Backcountry skiing is the fastest growing segment of the industry, but the number of participants is still relatively small. Most people who take a ski vacation and look longingly at tracks on the resort’s adjacent lift-accessed backcountry have no idea of the risks, skills, and gear needed to stay safe in the backcountry, or even how to begin to learn.
There are many guide services and organizations that teach dedicated snow safety courses, but backcountry education has a high barrier of entry and requires many courses in addition to snow safety for proficiency. (Just the Avalanche Level 1 course, for example, costs roughly $350 and takes three days to complete.) At the Academy however, participants are able to take multiple courses at multiple levels at one high profile event, which is totally unique.
According to Jurgen Watts, Arc’teryx’s director of brand experience, “We want to provide opportunities for people to acquire new skills and strengthen existing skills so they’re able to enjoy the outdoors safely and responsibly,” he said. “The academies allow us to connect with our customers in sports epicenters around the world, where we can learn new skills together and participate in the sports we design products for. But the intention of the Backcountry Academy is to educate backcountry users first and foremost.”
This simple goal has resounded across skill levels and geographic regions. Some of the participants in my snow safety refresher had flown in from as far as Toronto and San Diego. Two of them, Chris and Rob Urband, wanted to prepare for a backcountry hut trip with friends in Colorado later in the winter. “How else is a weekend warrior supposed to get this kind of knowledge?” asked Chris, who had not spent much time in the backcountry. “How else can you tap into this whole pod of knowledge, and sharing and learning from each other?”
His brother, who has more backcountry experience, concurred. “New people to the backcountry don’t take into account so many factors. Clinics like these can make people feel secure enough to question decision-making, make the group leader explain why choices are being made, and say no if it doesn’t seem right. It builds personal knowledge, beyond just hiring a guide who gets you up and down as fast as possible.”
With 71 separate clinics, the scope of learning not only supports the education of basic skills and standard safety protocol, but offers a line to ambitious athletes, with guide-led courses for everything from GPS mapping for big, off-the-grid expeditions to the very technical world of mountaineering, ropework, crevasse rescues, and more.
Ingrid Stensvaag, an experienced backcountry skier who traveled up from Vail, Colorado, to take the advanced ski mountaineering course, is a second-time attendee. “It’s not intimidating cost-wise. The clinics are really reasonable, and you can learn so many different things,” she said. “And when you’re out there in the clinics, you are really learning. It’s not just, ‘Follow me, I’m a guide.’ Guides here talk about snowpack, how and what to assess, or how to approach a new line.”
That’s precisely the takeaway organizers hope to achieve. “The goal is to lean heavily on education and teaching, making people better at the craft of backcountry skiing,” said Brenton Reagan, a lead guide at Exum. “A conversation I have with a lot of folks is there is a huge gap in education between recreational users and guides in snow science, route finding, decision making, and technical skills for ski mountaineering—so you can either go the guide track, or figure it out on your own. Exum and Arc’teryx want to help fill that education void.”