Whistler is the largest ski resort in North America, offering over 8000 hectares of terrain in resort. There are powder bowls, tree runs and chutes to satisfy your adrenaline cravings. But what happens when you get an itch to go further afield, when you overhear stories in the bar of people bagging fresh powder a week after the last snowfall? Indeed, there is endless terrain to explore on skins from the top of both Whistler and Blackcomb, we are truly privileged to have some of the world's finest opportunities for backcountry exploration.
But with these opportunities comes a responsibility—to yourself, to your friends and to your loved ones to get proper avalanche training. Backcountry skiing is an inherently dangerous activity that requires experience and knowledge to travel safely. Though it is beautiful, the Canadian backcountry is remote and can be unpredictable, with severe weather and avalanches sitting as two of its primary hazards. For any backcountry travel, everyone in your group must be self-sufficient and properly trained. Can you identify slope angles above 30 degrees? Do you know what a cornice looks like? Have you read the Avalanche Bulletin and fully understood the avalanche conditions, including what aspects and elevations to avoid? If your friend triggers an avalanche and gets buried in front of you, do you know how to rescue them? Proper knowledge and sound judgement (especially knowing when to turn around) are undoubtedly your most important backcountry survival skills.
You'll want to start by renting a touring set-up and taking an Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 course (AST 1). Some are split over just two days - one in the classroom and one in the field. Others have one evening session, followed by two full days in the field.
The evening session courses are referred to as a 2.5 day AST+, although the material covered will be the same, you just get more outdoors time. Some would argue that the extended theory session is actually more valuable and a better learning environment. Also consider that (depending on the weather) you might prefer to learn the important stuff indoors, as opposed to in freezing temps and gale force winds! It's totally down to personal preference. I did an AST1+ and had a fantastic time, but it was blue skies and powder, and I still got distracted! Whichever way you go, the AST1(+) is an entry-level course aimed at providing you with decision-making framework in winter backcountry avalanche terrain, and it is incredibly valuable.
DOING YOUR AST 1
Learning and practicing companion rescue skills gives you and your group the best chance of surviving an avalanche incident. AST programs are an essential first step to safe backcountry use in the winter. There are many course providers in Whistler, all of whom follow a curriculum established by the Canadian Avalanche Centre. The AST courses provide a blend of indoor theory and practical field days to leave you feeling confident and knowledgable in the backcountry.
Providers in Whistler:
Broken leg simulation!
What's an Avalanche Safety Course like?
Before the course, you'll need the proper equipment, including probe, shovel and beacon. If you don't want want to splurge out on the full package just yet, you can rent them (but if you're heading into the backcountry again - you'll need them!).
Next, depending on what you ride, you'll either need a splitboard with touring bindings if you’re a snowboarder or touring boots with a walk mode and touring bindings for those two-plankers. Those Fischer racing boots you usually shred in won't do your shins any favours on your uphill climb!
Skins are another integral part of getting into the backcountry, which attach to the bottoms of your skis or board to help you get uphill.
Most AST providers will hook you up with a smokin' deal on renting any of the above from Escape Route Alpine Demo Centre in Whistler Village. They have the latest DPS touring setups as well as the best touring boots and bindings on the market, and they really know their stuff. You can reserve your equipment with them online once you've booked your AST!
The course starts off with a theory session which teaches you how to identify different avalanche types and formation (snowpack layering). It should also cover avalanche terrain, including factors such as slope angle, wind and sun exposure, anchors, elevation, trigger points, terrain traps and signs of previous avalanches.
On our first day up the hill, we sat together and looked at the Avalanche Bulletin, something that should be done every day before heading into the backcountry. It is important to read the danger ratings, problems and concerns. After assessing the bulletin, and looking at the days snow report and forecast, we then formulated a trip plan. We ended up doing Disease Ridge on Blackcomb mountain, where we found a nice spot to practice avalanche rescue and digging techniques. Turns out, digging is really hard work and there are certainly more and less efficient ways to dig your friend out. After discussing various scenarios, we then got some laps in and enjoyed the sunshine all the way down to Handlebar where we had some apres beers.
On day 2, again we sat and assessed the Avalanche Bulletin and planned our route. Route planning is essential and it is very important that everyone in the group understands and agrees to the plans, and that everyone feels comfortable voicing their concerns. After planning our route, we headed up Oboe off the back of Whistler's Flute Bowl and did some longer skinning. There was plenty to observe, especially lots of point releases from the rapid increase in temperature. We then buried some backpacks and did some practice burial scenarios and were tested on our rescue plans. It was a really great way to feel some (but not too much) pressure and get feedback on how we can be more efficient in a rescue situation. The debrief at the end was a good opportunity to ask questions, exchange photos and make some new friends in town.
At the end of your AST, you should feel more comfortable using your gear and more confident in your ability to make good, informed choices and decisions. But don't forget - knowledge is power, and you need to keep on practising what you've learned and reading up about avalanches or you will lose your edge. Try to go out touring regularly, sometimes with people who are more experienced so that you can learn from them. Keep practising your shovelling technique and rescues - you can even make this into a fun drinking game by burying a six pack in the yard! There is a lot to consider in the event of a burial and rescue, and the more you practice, the more likely you are to be able to save your friends.
FIRST TIME TOURING? HERE'S SOME TIPS:
Have a working understanding of how to use your beacon, shovel and probe - and make sure you have a backpack that fits it all in! You need to carry much more than you would just skiing in the resort, so you'll have to squeeze in your safety gear, skins, lots of water, lunch and extra snacks.
Bring snacks. A big day walking uphill in the cold will make you hungry, and it’s important fuel your body whilst its burning energy. Granola bars, fruit, boiled eggs, pocket bacon - whatever keeps you going.
If you don't like hiking, you probably won't like skinning uphill for extended periods of time. It is hard work.
The snow might not be great. "Backcountry" definitely doesn't equal perfect, untouched powder. We were blessed with warm, sunny conditions on my AST course, but this made the avalanche hazard high, and the mellow aspects we did ski had soft, sticky, knee-tearing snow that required lots of effort to navigate without double-ejecting.
The AST 1 is just the start. Many guides will tell you that avalanche training is a lifelong endeavour. There is an indefinite amount of learning and experience (good and bad) that can help prepare you in the event of an emergency and reduce risk of disaster.
After getting some more touring trips under your belt, advance your training through an AST 2 - a four day course getting into the knitty gritty of route planning and snow pack science. If you want to start going into the true backcountry (not lift-assisted), you should also take a course on crevasse rescue and glacier travel. These skills are essential to navigate across the many glaciers you cross in the Sea to Ski backcountry regions.
Touring is really, really fun!