Backcountry Ski Mentorship – Core Skills List

Last week, I published a piece on how to find a backcountry ski mentor. It’s quickly become one of my most shared and most read pieces of the year, but I haven’t felt satisfied with it. Some of the discussions that followed made me realize that there was more work to do to create effective and efficient mentorship experiences. I loathe using supply chain concepts to talk about our human interactions, but ultimately, we’ve got a lot of demand for touring mentors. We need to be strategic in order to increase our throughput.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my first season touring and contemplating how mentorship would’ve been helpful for me. I took a really big break between finishing my AIARE in early season and venturing into the backcountry in the spring. What would’ve helped me close that gap and keep the momentum going? And I realized I wasn’t missing mentorship. I was missing a holistic view of the core competencies required for touring. What skills does every skier need to develop to have safe and enjoyable tours? And from there, how did I stack up? Which skills did I have covered and where did I need more education?

In hindsight, I lacked most core skills. I had decent gear covered. I could skin and kickturn and hold an edge on icy ascents like a champ. I had a solid understanding of avalanche rescue, and I was quickly developing survival skiing techniques. But I needed a lot of help with the topics covered in the AIARE classroom section, like reading the forecast and using it to build a tour plan. And I had a major deficit with off trail navigation (still struggle with it). I knew I wasn’t ready, but I also didn’t know how to describe the help I needed.

So I spent the past few days writing them all down.

This is in part for new tourers. You’ll get more out of your mentor sessions if you have specific goals in mind. It should also help you build confidence as you check off boxes and see how much you already know. It can also equip you to self-educate. I would’ve been able to find myself more resources if I knew to Google “how to read an avalanche forecast” instead of “fuck this is scary and overwhelming.” If you find that you lack a lot of core skills, I’d recommend picking some harder ones to work on with a mentor and assigning the “low hanging fruit” to yourself to try and figure out on your own. Creative and strategic problem solving are traits of a great partner, so start flexing those muscles now.

This list is also for mentors. Sometimes mentoring is a really fulfilling experience. Sometimes it can feel unpleasant or even dangerous. Mentorship requests can be uncomfortable as you try to feel out compatibility. This chart puts that conversation in a standardized format. Decide on tenets for yourself that keep mentoring experiences safe and positive. You can advocate for the touring community to be welcoming to all levels of skiing ability, but you can also only take on mentees who have comfort skiing anywhere in the resort. Or you make exceptions, but only for family and close personal friends. Maybe you keep your on-snow time for your enjoyment and limit yourself to skills that can be taught and practiced virtually. I personally struggle with wanting to always be inclusive and supportive, but also protecting my needs. I see this tool being helpful when I want to say “no”or “not yet” to a request for mentorship.

This is also intended to help mentors determine where they’ll be most helpful. You’ll be most effective as a mentor are spots where you started with a deficiency, but eventually mastered the skill. I’m not a great mentor for on-tour navigation. I’ve never been great at viewing a topo map and envisioning how that terrain will look in real life. I’m consistently either a middle person or anchor person with my regular ski partners, so it’s not a skill I use regularly. My go-to is carrying several GPS devices with maps predownloaded and/or skinning in zones I’m familiar with. I’m also never going to be a good mentor for skinning technique. One of my mentee friends doesn’t feel the secure on her edges and skins on the uphill. That part came naturally to me, and I can offer no better advice than “just engage your skins and edges.” The places where I’m a good mentor are things like gear selection, tour planning, and communication because I know which explanations and frameworks led to my “aha” moment.

It can also help women get into mentorship while they’re still working on their own progression. I have a friend with a half season of touring under her belt who has been hit up by newbies, and she feels like she has no business leading anyone at this point in her touring progression. What she doesn’t realize is that she’s made progress over those few months of touring. She compares slope angles on a tour with her comfortable runs inbounds and can side slip and skin ski and has an organized transition. There’s someone out there who needs help with those skills, and they can be taught in the comfort and safety of resort touring. And if anything, I like these “micro mentorship” moments because that half season gap is easy to close, and that mentorship can turn into a long-term partnership. That’s a much bigger gap to bridge if a brand-new tourer is being mentored by someone very experienced who’s moving into couloir skiing or glacier skiing for their personal goals.  

With that, here’s my list of component skills for touring. Is it exhaustive? Maybe not, and I’d love to get feedback or ideas for any missing pieces. But it’s a good place to start identifying which skills will make you feel more confident while touring:

Gear Skills

  • I have confidence that I have skis, boots, bindings, and skins that are a good match for my ski skills and touring goals.
  • I have confidence that I have a beacon, shovel, and probe that are safe and effective. My beacon is a new or gently used beacon with modern 3-antenna technology. My shovel is a good match for my size / shoveling speed. My probe is an appropriate length for my snowpack.
  • I have confidence that I have the proper layering and 10 essentials for winter travel. I also have a properly sized pack for my touring goals.
  • I have confidence that I can assess whether additional safety gear is required for an objective, like ski crampons, ice axes, whippets, glacier gear, or belay/rappel gear. I can identify and rule out tours where I lack secondary skills or equipment.

Avalanche Rescue Skills

  • I have confidence that I can do a proper beacon check at the start of a tour to ensure my gear and partners’ gear are all fully functional and adequately charged.
  • I have confidence that I can complete a beacon search. I can get my beacon in search mode. I can strategically work laterally and vertically down the runout until I find a signal. Once I find a signal, I can follow and complete a fine search.
  • I have confidence that I can complete a probe search, where I probe the snow in a strategic pattern and from the proper probing angle.
  • I have confidence that I can shovel effectively. Based on the probe reading, I can select the proper place on the mountain to start digging. I know shoveling techniques for both single and multiple rescuers to keep the shoveling pace fast, yet sustainable.
  • I have confidence that I can be the leader in a group rescue. I can do a headcount and assign tasks based on the number of burials and number of rescuers. I can assign 911 and/or PLB SOS duties. I can ensure everyone’s beacons turn to search and can physically assist any shocked group member by switching their beacon, even if it’s a different model.

Snow Forecast and Tour Planning Skills

  • I have confidence that for a given tour, I can locate the appropriate avalanche reporting agency and identify the applicable forecast zone.
  • I know the 5 ratings on the avalanche danger scale.
  • I have confidence that I can identify elevation bands (below treeline, at treeline, above treeline) when I’m using a map to plan a tour.
  • I have confidence that I can identify slope aspect when I’m using a map to plan a tour.
  • I have confidence that I know the different avalanche problems, trip planning strategies to help manage those problems, and the warning signs associated with each out in the field.
  • I have confidence that I can identify avalanche terrain on a map.
  • I have created my own personal avalanche safety rules based on my risk tolerance. (For example, when I started, I never toured when ratings were considerable/orange or higher. I would only tour in green or yellow conditions if it was possible to find terrain with no avalanche problems. There’s no right answer, and risk tolerance may change over time, but tenets like these give you a way to decide if a tour is safe or not).
  • When I see a full avalanche problem listed on the forecast with aspect, elevation, likelihood, and size information, I know how to use that information to identify where those problems are forecasted on a topo map. Combined with my personal tenets, I can identify tour options that are within my risk tolerance.
  • I can plan an ascent and descent that minimizes my time spent in or under avalanche terrain. I can identify the risky spots on both the ascent and descent where I should not stop and linger.
  • I can identify terrain traps on a topo map.
  • I can look at weather forecasts and identify how weather will create enjoyable or challenging snow conditions.

On-mountain Avalanche Knowledge

  • I have confidence that I can always identify the elevation band I am at, and any bands that I am traveling under.
  • I have confidence that I can always identify the slope angle I am on, as well as any other aspects that I’m under.
  • I have confidence that I can visually estimate slope angle and determine whether I am in or under avalanche terrain.
  • I have confidence that I know additional context clues in vegetation and terrain that suggest I might be in or under avalanche terrain.
  • While touring, I can recall the information from the avalanche forecast and assess which avalanche problems are present for the terrain that I’m in and traveling under.
  • I have confidence that I can identify red flags and warning signs for each avalanche problem while I’m on the mountain.
  • I have confidence that I can recognize a dramatic departure from the weather forecast that would also create a departure from the original avalanche forecast.
  • I have confidence that I can set a skin track and pick a descent line that minimizes my time spent in risky terrain.
  • I have confidence that I can choose safe spots to stop and regroup on both the ascent and descent.
  • I have confidence that I can identify terrain traps on the mountain and move strategically to minimize my risk.
  • I can dig a pit and run basic tests to look for avalanche problems listed in the forecast.
  • I have confidence in my off-trail navigation skills, and I can execute against my touring plan on the mountain.

Uphill Skills

  • I can skin efficiently and comfortably on flat to moderate slopes.
  • On steep slopes, I feel comfortable side hilling with a rising traverse and using my edges as needed.
  • On steep slopes, I can switchback consistently using rounded turns or “AVA” turns.
  • On steep slopes, I can switchback consistently using kick turns.
  • On steep slopes, I have learned how to finesse my weight on the ski to pressure my skins into the snow and maximize traction.
  • I have confidence that I understand my pace and can find a speed where I can be consistent and sustained. I know how to adjust that pace based on the length of my tour.
  • I have confidence that I understand my vertical capacity and the tours that I select are within my physical capabilities from an uphill skinning perspective.
  • I can set a skin track where the first priority is safety and the second is efficiency.
  • I can identify safe stopping points to take breaks and regroup on the uphill.
  • I can “skin ski,” or glide downhill when needed with my skins on and bindings in uphill mode.
  • I fully and efficiently transition. I know how to transition my gear. My pack is organized where uphill and downhill-only gear goes in a specific place. I have a system of checks to ensure I’m ready to descend (like remembering to put boots in ski mode).

Downhill Skills

  • I understand what my ski skills are and what I should look for on a topo map in order to discern whether a tour suits my ski abilities. I can select tours that I can reliably ski, even in poor conditions or through avalanche debris in the event of a rescue.
  • I have “survival skiing” skills like side slipping and the falling feather. I can employ these and keep moving even when I am intimidated by terrain, challenged by snow conditions, in tight trees or tight terrain, or just fatigued.
  • I have confidence in my ability to select a line that is continuous top to bottom, and I feel comfortable skiing lines one at a time.
  • I can ski double black diamond inbounds terrain, including trees. This is a plan B skill. Touring can be adapted for a range of ability levels with careful planning, but stronger skiers have some extra adaptability for extenuating circumstances (getting off route, intended line not skiable for some reason). Comfort across the resort generally translates to comfort in most backcountry terrain.
  • I have confidence that I can identify safe places to stop and regroup on the descent.

Group Safety Management

  • I know the FACETS heuristics that can subconsciously make us feel safe in risky situations.
  • I have been able to recognize when FACETS heuristics are impacting group decisions and called it out.
  • I am consistently vocal about my needs in the tour planning process (risk tolerance, uphill capacity, downhill ski skills, etc).
  • I am consistently vocal about my needs while on a tour (all of the above, snowpack observations, red flags, nutrition and hydration needs).
  • While touring, I can identify the key conversations and decisions where it’s important for all members to be present and participating.
  • I am aware of other groups on the mountain and how to manage space between groups to maximize safety.
  • I am comfortable with my level of first aid, gear repair, and injury extraction skills given the tours I plan and my personal risk tolerance.
Amber Chang and Kaelee Chang on Muir for one of Kaelee’s early tours. Photo by Andrew Holland.

As I mentioned before, you don’t need every skill checked off before you go out touring. If you feel confident managing loose wet risks in spring season, but need more experience identifying signs of wind slab, you can choose tours accordingly. But for those who feel overwhelmed and intimidated by touring, my hope is that this list helps you identify the places to grow in your skillset and find the right resources to close the gap.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s