Carrying extra shit around slows you down.
Research where you are going. Look at maps, Google Earth, Gaia, Caltopo, guidebooks, and mountain project. Have a game plan going into the day on where you are going, how you are going to put a safe skin track in, and what your intended descent route is. Know what the general slope angles and aspects are. Have a plan B. If you’re not being guided you should at least ‘sort of’ know where you are going, even if someone else in your group has already been there before.
Be fit (not in a competitive or elitist way). Being fit allows you to contribute more to the team and have more fun. The reality is, the more fit you are, the more laps you can do, the less tired you get, and the more fun you can have. It’s also helpful if anything goes wrong and you need to pull from those energy reserves to deal with a difficult situation.
#2. SHUT UP AND LISTEN.
Steph Ralls stops for a quiet (but windy) moment in the Colorado backcountry. Leslie Hittmeier photo.
We live in a culture that moves fast, including our minds. So often I find people out backcountry skiing are thinking and talking about almost everything but backcountry skiing. That’s not all bad. Many of us go out into the mountains to help clear our minds, and shake that stuff off. But I find that often people are so preoccupied thinking about other things and talking about other things that they miss OBVIOUS SIGNS. Do yourself a favor, open your eyes and listen with your feet. You’ll start picking up on important stuff: subtle changes in the weather, a change in the snow beneath your skis, and old signs of avalanches that are barely perceptible.
#3. BRING GOOD SNACKS.
Kyle Hermiston and Ben Hoiness take a snack break. Yes, those are homemade cookies. Leslie Hittmeier photo.
Because we’re talking about how to be a great partner after all. Nothing says ‘join me on another ski tour’ like tea and chocolate to share. Some prefer pocket bacon. I personally am a fan of OJ and baked goods.
#4. REMEMBER, THE MORE YOU KNOW, THE MORE YOU KNOW YOU DON’T KNOW (aka, be humble).
Beau Fredlund takes a run in the Montana backcountry. Leslie Hittmeier photo.
But really, any experienced backcountry skier will tell you they are still learning all the time (and by experienced, I mean 10+ years of backcountry skiing. Your two years of touring a few times a week doesn’t make you an expert). And if you are lucky enough to go follow one of these ‘experienced’ folks around, and just observe. There is a lot to be learned from just watching and following. Let them break trail in the tricky spots and take notes, take your turn when things are a little more straight-forward. Same goes for local knowledge — don’t go charging out front and put in a dangerous route just because you can’t keep your ya-yas under wraps.
Be the kind of person you would want to invite on a ski tour.
#5. BE CHEERFULLY WILLING TO BAIL.
Ben Hoiness heading up Gray Wolf Couloir in the Mission Mountains. (These guys bailed this day, despite the long and arduous approach, because of warming temps.) Leslie Hittmeier photo.
The best partner pushes you to do better routes in good style, but is still fine with bailing—no ego strings attached. As the saying goes ‘There are old mountaineers, and bold mountaineers, but there are no old bold mountaineers.’ Most importantly remember, the mountains will always be there, they are not going anywhere, and you can always come back another day.