Progression: Building a Backcountry Career on #unepicadventures

Caption: Californian Chad Buelow touring in the Tetons. Scoping new terrain with a partner with local knowledge is a good way to expand one’s judgment and avalanche skills.


By Jed Porter

How can a whole “career” of backcountry travel become one of #unepicadventures”? Well, the recipe for a long unepic life in the mountains is simply to pile one un-epic day on top of another. My buddy Chad has done this. Given the trajectory he’s on, I trust he will continue to do so for a long time. Also, I have had the great pleasure of accompanying Chad through many of the steps he’s take to get where he’s at right now.

Let’s look at Chad’s story, his series of #unepicadventures, and how we can model our own adventures on his.

If there is any pattern to what makes for #unepicadventures, it is balance. First, one must have an adventure. There must be a component of uncertainty, risk, and fun. Sitting on the couch is “un-epic”, but not an adventure. Balancing that adventure, that risk and uncertainty, must be a margin for error; stack the odds in your favor with some oversight, or a healthy dose of “knowns”. These are examples from Chad’s backcountry career to date, in rough chronological and developmental order.

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Chad acquired solid wilderness and navigation skills, in the summer. Backcountry skiing is inherently off-trail travel. Even if there is a skin track, that skin track can be blown in or covered over in minutes. If you want fresh snow for the downhill, you will forge beyond man-made navigational clues. In a multi-decade regimen of summer-time weekend and weeks-long hiking trips, Chad acquired solid wilderness skills.

Chad learned to ski, as an adult, with good instruction and years of resort time. Now, this may seem like a given to many ‘jonesing’ for backcountry time. But there are surely those among you that are limited in your ski experience. You may not yet know how limited your ski ability is. Head out of bounds, into rough terrain and “wild” snow, and your abilities will surely be tested. The easiest backcountry terrain and conditions are harder to ride than the hardest resort conditions. “Expert” level ski and snowboard turning is the bare minimum pre-requisite for backcountry travel. Head out of bounds and any gaps in your technique will jump right out and be an actual, significant liability to your safety and enjoyment.

Chad had his first backcountry ski experiences with a guide. While he was figuring out the skins and bindings and layering and everything else he had the oversight of a vetted, trained professional. That professional (it was me, starting 5 years ago now) managed the big picture risks, taught sound skills, and chose appropriate endeavors for both learning and “pushing the envelope” for Chad.

Caption: Wild touring conditions are an opportunity to see “red flags” in action. Doing so with careful terrain selection is key to a safe return home. Keep the consequences low!

With a solid foundation of backcountry touring skills acquired in the company of a trusted mentor, Chad was then ready to learn avalanche skills and fundamentals for his own decision-making. He teamed up with a potential touring buddy and the two of them sought out basic avalanche instruction in the form of a three-day course. Notably, it was not I teaching this course. Seeking new information from new people is excellent, as the different perspectives of different teachers and mentors are crucial to a well-rounded backcountry skill and risk-management progression.

Following the course, now with a solid touring foundation and basic avalanche risk management skills, Chad was then ready to team up with similarly experienced folks and head out. For these initial un-mentored experiences, Chad chose familiar terrain. The adventure was in the planning and in the conditions that day. The terrain he explored that entire first independent season was familiar, either because he had been there with a mentor or had been there in the summer.

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Caption: Again, Chad. Skiing from 10,000 feet in the wilderness of Alaska is a rare treat!

In the process of exploring with his friends since that first avalanche course (as well as joining me and the rest of a guided group on a super sweet Alaska ski mountaineering fly-in base camp) Chad discovered gaps in his decision-making and avalanche skills. He then sought out the next step in his formal education. Chad and I worked with Exum Mountain Guides and BCA partner American Avalanche Institute, just a couple weeks ago, to deliver a customized program that capitalized on the best of the Tetons, Chad’s background, and our rapport together.

Now, I’d say that, for Chad, the next steps are clear. Continuing the progression of adventure, while keeping it “unepic”, will be the challenge and the reward. On each of his “unepicadventures,” he will take a step further out, but leave himself a margin. There will be unknowns balanced by knowns. Some examples… Chad is ready to ski new terrain, with similarly experienced partners, in familiar conditions, in his home range. Chad is ready to ski familiar terrain, with partners of lesser experience. Chad is ready to ski new ranges, with similarly experienced partners in reasonable conditions. These are exciting opportunities, accessible to Chad only because of the regimented progress he’s made, building one #unepicadventure on top of the last.

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Caption: Chad’s formal avalanche education has been punctuated with real-time, “on the go” ski touring in a variety of contexts, from guided expeditions to teams of like-experienced partners. It all fits together to create well-rounded preparation.