2010 SPRING NEWSLETTER
Sure is warm down low. Are we ready to call the 2009/2010 season quits or are people hitting the lines that are still good into May? We here at backcountryskiingcanada.com HQ haven’t yet hung up our skis, but we haven’t used them in a while either.
Backcountryskiingcanada.com celebrates an amazing first season and already has cool stuff in the works for next year!
Backcountryskiingcanada.com kicked ass—or came pretty darned close—in its first year of being. A lot has happened for us since we started building the site and the West Kootenay Touring Guide program almost a year ago now. We’ve had great response from people in BC, across Canada, in Europe, Scandinavia and even down under. People are checking out our forums A LOT and a fair number of folks are posting info about their tours so all of us can get up-to-date beta on specific tours, what to ski, and, maybe, what not to ski. A special thanks goes out to some “power posters” (you know who you are) who really added a lot to the site with their pictures and informative story telling. Merci beaucoup! Other than enjoying good skiing conditions at the start and end of the season, the backcountryskiingcanada team got a lot of touring days in and tried a bunch new routes (some of which aren’t even in the guide book)!
The feedback we’ve had on the paper-based guidebook has been good also. People told us that they used the guide, not as a hyper accurate, precision tool; rather, they used it as a means to ensure they were more-or-less on track with one of the many great routes we profile. We were happy to learn that people depended mostly on their own skills and smarts when they were out on the snow. This is the way it should be. The West Kootenay Touring Guide is now available at gear store throughout the Columbia Basin, as well as at MEC stores in Vancouver and Calgary. If you haven’t had a chance to pick one up, look for it next fall. We’re convinced you’ll think it’s an excellent addition to your backcountry arsenal. If you want to get a guide now (we’ll even ship it to you!) just click here.
Though the conditions were not at their best, The Coldsmoke Fest in March at Whitewater was a smashing success. It was an opportunity for us to hobnob a little (something we are decidedly bad at), meet some people in the biz and generally enjoy the vibe put out by so many people so passionately pumped about backcountry touring. The people behind Coldsmoke (Arcteryx, Mountain Gear and Whitewater) put on a good party. Thanks very much! The 2011 fest is already set for Feb. 25-28. Check out the Coldsmoke Fest Website for updates.
Without giving it all away, we can tell you that there are some good things coming for backcountryskiingcanada.com visitors like you next season. One of the most exciting bits of news is that many backcountry professionals have come forward with new routes and beta from around BC and Alberta. Our little elves will be toiling away over the next few months on reworking their content so it meets our standards and fits into our existing format. Because most all of our current route descriptions are featured in the West Kootenay Touring Guide, until now we’ve just included abbreviated versions on our site. These new routes from far and wide aren’t included in the current guidebook so, lucky you, we’ll be giving away the whole burrito to our site visitors. You’ll get the detailed description of trailheads, access, ascents and descents that now appear in the paper-based guide. This will bump up our number of routes by 100% or more. Wicked. Just like this year, you can contribute to the fun and safety of it all by sharing your experience through our forums.
Also, if you have a route description to share with everyone, please look to our Submit a New Location page and follow the simple instructions. We may even give you credit! If you run into any probs., drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll give you a hand.
We’ve been super happy with the traffic on our forums and we want to encourage even more people to post pics, vids and stories of their adventures. To this end, we are planning a contest or two that’ll get people posting. We’ve got some juicy prizes lined up (like…, marvellously juicy) so stay tuned on that front. The more people post, the better the forums will be. Facebook is the devil. Mouse on over to backcountryskiingcanada.com and get the goods. Does the snow suck or is it blower? Is the avy danger high and are slides happening? If we all chip in and contribute, these are the kinds of questions people can find answers to on the forum. All in the name of good, clean fun and increased safety.
Next season, or earlier, you’ll also notice a few new design and functional tweaks to make the site work even better and look even nicer. Our first year of life was a blast and we are really looking forward to providing an exceptional “user-experience” with even more content of interest for next season. We’ll be sending out a pre-season-stoke newsletter next fall so, fear not, you’ll be hearing from us again before the snow flies.
In the backcountry, necessity is the mother of invention.
Local homeboy Kaj Gyr has been busy in his workshop for the last several months and the masses are finally getting to sample his new glueless clipskins. We had a chance to catch up with Kaj recently through email and fired a couple questions his way. Here below is the transcript of our exchange:
Backcountryskiingcanada asked: What was the impetus behind this endeavour?
Kaj answered: I just got tired of messing with glue, in all of its ghastly messiness. In outdoor situations I choose mechanical bonding over chemical bonding any day. The strapped-on skins of the past were ghastly too - so I saw this as an interesting design challenge.
Backcountryskiingcanada asked: What other experience do you have creating/inventing these kinds of things?
Kaj answered: Everything I design is for me - because I want to use it that very day, and I don't feel the current offerings are a good solution. I've worked on tele bindings, snowsleds, athletic shoes, snowboard bindings, self-propelled vehicles - pretty much anything involving humans moving through space is fodder for thought.
Backcountryskiingcanada asked: On your web site, it says you are in your beta phase. How does this work and how are you intending to market these skins?
Kaj answered: Beta testers can buy a pair at reduced cost, and become an integral part of the development process. They get updates to Clipskins, and if, for whatever reason, they simply don't want to take part anymore, they can get their money back. This is a good way for me to have testers from across the globe testing in a wide range of conditions. The beta test phase also means I don't spend a lot of time finessing things like instructional videos - I'm too busy making the big picture happen to worry about the little stuff, until I get things further refined. Production methods and quality control are issues I'm currently grappling with.
Backcountryskiingcanada asked: I have seen Nils Larsen trying out the skins on youtube. Do you have any kind of a business relationship with him or was he just curious?
Kaj answered: That video was shot unbeknownst to me by Tom Gellie when he was out touring with Nils. Nils has been very helpful in giving me feedback throughout development of Clipkins, and he uses them frequently. We have no business relationship however.
Backcountryskiingcanada asked: What are the strengths of the clipskin product? What are the weaknesses?
Kaj answered: Clipskins are designed to perform like glued skins, without the hassle. Aside from their inherent reliability, where they really shine is in transitions, as they are incredibly fast to remove and apply, and they are extremely light. They require no maintenance and don't succumb to pine needles, dog hair, etc. They have gone through numerous iterations, and at some points I nearly gave up, as it's been difficult to make it all happen while providing a lightweight and robust product. One of the primary challenges was making the clips easy to mount and adjustable. For those skiers that take really good care of their skins (and thus have few problems), Clipskins may not be as appealing. But for virtually everyone else they are a viable, lightweight alternative to glued skins.
Backcountryskiingcanada asked: How has the response been so far?
Kaj answered: I didn't know what to expect in the beta phase as $120 is no drop in the bucket, and there's uncertainty involved in any new product. Nonetheless, people from far and wide are stepping up, ordering, and emailing feedback, pictures, and suggestions. It's exciting and fun to hear the stories.
Backcountryskiingcanada asked: What are your plans for the future?
Kaj answered: Several companies have voiced an interest in licensing Clipskins. Although that is an attractive possibility, ideally I would like to sell them direct online (trusting word-of-mouth advertising) for several years, further refining the product. The relatively low initial numbers are fine when selling direct, and it's a perfect Made-in-Nelson product. Skin material comes from Climbing Skins Direct (sans glue and with an elastic backer) and clips/hardware are water-jet cut in Kelowna and formed/attached here.
The backcountryskiigncanada.com team has yet to sample Kaj’s clipskins but we are looking forward to checking them out next season. Look for a gear review in the not-too-distant future…It’s really encouraging to learn that people are busy in their workshops here in the small town of Nelson creating some great gear that people around the world are using and enjoying in the backcountry. Nice one Kaj!
Risk Perception in Avalanche Terrain
Guest article by David Lussier, certified IFMGA Mountain Guide and owner/operator of Summit Mountain Guides.
Nearly a decade ago, three friends decided to make an early season ski tour to Mt. Brennan in the Goat range between Kaslo and New Denver, B.C. On its glaciated east flank they were guaranteed some good powder turns because recent storms had dumped 70cm of fresh snow. It was late fall, October so there was very little beta on conditions available. They were Kootenay locals, familiar with the area and super excited to go early season ski touring.
They skinned up the towards the east glacier of Mt.Brennan and enjoyed a first run down one of its steep moraine flanks. After a lunch break at the base of their first run, the skiers decided to ascend the main tongue of the glacier and head to the summit (2900m). There were no obvious signs of instability (avalanche activity, whumpfing, cracking or sluffing). From Mt. Brennan, they had an enjoyable ski descent until about half way down when the last party member fell while skiing down a thirty-degree slope. From a fairly safe position in lower angle terrain, the skiers witnessed how this fall remotely triggered a couple of avalanches. A nearby steeper slope completely released to size 2. This had the domino effect of sympathetically triggering the entire slope further away, to size 2.5, on the moraine flank where the group had skied their first run. Their earlier lunch spot was now buried in avalanche debris. They carefully skied down the glacier with lots to think about on the way home.
The skiers in this story did not know exactly how close to the hazard they were until the avalanches occurred. The direct feedback created by the proximity to these avalanches was clearly a sign that it was dangerous to ski these slopes. Perhaps if the avalanche bulletins were being published at the time, they may have been forewarned of the hazard. Had they dug a pit (a test profile), they may have gotten significant information and considered re-evaluating their route selection. However, had the group decided not to ascend Mt. Brennan and just skied out after their first run, they would have a misperception of the actual snow pack conditions and potential hazards.
This situation shows how challenging it is to know exactly how close to the potential hazard we often are and how judgment and experience can be fooled by excitement and lack of information. This is a very common phenomenon in the realm of backcountry skiing—we may never know exactly how close to the hazard we are until we have some sort of feedback. Most often we have access to good information or resources to help our risk management decisions. A better understanding of the level of risk involved with our decisions requires many years of practice and experience.
What level of risk is acceptable when you go backcountry ski touring? Acceptable level of risk or risk tolerance is very subjective. It is very personal and often based on previous experience, judgment and decision making ability. The acceptance of risk varies greatly between cultures and personalities. For example, Europeans tend to assume more responsibilities for the risks they take while in North America we tend to transfer the risk to make others responsible for our choices. Technically, the magnitude of risk is a function of severity and frequency. As the severity of the risk increases, so does the difficulty of managing it, even if the risk is relatively infrequent. Backcountry skiing is a rewarding activity that will always have a certain level of risk associated with it.
As a guide, at times I may choose to make riskier decisions because of valuable previous field experiences that I can draw from. In other instances, if I don’t have substantial experience in a specific situation, I will definitely err on the side of caution. Whether I am guiding or skiing with friends, I have no problem turning around and going home if things are more dangerous that I am willing to handle.
Our ability to make the best possible decision while backcountry skiing can be affected by many factors. To make better decisions in avalanche terrain we must consider the snow pack, the various weak layers, the type of terrain we are in, the weather (precipitation, wind, etc.), our group ability and our goal. Many people have smaller windows of time to achieve their goals and this pressure affects their perception of risk. Another human factor is our great ability to influence each other, which may lead unaware followers into dangerous situations.
Most backcountry skiers strive to make the best-informed possible decisions in avalanche terrain. There are a great deal of people interested in safely traveling on skis in the backcountry. More people are taking recreational (AST 1 & 2) and professional (ITP 1 & 2) avalanche courses and learning how to analyze hazard and potential risk. There is also an increasing number of qualified avalanche professionals educating the public along with quality avalanche bulletins readily available for savvy ski tourers. Despite this positive trend, there are some skiers who will knowingly make risky decisions and others who are completely oblivious to the various hazards they may be exposed to in the backcountry.
Experience-based decision making comes from knowing how to gather relevant information, the ability to analyze it, assess the terrain and relate this to previous experiences managing risk. The more experience we have, the more likely we are to make better decisions that will lead to minimizing potential hazards. Some of the close calls that skiers live through are also a valuable opportunity to learn how to better mitigate future risks.
I was actually one of the skiers from the Mt. Brennan story. At the time, I was well on my way to becoming a ski guide. The more lessons and experiences I gain every season, the more I realize how much there is to learn and how much I may not have fully understood before. This expansive funnel is a daily phenomenon for professionals who are forced to regularly assess and manage risk effectively in a variety of conditions. In a similar way, a backcountry skier’s decision-making style and ability continue to mature overtime.
Early May and there is still snow falling in the mountains, much like early winter season… fresh powder and few people! With less field data available, measure your risks very carefully. My hope and intent in writing this article is for backcountry skiers to question their own perception of risk and how that may affect decision-making.
For more on this topic, there are many useful readings on risk, decision-making and ski touring safety in the backcountry, including resources from the Canadian Avalanche Association. Take an avalanche course or learn from skiing with experienced, knowledgeable backcountry skiers.
David Lussier is a fully certified IFMGA Mountain Guide and Professional Member of the Canadian Avalanche Association. He lives is Nelson with his family where he operates his guiding business, Summit Mountain Guides.
Get down on it!
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