How to Find a Backcountry Ski Mentor

Finding a ski touring mentor is a huge challenge. The interest in ski touring has exploded over the past 5-7 years, and women over-index in their share of newcomers to the sport. There are lots of women seeking out guidance from experienced skiers, but a smaller pool of seasoned women to provide it.

Not to mention, most skiers don’t plan to mentor every weekend. They have their own objectives that stretch their comfort zone or they want to smash pow at the resort on a deep day. Add on the fact that women also juggle more domestic work and unpaid labor, so some of those experienced women are also spending weekend days parenting or household chores. A number of women also balance teaching or snowsports volunteer programs in order to afford a season pass. If I had unlimited time, I’d love to mentor any women who seek out help getting into the backcountry. But since adding hours to the day isn’t an option, how else do you find a way to get on a mentor’s calendar?

  • Have a flexible schedule. I did most of my mentor tours with a woman who was willing to clear her calendar to get out and ski. My personal tours are never really solidified until the last minute. The official avalanche forecast doesn’t publish until 12 hours before most tours start. I might tentatively plan a tour based on the weather forecast and 48 hour outlook, only to have it ruled out the night before. I’ve had similar windows open after struggling to find partners for a bigger objective, and last season’s reservation system sometimes kept plans in limbo until the last minute. My friend had an understanding with friends and family that getting mentored experience was a big deal for her, and so she got a good number of days in. This also meant our tours never seemed to be in the best conditions. We got 3” of dust on crust, or 5” of wet, sloppy powder on ice when we were racing to get touring in before the precip turned to rain. But days with challenging conditions mean the most potential for mentoring. We’ll talk about how to keep your skins dry so they don’t get caked in snow, or how it’s important to keep your stuff secure in your bag when it’s icy.
  • Do what you can solo to get ready. Tours are less stressful when groups feel safe and move well together. Get educated on avalanche safety and get familiar with your rescue gear. Your ability to make observations is important to group safety, even if you’re the newbie and still building confidence in your snow safety skills. Being able to match a mentor’s uphill and downhill chops also increases the odds they’ll extend an invite, since you’ll be a good fit for a lot of lines on their touring bucket list. But that doesn’t mean you should inflate your skills. It’s important for a mentor to wait in spots where they have eyes and ears on you, but it’s also unsafe to hang out for a long time in an avalanche runout or in a cornice or rockfall zone. Your ski and skinning skills might take time to develop, but there are other ways to show up prepared. Learn how to transition your gear at home and do some practice rounds so you can be efficient. Is there an order that will keep you from forgetting certain steps, like switching into ski mode on your boots? Where do you plan to keep your skins? Watch some online tutorials for skinning technique, kick turns, and “oh shit” ski technique like the side slip and falling feather to help you handle any terrain that intimidates you. Practice those skills while resort skinning and inbound skiing.
  • Seek out a mentor early in the season. Every skier starts small at the beginning of the season. We’re touring on a 2 foot base over Snoqualmie West grass or easy road tours up to Artist Point or Skyline Lake. We’re rebuilding our fitness and getting used to new gear. It’s much easier for a new friend to tag along on these tours compared to a midseason day of tree skiing or a 6000ft vert day in the spring.
  • Find another newbie partner and get creative with route planning.If you’ve got 1-2 other newbie partners, you have the option of splitting up throughout the day. For example, if your mentor’s heading up to Lane Peak in the Tatoosh range at Rainier, the New Crew could do the approach together, but split off for the gentler saddle just to the east of the summit while the experienced group skied one of the couloirs on the peak proper. You’re doing the same planning process and have their help for navigation, but both parties ski lines that are challenging and rewarding for them.
  • Recognize that mentorship doesn’t have to happen on the weekends. Mentorship can also be answering questions, like “which intermediate friendly tours are filled in this early in the season” or “I’m planning a Pinnacle Peak tour based on this information I’m seeing for weather forecasts and avalanche ratings. Does this check out?” An extra set of experienced eyes might catch that midweek sun and temperatures are prime to develop a breakable crust, or they might notice that you’re under a troublesome aspect on your approach. Mentors can also help you decide whether you need to pack ski crampons or figure out your start and turn around times. Those tidbits of information can help you have a good day in the mountains even if they’re not physically present.
  • Be a women’s advocate in the outdoor space. The women I know who have gotten the most intensive mentorship experiences are ones that have a reputation for fighting oppressive systems in the outdoor space. Sure, these mentees are often plus size women or women of color, and there’s intentional work to invest more in marginalized groups. But I also have proof that they’re going to invest just as much time or more into the next round of new backcountry users. I’ve helped score applications for the SheJumps SnowPack Scholarship for the past 3 years, and the applicants with the strongest track record of advocacy are just going ham using their outdoor knowledge to change the landscape of outdoor recreation. They’re running scholarships of their own and getting into advanced instructing and guiding and running affinity groups and affinity events. If I’m going to take a Saturday to do a few chill Edith Creek Basin laps, I want it to be in support of skiers who will pay it forward.
  • Find something you can offer in return. Mentorship is an important aspect to building an inclusive ski community, but it’s ultimately unpaid labor. Most mentors will never ask for something in return, but if you can offer something in return or offer your time in return, it’s much appreciated. Maybe you cover dinner or a group of mentees go in on a few hours of cleaning service so that your mentor can get out of a chores day. (I’d much rather go on the world’s shortest and mellowest tour over vacuuming any day). Can you pet sit while your mentor goes on a hut trip or ski with her munchkins for a few hours inbounds while she and her husband get some kid-free laps or a short tour in? If you’ve got climbing skills that she doesn’t, maybe you could skill share. Or if you’ve got a kayak or mountain bike, could you borrow it out a few times? That being said, ski touring is already incredibly expensive, and the most underrepresented groups generally have less resources. The gear and education are already a strain before you factor in a gift card for dinner. Mentorship is not a paid service, but if you have the resources to do so, it’s a little way to acknowledge the time and effort that goes into mentorship.

So what are your options if you can’t find a mentor to go with you on your first few outings? You absolutely can still get after it. You won’t die or get lost. Winging in with my partner (post-avalanche education) resulted in one brutal sunburn, one tour where we were drastically slower than our planned pace and skied our skintrack back down, and 3-4 tours where we tried to ski too early in the season and took our skis for a walk through 6″ of dust on rocks. And those surprises still pop up with mentors, especially if they’re in a new zone. During a mentoring tour at Kendall Knob, we hit our turn around time, never found the open zones, and there was a steady pattern of “turn, fall. turn, fall” through tight trees on the way down. So here’s where to start in the meantime:

  • Start slow and conservative. As long as you’ve got a partner or two, you don’t need an experienced mentor to play chaperone. I’ve tried to start logging some newbie-friendly ski touring options with straightforward navigation and 250-1000ft of vert that can be lapped for a low-commitment outing. (Here’s one and another near Stevens Pass). Reach out in social groups to get GPX coordinates so you can be extra sure of your navigation. Pick a popular location where you can learn through observation, like “oh, most people seem to be booting up Pan Face, and half of the ones who didn’t look like they’re struggling. Maybe this is the sort of terrain where I should put my skis on my back.” It’s also okay to take a few tries to make it to your destination. It takes two hands to count the number of times I’ve taken my skis for a walk, but they were all helpful learning experiences when it comes to tour planning that were essential to my progression.
  • Tour in the spring. I didn’t have a mentor when I started, but my partner and I were lucky to start venturing out on our own late in the season. Spring snowpacks are more stable. We did a lot of the easy volcano trips where the navigation was straightforward, and the ski descent was more mellow and largely free of trees. Weather was nice. The days were long. Overall conditions were more forgiving. The following fall, we slowly ventured into more complex winter tours.
  • Hire a guide. Some guiding operations offer an “Intro to Ski Mountaineering” course that covers all the intro touring materials that aren’t part of AIARE 1. You’ll cover things like tour planning, time management, skinning techniques, kick turns, and how to set a safe and efficient skintrack. Northwest Mountain School has a 1 day course for $300, while Pro Guiding’s is 3 days for $550. The Mountaineers also offers multi-week courses (follow their course listings here), as does Summit at Snoqualmie. (Note for Snoqualmie, the registration link is broken, but if you go to the registration page for any other course, find the menu at the top and go to Lessons à West à Wednesday Night Gatherings and you can find the signup links for each discipline). You can also keep an eye on BOEALPS offerings. In addition, with a group of 4-5, you can also hire a guide for a private trip for about $225 per person. Just let them know that you want the focus of the day to be on planning and on-mountain logistics for the tour, or you could even ask to do the planning, set the skintrack, etc. yourself and have them give you feedback through each step of the process. This creates more jobs for guides (bonus points if you seek out female instructors), and also ideally means that free mentorship time gets allocated to less privileged skiers and those from marginalized groups.
  • Volunteer with a backcountry group. The Nordic Ski Patrol at Mount Rainier National Park requires 4 patrol days per year, plus a day of training. They travel the most popular routes at the park, maintain snowshoe trails, and herd people back towards the cars in time for gate closures. You learn the park well and get familiar with the most common ski lines (even if you don’t get to shred a ton during the patrol shift). Patrollers also travel in teams of two, so the odds are good that you’ll spend some days skinning with more experienced tourers who might be able to give you some advice as you skin between tasks. Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol might also be another avenue, but a member also harassed me over direct message for suggesting that progressing skiers could be safe in the backcountry if they were very careful with their touring plans. (He was the inspiration behind the tour route Stay Mad Brad). Proceed with a little bit of skepticism and caution.

Once you feel like you’ve got the basics down, be sure to pay it forward. There are lots of women looking for mentors, so even just taking a newbie out for uphill laps during your second season puts a dent in the demand for mentors. After our first trip out to Stay Mad Brad, my partner Kaelee was like “I need to take my friends who could totally ski that” and that’s the kind of energy we need to make sure every woman feels supported as they get into touring.

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