Time to Split: Backcountry Camps Teach Key Skills and Safety

It was midway through a heated debate at the top of Corona Bowl when I realized my basic Avalanche Skills Training course (AST 1), and a few follow-the-leader trips, hadn’t given me the experience to make proper backcountry decisions. The sun was glaring, the snowpack was changing and I was pretty damn sure the slope faced south . . . but not sure enough to prove it. Clearly, it was time for more training.

by Penelope Buswell

James Box, Chuting Gallery, Pemberton Backcountry, James Munshaw photo.

Enter Altus Mountain Guides’ backcountry splitboard camps. Altus offers AST 1 training for beginners, but these camps take new splitboarders out into the backcountry to practice what they learned, hands on, in an all-snowboarder group with a guide.

I’m put in an international group of nine students. We’re all comfortable snowboarders and most of us have left resort boundaries a couple of times. The 3-day course is run by Altus owner and Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) guide, Ross Berg, with assistance from Olympian and Canadian Ski Guide Association CSGA guide, Justin Lamoureux as well as Rupert Davies, another professional snowboarder who is also aspiring guide.

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We learn how to set up the finicky splitboard bindings before heading up Blackcomb’s 7th Heaven chairlift to practice transceiver searches. Then we split the boards and start shuffling up Disease Ridge. As we traverse, our instructors give tips on the importance of an impeccably waxed base and a quick tutorial on how to use poles. Having used poles before, I propel myself forward to the front of the group with a smug flourish while others prod the ground untrustingly before discovering how useful a tool they can be.

The next morning begins with route planning. Ross asks us to point out map features in the surrounding terrain. He stays quiet while we think through our answers and his mentor/mentee vibe continues throughout the day as we’re asked: “What are the hazards?” “How would you approach that line?” “Why do you think that would be the best route?”

The sun was glaring, the snowpack was changing and I was pretty damn sure the slope faced south . . . but not sure enough to prove it. Clearly, it was time for more training.

The final day of the course covers more vertical. We find routes to Circle Lake on Blackcomb Mountain, while the guides explain the area’s avalanche history. This is the great thing about doing a course on your home mountain: you learn routes that you’ll take again and again.

“As a new tourer it’s important to be trained,” explains Mary Clayton, Communications Director at Avalanche Canada. “When people first start touring they sometimes don’t understand how to read terrain, how to match terrain to the continually changing current conditions, and how you manage the consequences of a slide through terrain selection. It’s also really important to be practiced with your rescue gear.” Mary stresses the importance of a shovel, probe and transceiver, and adds, “a lot of people look at airbags as a magic bullet. But there have been fatalities with deployed airbags as well.”

I leave the Altus course more comfortable. Three days of making my own decisions, under the watch of a guide, makes me confident enough to head out for touring — but this time with a map, a compass, and a better grasp of the most important tools of all, knowledge and experience.