Fernie (BC), Canada – The Backcountry: A place as dangerous as it is alluring.
Countless tales of inexperienced, ill-prepared winter sports enthusiasts perishing
in avalanches have previously put me off venturing outside of patrolled areas.
The only avalanche knowledge I’ve previously needed was that I knew little about
them and (unlike many) wasn’t prepared to pay the ultimate price for that elusive
out of bounds powder stash.
Heading into the backcountry? Better to be armed with
But times change…those elusive powder stashes have started to look more and
more appealing over the last couple of years. Since then I’ve used pretty much
every means known to man in my quest never to ride on a groomed run ever again.
That said, I’ve always used guides and let them take the ultimate responsibility
for choosing a route, which will get us both home safely at the end of the day.
Finally my desire to explore the world of backcountry touring, coupled with
my inquisitive nature made me decide to attend an avalanche awareness course
to see what all the fuss was about, and ultimately to see if I could go it alone
and return home intact. I decided on a Canadian Avalanche Association course,
but I most introductory courses should be fairly similar. It was clear from
the CAA website that
the RAC recreational avalanche course was the one for me. This is a 2-day course,
with both classroom and field sessions designed to provide skiers and snowboarders
with a basic understanding of avalanches. They also run Level 1 and 2 courses
designed for professionals working within the avalanche industry, but if you
want to attend one of these you need to complete the RAC course first. The CAA
does not certify the course providers who teach the RAC courses, however they
do provide a curriculum and impose minimum time requirements. The list of providers
is fairly lengthy and I eventually settled on a course run by Mountain
Pursuits, based in Fernie, BC. The cost of the whole course was 130 Canadian
dollars, not including the 70 dollars for rental of touring and safety equipment.
Digging snow pits
Five months and about twenty emails later, it was all sorted out. I’d rented
my transceiver, snowshoes, shovel and probe from The
Guides Hut in Fernie and it was time to go back to school. I met up with
the rest of the group in the Central Hotel; there were seven of us in all, two
snowboarders, three skiers and two telemarkers. We introduced ourselves to Steve
Kuijt, our guide, and began by telling each other about our previous backcountry
experiences. Steve’s guiding experience includes heli-ski guiding with CMH
Bugaboos and Mike Wiegele
Helicopter Skiing, nine years snowcat-ski guiding at Island
Lake in Fernie, BC, as well as ski tour guiding in most of the major mountain
ranges in BC. It became apparent that Steve’s major passion was doing trips
to remote huts, although he splits his time between this, RAC courses and working
at Island Lake.
The classroom sessions weren’t as structured as I’d expected, as they were
always quite informal and not at all like being back in school. The majority
of the course material is available in the book “Freeriding in Avalanche Terrain,
A Snowboarders Guide”, which is supplied with the course, although skiers receive
another similar book containing certain information specific to skiers. In addition
to this, Steve showed us his rather extensive slide collection featuring all
manner of avalanches and avalanche terrain, to illustrate several points. The
topics covered in the classroom sessions were the formation and nature of avalanches,
avalanche terrain, factors affecting snow stability, an introduction to mountain
snowpack, safety measures and self rescue/transceivers, winter backcountry travel
and assessing avalanche danger. The suggested classroom total is a minimum of
4 hours, but we spent a lot more time than that – mostly because of Steve’s
enthusiasm for the subject. We also spent a reasonable amount of time throughout
the course comparing different types of touring equipment, both in the classroom
and in the field sessions, which is not part of the curriculum but incredibly
Heading out beyond the Fernie Alpine Resort boundary
A transceiver is only useful if you know how to use it
The field sessions both started at the lifts within Fernie
Alpine Resort, which made it easier to access avalanche terrain with a minimum
of effort. Strolling past the “Resort Boundary” signs, we donned our snowshoes/skins
and started hiking into the back of beyond. The field sessions were very good
and quite thorough, covering a variety of topics including terrain recognition,
route finding, safe travel, group management, stability evaluation, hazard recognition
and small party self rescue. This mostly involved watching Steve as he pointed
out certain features of the terrain and snowpack, digging snow pits, conducting
stability tests and practicing avalanche transceiver use, both in single and
multiple rescue situations. Of course, the best way to teach a group of people
how to ascend and descend safely in the backcountry is to actually do it, so
we did get four or five powder-filled runs to satisfy our lust. The suggested
field total is a minimum of 7 hours, but we must have totaled about 11 or 12.
I won’t go into explaining the ins and outs of the course material, or try
to explain the nature of avalanches here, because if you are really serious
about traveling in this type of terrain, you need to go on one of these
courses (I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough).
Summarizing this whole experience is easy. Attend the course, obtain the proper
equipment, use your common sense and talk to as many people as you can before
venturing out of bounds. Then, and only then, if you feel supremely confident
about the safety of yourself and your group, are you ready for …………… The Backcountry.