Mountain Skills: Be Ready With Team and Routine

Teamwork in the mountains is paramount, but it can take many years to develop relationships with trustworthy backcountry partners to the point where you form a routine that serves as a backcountry safety net. Jeff Dostie, my Tour Camp co-guide for Points North Heli-Adventures (PNH) in Cordova, Alaska is someone I have grown to rely on. Through our relationship, we have developed a routine that we use to keep our clients and ourselves safe. While we apply routine for professional reasons, any backcountry user in any backcountry environment can develop safety and travel procedures with their backcountry partners that are time-tested and repeatable. Following a few steps to build routine can help get you and your group in and out of the mountains safe and happy.

Get To Know A Zone

Before each Alaskan season I go back to my notes from the previous year to unearth buried terms, knowledge and memories from years past. I study the weather that has created the snowpack I will ski on in subsequent weeks. This allows me to follow snowpack changes throughout our season. When developing this aspect of routine, there is no time like the present. It may seem like a lot of work in the beginning, but routine is made through this kind of dedicated habit. It’s a ritual developed over many hours and years spent in the field.

Jeff and I always study the intricacies of the local environment, weather, and snowpack where we plan to ski tour so that we can best predict conditions and choose appropriate terrain to ski. When out in the field, making daily observations and recording what we see is crucial. Over time, those notes will help us absorb critical information about our surrounding landscape.

Know Your Forecast

In remote Alaska it’s not that easy to get an accurate forecast. Luckily, I have daily check-ins with our PNH heli base via satellite phone. Armed with up-to-date weather and avalanche activity observations other guides have made in the field, Jeff and I are able to better shape primary and backup tour plans with more confidence. At the end of the day knowing when to stay at camp, when to ski something mellow, or when to send it, is a major key to a successful operation.

Following NOAA, your local avalanche center and other weather forecasting websites is helpful. Arming yourself with detailed knowledge before your daily tour will payoff big time while in the field.

Start Your Day With a Plan

Jeff and I talk in the morning and at night, rehashing scenes from the day or previous day(s). We always have a specific tour plan in mind and multiple backup plans ready so we can adjust our primary objective based on observations in the field. When we plan to ski something more technically demanding, the question of risk versus reward is asked. If we are 100% confident in our group’s ability, the stability of a slope, and the forecast, we ski. If there is any hesitation due to safety, we choose the more moderate run or pull the plug on our plan.

Jeff Dostie (in yellow) and Brennan Lagasse out for a skin on a long, cold day at Tour Camp. [PHoto] Jules Hanna

Jeff Dostie (in yellow) and Brennan Lagasse out for a skin on a long, cold day at Tour Camp. [Photo] Jules Hanna

Be Overly Prepared

No matter where I’m guiding, guests comment on how heavy my pack is. I just laugh and say it’s weight training, but in reality I bring far more than the basics of a repair kit, first aid kit and survival kit. It’s all about being overly prepared for what could be put to use when an emergency arises—the satellite phone, aircraft radio, rope, crevasse rescue equipment, Kool-Aid for lighting up snow in flat light conditions, etc. The list is long, and the hope is that little gets used beyond the basics, but being ready for a worst-case scenario ensures that Jeff and I won’t get caught deep in the mountains without every tool that could be of benefit to our group.

When you pack for your next ski tour, bring only what you need, but tailor your pack’s contents to be suited to your day’s objective. Having a checklist to simplify and systematize this information is helpful. Organize yourself so that taking more is actually taking less, because if the worst-case scenario becomes a reality, it’s always better to be overly prepared. This is something a dialed routine will instill in you naturally the more you practice.

The Morning Check

After breakfast, a beacon check and gear check at camp, we’ll head out for our day. We seek to ramp up our terrain selections slowly and think about all the scenarios involved in where we plan to ski for the day. Jeff and I continue to make decisions throughout the day to manage, mitigate and eliminate the possibility of worst-case scenarios. If something happens we are overly prepared, and if all goes as planned, we’re safe and stoked.

Jeff Dostie digging a pit to check on snow conditions throughout the day. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

Jeff Dostie digging a pit to check on snow conditions throughout the day. [Photo] Brennan Lagasse

Maximize the Fun Factor

My routine while guiding is framed by what I call the Double S Program: safety and stoke. The first point is important, as you can’t get the stoke without being safe first. Jeff and I choose terrain that we think is fun for our guests, but more than reasonable in terms of risk. We base this on the ski ability of our group as well as the hazards of a given day.

Bottom Line:

While our routine is place-based in the Chugach, this process can be adapted outside the range. The more you get to know where you are skiing, with whom and what the hazards are on a particular day, the more fun you will have. Communication and prior knowledge of your chosen zone are key, whether you are in the Chugach or your own backyard. The ability to fluidly adapt tour plans with an exit strategy and backup plans are crucial components to a well-established ritual and a major part of a bomber routine.

Brennan Lagasse is based in Lake Tahoe, Calif. and guides for Ice Axe Expeditions in Antarctica, Svalbard and Greenland, as well as The Adventure Project in the Kashmir Himalaya. He co-guides with Jeff for Points North Tour Camp in the Chugach Mountains, Alaska. You can check out more of Brennan’s work and look into the trips he guides at http://stateofthebackcountry.com.

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