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Backcountry Awareness: Equipment Selection. By Doug Chatten

June 23, 2020

Doug chatten and co climbing steeps in the backcountry

The following info is not an exhaustive list of necessary equipment for backcountry skiing/boarding, rather some points of view on selection to get you thinking or comparing your own ideas.

Think hard before you exclude items from your pack based on your proximity to the trailhead or resort area boundary. Some professional guides don’t prescribe to the term sidecountry & find it misleading to the lesser experienced believing that once you leave the trailhead/resort boundary you are backcountry & therefore should have enough equipment & scope in your kit to be self-reliant. If forgoing equipment means you may become dependent upon others or more exposed whilst awaiting assistance then there are better decisions to be made as responsible backcountry skiers. Likewise, it is unwise to become overburdened by too much equipment, if you have items in your pack that you are continually not using other than emergency equipment then perhaps you should consider omitting them. It's true that as your skills, knowledge & experience increase your risk decreases somewhat & this inturn can justify the more advanced travelling deeper with a lighter pack but remember no one is impervious to unforeseen circumstances. The art of having the necessary amount of equipment is a balance between your ability as a backcountry enthusiast, endurance levels & the conditions you may encounter on any given day.

Doug resting after a steep ascent with the help of crampons and ice axe

Perform a thorough check of all your gear & equipment at the start of each season & prior to every tour, it pays to be at a heightened state of preparedness ready to make the most of favourable conditions. If meeting a group at the trailhead, as well as talking over the intended route the night before you should have discussed the possibility of any shared equipment. Each individual should have their gear checked prior to commencement on the day by the group.

There are many things to consider when planning your group trip but pay special thought to what equipment your group has & what objectives you are planning, it is one of the biggest limiting factors to a successful group journey. Identify & plan for the weaknesses & capitalise on the strengths

  • Does our group have a mix of heavy & lightweight gear? No we all have tech bindings, light skis & boots. “Okay, I reckon we can go with the initial plan. However, if Alan’s mate turns up on his 184 by 110 fatties with frame bindings I reckon we will have to amend our intended route.

When sharing group emergency gear consider you may get split up:

  • “Hey Johno I reckon it’s time to activate the PLB….oh no Debby has it & she headed back after lunch.”

Never skimp on your gear! Get good stuff & keep it in good repair, retire or repair it as required.

  • If Joey hasn’t re-glued or replaced his old climbing skins he’ll be holding us up all day again!”

Doug Chatten removing climbing skins

If I’m headed for the steep country I always take crampons, ice axe & a self-arrest ski pole. As the slope angle increases &/or conditions become icy this equipment is invaluable & adds a huge layer of safety to your day. When encountering slope angles in the high 20degree range climbing skins begin to fail & your progress becomes inefficient & impractical. Bootpacking in steep &/or icy terrain can be extremely dangerous & fitting a crampon in this situation greatly reduces your risk exposure & increases your efficiency.

Doug ascending. By Tony Wehr

If you are snowboarding you really should consider a full shank or stiffer sole boot that can take a crampon like Fitwell, K2 Aspect, Thirty Two MTB Jones, Burton Tourist, Deeluxe Spark XV. A standard soft snowboard boot lacks integrity at the boot sole crampon interface because of the flexible sole & in steeper terrain you run the risk of losing a crampon. Whilst it is difficult trying to kick into firm steep snow in a ski boot or full shank snowboard boot, finding yourself in this position in soft boots without crampons will put you in a very exposed & dangerous situation.

Ski & Snowboard crampons are an ingenious invention that dramatically increase your safety margin & efficiency when the surface conditions become such that your skins are failing & you would prefer to keep skinning or you have no boot crampons & boot packing is not an option. Most touring bindings ski or snowboard have capability for a ski crampon.

Doug skinning up the Sentinel, NSW Snowy Mountains

In recent years the popularity in the backcountry has been increasing & there seems to be many backcountry enthusiasts gaining some education & heading out with limited equipment, water, food & not much else! I am sure this is contrary to what they have been taught or researched. Knowledge is power but don’t let a little bit of knowledge & minimal experience overshadow the need for recognising the more likely, less sexy but equally consequential hazards in the Australian backcountry such as

  • white-outs & cornices - pack navigation equipment (compass, map, GPS, PLB, phone, InReach)
  • hypothermic conditions - pack emergency layers (Puffy), shelter, shovel
  • slips/trips/falls in steep &/or icy conditions - pack crampons, ice axe & self arrest poles
  • snow bridges & river crossings - recognition & crossing techniques.

When buying new gear go for quality always, don’t let price dictate purchases, identify what you need & go shopping! As John Ruskin quoted in the 19th century: “It’s unwise to pay too much but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do!”

My gear: in no particular order

When I head BC I pretty much have the same kit in my pack every time, the only time this varies is according to my length of stay i.e. day or multi-day trip. Beware of packing light just because the forecast is ideal, you never know what lies ahead & an unforeseen circumstance could see you overnighting on an otherwise perfect day? It may then be your lack of equipment that becomes your biggest issue not the initial problem.

Backcountry camping. Doug Chatten

Bottom line is in case of emergency I need enough gear to get out of the weather for the night & be safe until help arrives or I self evacuate the next day. On a day trip, I’m not planning on staying overnight but I’m planning to be able to survive overnight if necessary.

By Mont Ambassador and backcountry guide Doug Chatten of Snowy Mountains Backcountry

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