The Snow Pro: Janelle Smiley talks the art of efficiency

Knowledge is power and, in the mountains, it leads to powder. But getting there and doing it safely takes time, practice and lessons both formal and not. And this year’s Skills Guide is a platform from which to dip a toe into the off piste, the impetus to dive headlong into a backcountry education or an opportunity to refresh and rethink personal processes. Because no matter your background, there’s always more to learn. And, just like traveling through the mountains, there’s pleasure in the pursuit.

Janelle Smiley, a Jackson, Wyo.-based Exum guide and holistic life coach, believes efficiency is the path to peak success. Here’s what she had to say.

Skinning is Janelle Smiley’s happy place. [Photo] Megan Peterson

On Skinning

I think teaching people how to engage their glute muscles would really improve their skinning experience. I learned the hard way that this was important, because I tore the labrums in both of my hips from improper technique while touring. We are not designed to carry the weight of skis and boots on our hip flexors as we move uphill. So the biggest thing I learned about moving in the mountains was how to engage my glutes to give me longevity on a tour.

Janelle Smiley steps up on a 3 a.m. push for the summit of Alaska’s Mt. Saint Elias. [Photo] Mark Smiley

On Risk

I think that with personal tours, I am able to share the risk with everyone in the party. When I’m professionally working and guiding, I take on all of that risk, and I usually simplify objectives, because I want to make the right calls and keep my clients safe.

On Communication

I try to make a really safe environment for people to openly communicate about what’s going on, like if they have blisters and need to stop and take care of them or whatever else it may be. I want to make them feel comfortable, so they can share what’s going on as we go. I learned that the hard way. Because my natural pace is fast, I’ve had to learn how to slow down and make sure no one feels the need to keep up. I want to create that safe environment for open communication.

On Turning Around

I look at risk versus reward. I try to figure out how high the risk is, and then I ask, “Is it worth it?” I spend a lot of time in the backcountry, and I keep diligent notes about the weather, how much snow we get, the temps and the wind. I have this logged in my mind before I go out on a tour, and then when I’m out there, I reassess as I gain more information.

On Picking Partners

If it’s somebody I haven’t toured with, I’ll go on a smaller tour just to get a feel for them and to get to know what their mountain sense is; I see if they are enjoyable and trustworthy, and I gauge their skiing ability. But I also take people out who are friends, and I sometimes end up in that guide role, and that’s OK, too.

On Trip Prep

I don’t really have a checklist that I use every day. I just start with my head and work my way down. Once I go through everything I need to be wearing: helmet, goggles, beacon, etc., I go through my backpack: probe, shovel, food. But I usually just leave everything in my pack, add food and water and go.

On Skills

I think efficiency is very underrated. I like to pack in the morning so that I have everything I am going to need first on top. You need to pack your bag in a way that allows you to quickly grab the things that you need, because having your backpack explode every time you need something takes time. With movement efficiencies, I see people move their heel risers up and down all the time, and I think that if they can just leave them up or down a bit longer, things would go a lot faster. I also think people should try to leave their skis on at the top of a skinner [when transitioning]. That cuts down on time in a big way.

On Snacks

I like good, old-fashioned Black Forest fruit snacks. They are cheap, easy and taste good no matter how cold or how tired you are. And for drinks, I just go with water.

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