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Learning the pleasure of a good backcountry guide

Usually, I’m the one in charge of our spring backcountry ski adventures. So it is kind of a contradiction that our yearly “splurge’ vacation requires hiring guides who tell us where to go. Skiing the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia can be scary, though, especially if you don’t know how to navigate through glaciers.

Every year I’m reminded how I would’ve died without the guides. The typical scenario goes like this: They will tell us to ski one at a time through an area that looks totally harmless – flat and white. You wonder what they’re so worried about, and then I’ll look up behind. A scary, 50-foot wall of blue ice appears out of nowhere, our ski tracks visible above. If I had been in charge, all 14 of us would’ve been airborne.

But I’m not really a follower. I love breaking trail and picking an uphill track that balances effort and efficiency. I love studying all the possibilities of ski descents, wondering where the best snow might be. So having guides is a little weird.



On our first two trips to Canada, I was so enraptured by the glaciers and intimidated by the new terrain, I didn’t mind the guide. But by our third trip, I started to feel the guide was just too regimented. You had to follow all his instructions or risk having him yell at you. We always skied single-file and descended close together. He was very competent and pushed us all to the limit. But by trip four, I was over it. I’m not a good follower, and even though I was more than willing to make concessions, I missed what I think is the essence of skiing: freedom.

I remember coming home after the last trip with our original taskmaster and skiing the mellow west face of Baldy Mountain. Though it was a far cry from the gnarly peaks I had just skied in British Columbia, I had more fun on Baldy than I did during my previous week in the Selkirks, because I finally felt free. This made it clear to me that I couldn’t ski with this guide again.



But I loved our yearly trip to Canada. The mountains are so amazing. We hired two new guides, booked a week at the Fairy Meadows Hut, and put

together a group of our friends.

That was three years ago, and every trip with our new guides, Robson and Tom, gets better. We lucked out to find two guys who mesh perfectly with our group. We’re not an easy group to guide because we have a lot of “leader’ personalities, and we are all strong, fitness-obsessed skiers.

Tom and Robson are great at walking the fine line between keeping us safe yet giving us space. They are two of the best at what they do, not only for their skills, but more so because they are confident enough to give direction only when direction is needed. Both of them are studs but neither has the big ego you’ll see in other guides.

Robson was born in a helicopter-ski lodge and rips it up on flimsy leather telemark boots. Tom grew up climbing and skiing in the Austrian Alps. He’s the guy who sets up the ropes for the famous Eco-Challenge Adventure race. Both of them are non-judgmental, calm and easy with laughter. They trust each other completely and forgive everyone for mistakes.

As long as the terrain is mellow, they don’t mind if someone wants to break their own trail. We don’t have to stay in one line. Sometimes we’ll hike five abreast, and it will look like a Humvee drove up the valley. We can listen to our walkmans. They let Monique (super-fit, adventure-racer babe) break trail for them, which at first I thought might hurt their egos, but they were actually grateful.

On the descents, if you waited to ski last, you could count on Tom or Robson taking you on a bonus side trip for fresh tracks. If we arrived back at the lodge early and some of us wanted to head out and ski more – no problem. They even wore costumes along with the rest of us for the last day of skiing. They honestly feel more like our friends than our guides.

I never thought I’d admit to it, but I realized this year that it’s good to have guides make all the decisions. I try to avoid backcountry skiing in big groups because everyone has a different opinion on what’s safe to ski or what’s the best route uphill. It’s a relief that they are in charge, and we won’t have any

squabbling.

By giving us a little freedom, they earn our respect … much like a good parent, only better looking in the sauna.


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