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Back 40: How to choose a backcountry ski partner

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Story and photos by Derek Lennon EBS Contributor

Skiing is often considered to be an individual sport, but backcountry skiing is a team sport. Whether you’re skiing big lines or cranking out powder laps, your life is always in the hands of your backcountry ski partner.

While it may be easy to head out into the backcountry with your best in-bounds buddy, your beer drinking pal, or the local know-it-all, it’s more important to find someone who you trust and who is on the same page as you. Your life may depend on their skills.

Backcountry skiers skin above Beehive Basin in Big Sky.

Backcountry skiers skin above Beehive Basin in Big Sky.

Here are a few things to consider when choosing a backcountry ski partner:

Mountain sense – Wild mountains deserve respect. Weather comes in quickly, avalanches happen and unmarked hazards exist. Choosing safe routes, finding safe zones, and assessing the hazards of the winter playground need to be a top priority. Is your backcountry partner’s mountain sense on high alert?

Snow sense – A good partner will want to see what’s going on with the snowpack. Dig a pit and observe the snow, but also observe your partner. Can your partner properly assess stability and can they support their decision-making?

Backcountry experience – Backcountry knowledge and experience is important. Be careful of anyone who brags about wild ski lines and laughs off close encounters with avalanches. Instead, seek out someone who is a bit more humble, keen to share their knowledge and respectful of the snowpack. Can your partner safely navigate through the mountains? Are they lucky or are they skilled?

Avalanche rescue skills – The No. 1 thing you should look for in a backcountry partner is their ability to rescue you in the event of an avalanche. This specific set of skills has the potential to save your life. This means they have avalanche rescue gear and they know how to use it. Plus, they need first aid knowledge to treat injuries. Performing an efficient avalanche rescue requires practice. Can your partner save your life?

Certifications – Avalanche, first aid and other certifications show that your backcountry partner is committed and dedicated to the backcountry. Is your ski partner qualified?

Risk tolerance – In the backcountry you must determine if the risk is worth the reward. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. You and your partner need to be on the same page. A gung-ho aspiring pro and a father of two will most likely have different risk tolerances. 

Open discussions and the freedom to voice your thoughts, questions, and concerns are vital. It’s OK to turn around. Will your partner listen to and respect your decisions?

Pace – It’s not fun to be the slowest person in the group and it’s equally frustrating to be the fastest person. Try to find someone who moves at the same speed as you. How fast is your backcountry partner?

Preparation – Mountain adventures require preparation. Look at the map, read the avalanche forecast, prep your gear, and communicate with your backcountry buddy. It’s not a one-man or one-woman show out there. You both need to do these things to ensure you’re both ready for the day. Did your partner prepare for the ski tour?

Gear – Check out your buddy’s gear—is it shiny and new? That could be a red flag, indicating they don’t get much practice using it. Do they have beacon, shovel, probe, repair kit, first aid kit, water, snacks, extra layers and skins? Do they perform a beacon check at the trailhead? Are they comfortable clicking into touring bindings or are they lugging around heavy alpine trekkers?

Do they have touring gear or snowshoes? Are they going to overheat 100 yards down the skin track because they’re starting the day in every layer they own? Are they ignorant to human safety and selfishly putting a beacon on their dog? The backcountry is a constant classroom. What type of experience are they bringing to the table?

Goals – Always discuss the goals for the day. It’s important to have the same objectives in the mountains. Open discussion is necessary for any healthy backcountry relationship. Are you both on the same page?

Test the waters – Skiing gnarly lines with a brand-new ski partner isn’t the smartest idea. Test the waters and be dubious of your new partner’s abilities until they prove otherwise. Start with a simple tour for some mellow meadow skipping or even some buried beacon drills before you ramp up the terrain choices. Will this be a lasting relationship?

It takes time to trust someone else in the mountains. The right backcountry ski partner will enhance your mountain experience. The wrong one will make you fear for your life. Choose wisely.

Derek Lennon is a skier and writer who lives, works, and plays in the mountains of the world. He is based in Big Sky, Montana, where he lives with his wife Mia and two dogs.

A version of this story first appeared at Visit A Mountain Journey for more news, entertainment and information for the mountain enthusiast.

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