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The Real Banff Blog / Published: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 02:38

Earning Your Turns Backcountry Skiing in Banff National Park

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Storm Mountain fire break area. Photo-Tera Swanson.

December 24th By Tera Swanson

If someone had asked me a few years ago if backcountry ski touring interested me, I would have laughed at them. My start with skiing began with some of my earliest childhood memories - the bittersweet (mainly bitter at the time) experience at the age of four at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Montana. Clinging for dear life to my dad’s ski pole dragging behind him with my boots locked in pizza-mode, before being whipped between his legs to fend for myself speeding down the bunny hill luckily didn’t traumatize me enough to give up on the sport altogether. Two decades later, my level has progressed, but only to a comfort level of booting down packed down groomers, or the occasional choked back tears after a well-meaning but overambitious friend or former boyfriend insisted on the odd black run.

It wasn’t until last year that I wasn’t completely overwhelmed by skiing in powder, and made more of a conscientious effort to try things on my skis that seemed terrifying until I actually did them. Ski touring made its first blip on my mental radar after a successful summer of hiking as often as I could with a great crew in Banff National Park. While anticipation for winter still grew, and getting in some runs at the local hills hadn’t lost its appeal (and likely won’t for the foreseeable future), it was a little disappointing to think I wouldn’t get to experience such a variety in the views and landscapes that Banff’s backcountry has to offer, until the snow melted the following spring. But when a friend I had met through my university’s outdoor club persuaded me to try it out at a super low-key area, I gave it a second thought. I was a bit oblivious at the time to the importance of understanding the risk involved, being properly trained, and going with a partner/group likewise - both for your safety and theirs.

The most essential piece of the touring puzzle is to take your Avalanche Skills Training 1 course - something I should have done before heading out for the first time. However, after borrowing a transceiver, shovel and probe from a friend who, rightfully so, insisted on giving me a full hour-long demonstration and walkthrough of how to use her equipment before handing it over, I rented skis, skins, and boots from a local gear rental shop, and headed out to a beginner area just past the Banff park border, in Kootenay National Park. I instantly discovered the appeal and opportunity in this type of exploration for a skier, even of my ‘blue-run’ ability. The views, near isolation, and earning your turns (i.e. substitute chilly lift rides with sweat-inducing endorphins), seemed like the perfect parallel to summer exploration on foot. And here are a few beginner tips from a true beginner herself, on how to make it happen:

Get the know-how:

It is absolutely essential to have the proper training and crew of knowledgeable riding buddies before heading into the backcountry. Surround yourself with safety, and never (ever ever) go alone. There are various programs and online videos/tutorials (such as Know Before You Go) aimed to educate and inform people who want to try out touring, but they do not replace AST 1 Offering both classroom instruction and field experience over two days, Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 will teach you the basic principles of avalanche safety and winter backcountry travel. It’s a good idea to pair this course with a Wilderness First Aid course, or at the very least Standard First Aid. Several options to take AST1 are available in the Bow Valley: BanffLIFE (offers financial assistance), Yamnuska Mountain Adventures. I took the course through BanffLIFE, who brought in an instructor from Yamnuska Mountain Adventures. It was a very humbling and educating experience, and a great opportunity to meet other like-minded locals just starting to get into winter backcountry exploration.

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AST 1 course in session. Photo-Tera Swanson.

When to go:

Make best friends with Avalanche Canada (www.avalanche.ca), learn the lingo, the ins and outs, and monitor condition reports hand-in-hand with the weather forecast for several days before you plan on heading out. AST1 will provide instruction on how to read these reports, and what information to keep an eye out for. I won’t head out unless there is a high certainty of low avalanche risk in the area and elevation I’m skiing, and it’s important to be firm with others in the limits you’re comfortable with.

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Gear up: While there are some similarities to resort/alpine skiing, packing and preparing for a day in the backcountry is a lot more involved than making sure you have a granola bar and 10 bucks in your pocket for an overpriced lodge poutine. The no-compromise list of gear:

  • avalanche transceiver
  • extra batteries
  • shovel
  • probe
  • helmet
  • first aid kit & repair kit
  • avalanche terrain map

And you wouldn’t get too far without:

  • a split board or ski touring set up, including poles, skins, and touring bindings and boots (although you could get by for a while with regular boots in walk mode)
  • high-calorie, easily packable food & water
  • layering appropriately for all levels of activity, from skinning up to digging snow pits
  • a backpack suited to hold these items, and then some

While one of the initial appeals in touring was avoiding an $80 lift ticket and bottleneck lift lines, after deciding to commit to my own set-up, the costs started adding up - a new transceiver alone could cost you between $250-$500, and you won’t get by with your regular alpine skis and bindings. As told by a fellow tourer, “you’ve gotta pay to play.” However, there are still ways to budget smart with your set-up, and keep costs down while you’re still trying it out.

  1. Borrow gear, and when you can’t, rent. There’s no doubt that Banff is a nation of ski bums, and one of them might just be nice enough to loan out their goods for a day, or hand over a set-up collecting dust in their closet. For everything else, check out SnowTips BacTrax for boots to transceivers to full set-ups. A forewarning about rental boots - I learned that hard way that even though they fit properly, pressure points on my feet rubbed raw after a few hours. Make sure they are a snug but comfy fit, or bite the bullet and get your own.

It’s not recommended to buy a used transceiver (it’s your life we’re talking about, here!) but if you do decided to rent or borrow one before heading out, make sure you know how to use it - ask for full instruction on how to do so, or read the manual.

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Undoing skins at Lake O'Hara. Photo-Tera Swanson

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Split board and ski rentals from BacTrax at Lake O’Hara. Photo-Tera Swanson

  1. If you’ve decided you’re ready to commit to purchasing your own gear, keep an eye out in the spring for deals at local ski shops for used staff set-ups or rental sales. Make it even more affordable by bringing in some of your old outdoor goods to sell for a store credit. I bought my skis and bindings for a very reasonable $275, and lucked out with a sale for new skins from MEC. Other options are to keep tabs on the Bow Valley/Banff/Canmore Buy and Sell Facebook pages.

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Touring skis at Switching Gear. Photo-Tera Swanson

Where to go: My first experience on a pair of backcountry skis was at the Storm Mountain Firebreak in Kootenay National Park - an easily accessible, low grade area right off Hwy 93S - only a few hours round trip, with 250m elevation gain. The 50m wide area was cleared of tree as a precaution to stop forest fires that threatened the Bow Valley in 2003, and luckily it worked - you can easily note the difference in tree density to the left and the right of the run.

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Storm Mountain Firebreak area. Photo-Tera Swanson.

The AST 1 course I participated in took place near Bow Summit, where the instructor pointed out several small slopes and nearby locations conducive for some initial practice.

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Bow summit area. Photo-Tera Swanson

Once you’ve made a few cruisey initial trips, there are a ton of resources out there to find terrain you’re comfortable with - from free brochures to library books to websites. A few references that have been recommended to me include: Summits and Icefields 1 & 2 by Chic Scott (available at the Banff Public Library) Avalanche Terrain Ratings for backcountry touring the Mountain National Parks - Parks Canada Backcountryskiingcanada.com - a condensed online version of the full guide book Learn up, gear up, and have fun!

teraswansonprofileIt doesn't take much to get this mountain girl's toes tingling! Whether she's booting down trail runs, trekking up peaks, or travelling the globe, Tera Swanson is never content idling for long. Pairing this with her love for writing came as natural as her Bow Valley backyard - follow along with her at adventures at Tera Swanson - Multimedia Journalist