The Snow Pro: Steve Banks engages friends and clients in terrain conversations

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.

Steve Banks, a Crested Butte, Colo.-based IFMGA guide and director of mountain guide operations at Irwin Guides, believes attempting to outsmart nature is a fool’s errand. And he’s learned to approach mountains and avalanches with the respect they deserve. Here’s how, in his own words.

Steve Banks at work with Irwin Guides. [Photo] Alex Fenlon

On Learning

When I was young in my avalanche-safety career, my brother and I were training for the Grand Traverse. It was a high avalanche-danger day, and it had been dumping snow. We knew we couldn’t ski anything aggressive, so we decided we would go for a training mission—go for a lot of miles. We looked at a map and identified two areas that were going to be problematic with high avy danger; we figured, however, that with our combined experience and knowledge we could outsmart the issues. And on that day, I got fully buried by a small avalanche, and we also triggered one of the largest avalanches I’ve ever seen. In the short term, I learned that I needed to treat avalanches with more respect. In the long term, I learned that, if you are in avalanche territory, you need to figure out how to get out of there, not how to outsmart nature. 

Steve Banks finds the play in his work. [Photo] Alex Fenlon

On Risk

When I teach guide-training courses, I often say that the line between my guiding and personal-recreation exploits has become so blurry that I often don’t even know it’s there. There aren’t very many things I do any differently when I’m guiding from when I’m out for myself. The only difference is that [when out with friends] I try to consciously engage them in the discussion about our terrain choices and the conditions for the day, whereas when I’m guiding, that’s more of an internal dialogue.

On Communication

I ask the stupid questions that we consistently see people not wanting to ask because it’s awkward. So I make a point of bringing the awkward right out in the open. I say it right off the bat: “What do you guys think about this?” And often. when I’m skiing with my friends, they’re like, “Well, you’re the guide. You should know.” And I’m like, “Nope. You’re not paying me today, so let’s talk about this.”

On Turning Around

I ask, “Do I really know what I’m doing?” That’s the biggest decider for me; it’s a personal check on my confidence level. I tend to think that I don’t have a problem with overconfidence in the snowpack. If anything, I’m under-confident and always questioning, especially when dealing with a Colorado snowpack.

On Picking Partners

I try to engage partners in the dialogue, and I try to dial things back, because when you have a new person in the group, they’re the most likely to become the follower in the group

On Trip Prep

I don’t really have a formalized checklist, because things are different all the time. I just try to highlight what the most important theme is for the day: manage tricky avalanche conditions, changing weather and timing, distance. Each day I have to ascertain what it is that’s most likely to kill me. Is it being caught out after dark? Is it an avalanche? Is it a higher potential for injury? Then I plan around that. 

On Skills

Meadow skipping in the pow is a pretty underappreciated skill. I think we are all inclined to tick off objectives and try to do bigger and better things. I definitely did that for a very long time before I fully appreciated skiing great pow on a 25-degree slope where I don’t have to look over my shoulder.

On Snacks

My favorite pack snack is homemade baked goodies—they’re always a great treat. And for drinks, you can’t beat a Thermos full of something warm—even on a hot day. 

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