My good friend Jamie Week describes the importance of communication in the backcountry like this: “Inbounds at the ski area, skiing and riding is all about me. It’s about finding the best lines and the best snow. Once you leave the resort and enter the backcountry, it’s a team sport. It’s no longer about me, me, me. It’s about teamwork and team safety.”
Backcountry skiing is a team sport, unless you’re out there on your own. And it’s crucial to have good communication with your partners.
In theory, this communication should be easy; speak up if you don’t feel comfortable, voice your observations, everyone’s voice is an equally weighted opinion. In practice, this give and take can be more challenging.
Group dynamics are an interesting thing. Often, one person has more experience than others in the group, so his or her opinion is weighted more heavily. Someone is likely trying to fit in and impress the rest of the group, so they don’t speak up when they feel uncomfortable.
Communication can be messy and complicated in the backcountry.
Because communication can be tricky, finding good ski partners is essential. Here are things I look for in my ski partners:
They have a similar risk tolerance to me
Some folks like to ski big lines in a variety of conditions. Others like to wait until the hazard has been at low for two weeks before entering committing terrain. Either way, it’s important that the partner you travel with has a similar risk tolerance. This avoids those tense situations when one person wants to turn around while the other sees no red flags.
They come prepared
I don’t want to be the only one carrying a first aid kit, extra layers and a shovel big enough to move avalanche debris. I expect my partners to show up prepared each day. It’s common courtesy. It’s respect. It’s being prepared if the shit hits the fan.
They are willing to turn back
Some days, the conditions just aren’t right for skiing or riding a specific line. I want to travel with someone who can adjust plans based on pertinent observations. I want decision making to be a conversation. As for those partners who have given me a hard time about wanting to turn back when I didn’t like the conditions? I’ll go out for a beer or a cup of coffee with them, but I’ll no longer ski with them.
They have a system for communication that they use every day
Communication is tricky in times of uncertainty. I look for a partner who uses a systematic approach to traveling in the backcountry. I have been traveling in the backcountry for many years and every time I tour, I use the American Avalanche Institute Backcountry Checklist. It’s a systematic approach to planning and making observations in the field. I look for partners who share this approach, and I look for partners who attempt to take the emotions out of observing and making decisions.
They aren’t prone to the same mistakes that I am
After years of traveling in avalanche terrain and making mistakes, I know which patterns, or heuristic traps, I am susceptible to. On days with tricky avalanche conditions, I try to avoid skiing with people who are as goal oriented or as influenced by peer relations as I am. We are all prone to different biases, so if we can find partners with different ones from our own, we stand a better chance of calling one another out on making bad decisions.
They are fun to be around
At the end of the day, backcountry travel should be fun. Sharing a day in the backcountry with a good partner should be about staying safe, making good decisions and smiling and laughing while being outside.
Sarah Carpenter is the co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and an AMGA-certified ski guide. Her first job out of college was ski patrolling at Bridger Bowl, Mont., and she’s been working in the snow and avalanche industry ever since as a patroller, ski guide and avalanche educator.