Ski Touring 101
Skiing the backcountry in Fernie is a lot of fun and takes you to some beautiful locations. There are many options from the slack country off of Fernie Alpine Resort to huts that are a couple hour walk from the highway. There is also a huge amount of terrain accessible by snowmobile. We also usually have a deep snowpack and regular storm cycles that refresh our ski hill and the backcountry.
Doing an intro to ski touring course with a local guide is one of the best ways to learn how to travel safely and efficiently through the mountains. Your guide will also show you how to use your avalanche safety gear and talk about terrain to avoid and safe terrain to use. They will also be able to customize the course to the experience and skill level of the group. The Canadian Avalanche Association also offers avalanche skill training courses.
When you take that first step out off bounds off the hill or decide to go and climb to the top of a mountain to ski a line, there should be a lot of forethought and info gathering before you go. Know before you go! Ask some friends that have been out touring or, even better, go online and read the CAA bulletin (avalanche.ca) describing the avalanche conditions in the mountain range that you are going to play in. Making a plan with your group is important, discuss the CAA forecast, up track options, decent options and safe places to transition from ski to skin and vice versa. The plan should not be set in stone, don't be afraid to change your route plan if terrain or conditions change unexpectedly. Remember the mountains will always be there to play in on another day. Making it home safely is not an option – it’s a must!
It is always a good idea to leave a route plan with a reliable friend, but don't forget to check in with them at the end of the day when you are safely off the mountain.
Dressing for the mountains is always a bit of a challenge. The best is to have a few layers that can be put on or taken off according to the weather conditions and whether you are climbing or skiing. A warm insulated jacket is good for transitions and nice to have if someone gets injured. Eye protection is very important, carry sunglasses and goggles.
You will burn a lot of energy walking and skiing, so it is very important to take care of your human. Pack lots of water and try to eat and drink at every transition or as you need it, to keep your energy level high. At least one first aid kit and blister kit should be carried in the group. A roll of electric or duct tape, bailing wire and a multi tool is nice to have just in case you have any gear issues.
In regards to gear, the first thing you will need to purchase is a digital avalanche transceiver. There are many choices, so do a little research on your own. The most important thing is that you practice using your transceiver. Start with single searches, progress to multiple (2-3) transceivers buried, and even try a couple close burials (2-3 metres) apart. Fernie Alpine Resort has an excellent transceiver training centre on the Timber side. It also has probe targets so you are working on two skills at the same time.
When it comes to bindings there are a lot of choices, from ultra lightweight to burly enough to use everyday and still go for a tour when you desire. There are a lot of choices for skis as well, from lighter carbon core to a little more traditional wood core. I have found that a nice all around shape and 110-115 underfoot always works well for touring.
Skins are pretty standard; now you can buy the width and length for your ski and then you custom cut them to your ski shape.
Boots for touring tend to be a little lighter, have a walk mode and a rockered rubber sole. Nice but not absolutely necessary for getting into touring. Just undo the power strap and the top two buckles on your upper cuff for the climb if you are wearing DH boots.
Poles that collapse are great for split boarding but not necessary for skiing.
Backpacks are also a little more of a personnel choice. I myself like a simple 45ish litre stuff sack style pack. Some people love the multi pocket zipper style pack. Whatever you decide on make sure it fits comfortably and that it can hold your skis or board, and of course your shovel and probe. You may also want one that can hold carry your helmet on the climbs.
Ski touring in the backcountry is an amazing experience that we should all try. There is no feeling like skiing two to three-plus runs in a day self-propelled. You will never forget it. Remember to be humble and respectful of where you are – Mother Nature does not care if you are an expert or a beginner. Play safe and have a great winter.
Steve Kloepzig is an ACMG Ski Guide who guides at Island Lake Catskiing and also offers intro to ski touring courses and guided ski touring. 250-423-0806.
Photo by Vince Mo (taken in Harvey Pass)