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Beginning in the Backcountry



By Jimmy Lewis

I’ll never forget those initial fears, namely, a singular fear:

“I’m going to die out there.”

All I could think of were the avalanche victims I’d read about in the papers. Every image I had of the backcountry in winter included the certain doom of an avalanche descending upon me. But, like so many other fears, getting over my avalanche paranoia involved moving out of ignorance and into understanding.

The first and most important step in entering the backcountry in winter is taking a class with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center. The center offers free classes throughout the winter for both skiers and snowmobilers. Make it a habit to check the GNFAC Avalanche Advisory every morning whether you’re heading into the backcountry or not. You’ll learn a lot and stay safe by keeping abreast of the changing conditions. The GNFAC daily advisory can be accessed via podcast, e-mail, phone or at

Learning about the snowpack and developing intimate knowledge of the snow under my skis and snowmobile has been a joyful process. Digging snow pits, performing stability tests and assessing micro-terrain features are as interesting as they are necessary for safety. With time and practice, you’ll find they become an integral part of a familiar backcountry routine.

Early in my budding interest in backcountry skiing, I started learning the lexicon: skins, A/T boots and bindings, beacons, shovels, probes, avalung and ABS. While an enigma at first, most of this terminology makes sense to me now.

I bought a snowmobile to explore miles of trails and access remote terrain. A whole new set of skills and knowledge associated with riding a snowmobile awaited me: mechanics, riding skills, outfitting the machine with ski racks and gear and trailering. It was all part of a sublime new winter adventure.

Learning the terrain is also a fun part of beginning your winter journey into the backcountry. And because snowmobiles and skis traverse relatively smoothly over the snow-covered trails, the backcountry in some ways is more accessible in winter than in summer, despite avalanche danger.

The maps, trails and basins many miles in all present undiscovered intrigue to the backcountry newcomer. Perusing national forest maps and working with GPS technology and software like Google Earth are useful activities in the search for powder stashes and help to develop empowering knowledge that makes for a more enjoyable and safe experience.

Learning about the laws is equally important, as this allows you to be informed about what you can do and where you can do it. The Gallatin National Forest produces a new Over-Snow-Vehicle-Use map each year, along with a host of other material delineating where you can snowmobile, ski, snowshoe and cross country ski. Knowledge of these laws will make you and everyone else on the trail more comfortable.

Along with the machines, skis, miscellaneous gear, maps, skills and the know-how comes another essential ingredient to having a safe and pleasurable experience in the backcountry: a trustworthy and competent partner. I began my journey into backcountry skiing with a colleague and friend who was equally as interested—and committed—as
I was in getting started. We took a class together, reviewed and discussed the avalanche advisory daily, and researched and planned our adventures together—always making sure to never let our zeal outstrip our expertise.

Consequently, I’m still alive and having more fun in the backcountry each season. I’m discovering new places to go and new ways of getting there. The experiences are getting better, and I remain hopeful that a combination of my backcountry expertise and a stable snowpack will one day result in a surreal experience on my skis. In the meantime, however, the adventure of just trying is good enough.

Jimmy Lewis is a freelance writer, English teacher, and self-described omniventurer, meaning he enjoys participating in a wide variety of all things outdoors, taking special pleasure in mixing his passions into a sporting soul cocktail. He lives outside of Bozeman with his family and a passel of bird dogs, cats, horses and other sundry critters.

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