a backcountry paradise.
by Olivier Denis Larocque
The backcountry is an amazing place but it can also be daunting. When starting out, it's difficult to know what you need, where to go, and how to keep yourself safe. Olivier Denis-Larocque gives a little insight into the world of skiing beyond the resort’s boundaries. This is a beginner's guide but there’s a lot more to know, so be sure to take the time to build the skills and knowledge you'll need to tour safely.
Full disclaimer. I am no mountain guide, just your regular 25-year old snow junkie; deeply passionate about backcountry touring and steep skiing. My devotion for the sport began unexpectedly with a one-way ticket to Chamonix, France, the birthplace of mountaineering and extreme skiing. Armed with a pair of skis that had seen better days, I made my way up steep couloirs and jagged peaks in search of an endless supply of powder, sweat and fear.
After many mistakes, broken bones and close calls, I moved to Canada to what will soon be hailed as its extreme sport capital, Revelstoke, BC, nestled between the rugged Selkirk and Monashee Mountains.
What avalanche training do I need before heading out?
Backcountry touring is a skill and there are important things to know before you get started. Visitors travel to Revelstoke for its varied terrain, easily accessible backcountry and the seemingly endless fluffy gnar one would call powder snow. The combination of large snowfalls and complex terrain makes this area prime for avalanches. No wonder the headquarters of Canada’s avalanche forecasting organization, Avalanche Canada, is found here.
As a minimum requirement for safe travel in avalanche terrain, you should complete an Avalanche Skills Training Course (AST-1). These are provided by guiding outfits, such as CAPOW Guiding and Revelstoke Ski Touring. Their highly experienced guides will teach you the basics of avalanche terrain management, hazard identification, companion rescue skills, and equipment use in the field.
Oli’s Advice: To learn more about snowpack evaluation and mountain navigation, get further certified with an AST-2 Course or brush up on your rescue skills with a Companion Rescue Course.
What essential gear do I need in avalanche terrain?
When it comes to equipment, these three essential tools must always accompany you into the backcountry:
- A digital transceiver with at least three antennas (for multiple burials)
- A probe (320cm is ideal for Revelstoke)
- A shovel with a sturdy metal blade and extendable handle
These tools are essential to rescuing your companion should an avalanche occur. However, the most important pieces of equipment are the people in your group. Everyone must know how to use this gear and practice with it often. You should also carry enough food, water, and layers to survive a night out in the wilderness in case of an emergency.
Where can I get equipped?
A full touring setup along with the essential avalanche gear can burn a sizeable hole in your wallet. Try it out before making an investment, by hiring your equipment from local ski shops, Revelstoke Powder Rentals or The Wax Bench.
Oli’s Advice: Boots with walk mode are also great for dancing at live shows in the Mackenzie Common Tavern’s outdoor plaza during those warm spring days.
How should I plan for the day?
Preparation is key to a safe day in the backcountry. Before you go, always check the avalanche forecast and understand what weather to expect. Due to the turbulent nature of mountain weather, I use several online resources to assess daily avalanche hazards, weather and plan my route:
- BC and Alberta Avalanche Bulletin (by Avalanche Canada)
- Glacier National Park Avalanche Bulletin (by Parks Canada)
- Detailed Weather Forecast (by Avalanche Canada)
- Third-party Detailed Weather Forecast (SpotWX)
- 3D Satellite Topography (Google Earth)
Oli’s Advice: Use Google Earth to map your planned route, then plug it in your handheld GPS for precise navigation. It never hurts to have a paper map available while you’re touring in case of equipment failure.
Revelstoke is the perfect base camp for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Within a few minutes drive, you can access runs on Mt Macpherson and Mt Begbie massif. With more time on your hands, you can drive along the Trans-Canada Highway through Rogers Pass, which slices through some of Canada’s best backcountry touring and mountaineering terrain, Glacier National Park. These missions are often rewarding, but do not underestimate the terrain. Avalanche risk assessment is a lot more complex here, requiring careful planning and preparation.
It’s essential that you get a winter permit for touring in Glacier National Park. The area is avalanche controlled to keep the highway clear, meaning that some areas are closed to the public intermittently and some are closed permanently. Adherence to this program is essential to allowing continued access to the park.
ACMG guide, author and long-time Revelstoke local, Douglas Sproul, spent years writing his passion project, Rogers Pass Uptracks, Bootpacks & Bushwhacks. This guidebook is the definitive resource when it comes to touring in Glacier National Park.
Rogers Pass Uptracks, Bootpacks & Bushwhacks front cover. Photo: GeoBackcountry
Oli’s Advice: The Winter Permit System. Learn it. Know it. Share it.
Where can I find a touring buddy?
New to town or just visiting? Grab a drink at Dose Coffee in town, where the owners had the ingenious idea to mount a billboard where people can post ISO ads for touring partners. Choose your partner wisely and never head into the backcountry alone. If you’re not the social type, hire a guide for the day.
Laurent Gentilcore-Saulnier and Inuk Morisette sharing hot cocoa in Glacier National Park. Photo Olivier Denis-Larocque
Oli’s Advice: There’s no shortage of Revy locals who love backcountry exploration. Check out Revelstoke Ski Tourers Facebook page where people frequently post ads for touring partners!
Where can I start backcountry touring?
Now that you have a friend, gear, and training, you can finally explore beyond resort's boundaries. It goes without saying, planning and preparation for backcountry travel is essential. There is no substitute for hiring an experienced ski guide for the day.
The Southside backcountry is located just south of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. This area contains a wide breadth of terrain from mellow tree runs to steep couloirs, and is accessed via a cat track from the top of Stoke Chair. For a clearer understanding of the overall lay of the land, the Southside backcountry is divided into three distinct bowls (starting with the closest to the resort): South Bowl, Montana Bowl, and Kokanee West Bowl.