Taking The Piste – Don’t Follow The Cocky Crow

June 12th, 2009

Taking the Piste – Rachael Oakes-Ash

With Rachael Oakes Ash

Wanted: Cocky mountain male with puffed up chest beating his drum and leading innocents into the back country with no guarantee of return.

We’ve all met him. The guy whose eyes glaze over at the sight of virgin powder begging for his attention, or so he thinks. Like an adolescent boy who spends too long in the shower, his excitement blinds him to any risk as he dives right in. He’s crossed the ski area boundaries before and survived, he’s tasted powder and he wants more and in his belief in his immortality and his need to be seen he takes his mates along for the ride. Only this time it doesn’t go according to plan as the powder he worships slides beneath him and his lights go out for good.

Getting into the backcountry without appropriate skills, equipment or knowledge only leads to disaster. Even a qualified guide can get it wrong but going with a qualified guide and some avalanche knowledge of your own will reduce the risk of an early death.
Death by assumption
I learnt the hard way to listen to my gut. While skiing in Canada with a guide I ‘assumed’ (first mistake) was well qualified and by his own admission (second mistake) was experienced, my gut flipped when he spoke of the two avalanches he had been caught in and his acknowledgement they were both his fault (third mistake).
It was clear he didn’t know what he was doing while hiking a knife edge ridge line that required me to remove my skis after I had clearly told him that I get shocking vertigo and fear of heights when taking my skis off on a steep pitch. But still I stayed with him (fourth mistake), he was a guide after all and I mustn’t be rude.
Adrenally exhausted from fear, I finally skied the line we had picked only to discover a snowboarder who had fallen from a cliff at the bottom. He gave us the thumbs up but clearly needed evacuation. We couldn’t get to him so the guide and I skied back in bounds to get ski patrol. Only the guide now had no obvious care for our safety in his rush to save the day for the snowboarder. What’s the point in getting the guy help if we injure ourselves in the haste? Which I did, though thankfully just a torn MCL. The snowboarder? He survived, ski patrol managed to get him out of his precarious situation without a scratch.

Then there’s the time in Japan when, listening to my gut, I refused to go backcountry with one male who in other people’s words “buries people”. Instead I went with a guide recommended by people I respected, though even he didn’t check we all knew how to use the avalanche beacons we were wearing (mistake number five). Just as well we didn’t get a chance to find out.

It’s not just guides either. I skied this year in Europe with a ‘mate’ who loved nothing more than to be the first down the hill. In the narcissistic belief we were all watching him he’d shoot past as fast as a bullet with little regard for his mates he was skiing with. On the chairlift he would point at backcountry lines he planned to ski the next day.
When we pointed out that the same aspect had slid on the other hills and that the current avalanche conditions were extreme he acted like we did not know what we were talking about. Then he left me struggling half way down the hill when my knee brace could no longer support my recovering injured knee in his impatience to be the first to the bottom. He’s clearly an accident waiting to happen.
Skiing with mates is a team sport, it’s not just about you. Narcissists make bad ski or snowboard partners. The best guides I have skied and snowboarded with are those that understand the mountain is bigger than they are.

True Legends
Charlie Sturgess, backcountry god in Park City Utah, may have a totally bent sense of humour that not everyone gets but he knows his stuff and at fifty three is still alive at the end of every ski day. Rob Hess at Jackson Hole climbed Everest without oxygen and is one of a handful of North Americans certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guide Association. Not once did he mention either of these feats on a backcountry day with me. He walked the talk, which in my book meant a whole lot more. Not to mention John Falkiner in Verbier and Chuck Olberry in Japan, both humble men just doing their thing.

Next time I hear someone crapping on about how much they know, how many lines they’ve skied or snowboarded, how bloody fantastic they are in the backcountry then I’m walking away and I’m walking away alive. We can all talk up where we’ve been and what we like to ski, that’s part of the fun of snow sports, the boasting rights but when it comes to the other side of the ski boundary boast away, just do it with a damn good guide who let’s you do the talking.

For avalanche courses this season try Alpine Guides at Mt Cook for four day avalanche courses from July to September.
If you’re looking for some backcountry guiding this winter Alpine Guides also offer a three day backcountry tour in the glorious Arrowsmiths with Methven Heli .
Wilderness Sports in Jindabyne offer backcountry guided ski and board tours in Australia.