Set a Track to Higher Learning at the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy

Set a Track to Higher Learning at the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy

A sinking feeling in my core spread slowly to my limbs, then I felt a tingle in my face. In trying to find and mark the three beacons buried in the snow during a snow-safety refresher course with the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy in Jackson, Wyoming, I’d gotten flustered and turned around with my new transceiver and wasted precious seconds. This was a zero-stress search in a flat, snowy field in a municipal park, not a true milliseconds-matter search in a debris field for a person with limited air supply. I felt irresponsible—mortified even—as a backcountry skier and partner.

I said as much to Tom Bennett, the Exum mountain and ski guide with decades of experience who was leading this course. Bennett paused before he answered. “Do you know how much time we spend on beacon searches in guide training every year? An entire day, doing what we just did, all day long. You shouldn’t feel bad. This is just a reminder you have to practice more; we all have to practice the basics, all the time,” he said.

I stared at my beacon, half convinced. Tom sighed. “People with experience are afraid to ask questions, and that is not what this is about,” he chided.

What he meant by this is that the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy is intended to be a safe place to own up to shortfalls, like forgetting skills or not practicing them enough. Because every clinic operates with the simple goals of learning, practicing, and repeating—and the best way to accomplish that is to ditch your ego at the door.  

Photo by Sofia Jaramillo

The Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy, a five-day series of clinics put on through a collaboration of Exum Mountain Guides and Arc’teryx, focuses on backcountry education and skills for skiers and snowboarders. It has been held during the last three Februaries in Jackson. It comes on the heels of two other successful educational academies Arc’teryx started 13 years ago, including the Alpine Academy in Chamonix and Climbing Academy in Squamish, British Columbia. This year’s carefully curated backcountry edition offered 71 separate clinics on a wide array of skills.  

From the 100-day-a-season backcountry skier looking for a refresher, the aspiring ski mountaineer wanting to learn next steps, or the first-timer wanting to put on climbing skins for the first time, skiers and riders of all levels have a place at the academy to learn, stumble, and practice. Participants learn in the safety of controlled environments and under encouraging eyes so they’re better prepared in the field, when the cost of a misstep may be much higher.  

Photo by William McKay

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.”

Photo by William McKay

The personal challenge of skiing in the backcountry, regardless of your ambition, still boils down just getting started. I remember the crew of mentors who took me out into the backcountry years ago and (usually) patiently handed off enormous amounts of wisdom as we skinned or booted or assessed what line we would or would not ski that day. Without them, how would I have learned?

 

So in addition to the snow-safety refresher course, I took a women’s intro to backcountry skiing to compare my experiential knowledge with the Arc’teryx curriculum. Fout other women—some local and some from nearby states—along with Arc’teryx athlete Lucy Sackbauer and I gathered inside the base lodge of the in-town hill of Snow King and took a seat around guide Carol Vieu, making a circle of shiny tech boots with pristine rubber soles.

 

Vieu explained everything: how to find and read the avalanche forecast, how to turn beacons on, how to check battery levels, how to do a beacon check on group members, the immeasurable importance of good communication and group dynamic, how to assemble and store your shovel and probe, what goes in a pack, how to apply skins. The wall of unknowns began to disappear, with no stones left unturned for the never-ever.  

 

On the ski hill, she taught us techniques for the uphill and for kickturns. The climate was mellow and forgiving, and we all became new friends. No one would leave feeling intimidated, I noted, which is incredibly important when welcoming new skiers into the sport. And that inclusivity was further bolstered when participants from every course gathered for après at Jackson’s Center for the Arts, where we all felt like a part of the backcountry community, regardless of skill level and experience.

 

With most of the courses full and the renown of the academy growing, this effort has shown to be welcome and needed by the community. According to Arc’teryx’s Watts, they currently don’t have the resources to expand the academies. However, the opportunity does exist for other organizations and companies to join Arc’teryx in helping educate their consumers.

 

“Obviously, these academies cannot support the scale at which people are accessing the backcountry in general, but we as a brand can keep standing for safety and education,” he said.  “Brands that support educational bodies and continue to keep the backcountry safety discussion at the forefront are helping to emphasize how important it is that backcountry users get the education, stay informed, and respect the areas in which we play.”

 

The next event is July 2-5 at the Chamonix Alpine Academy, which will offer 77 clinics on all levels of alpinism—many applicable to ski mountaineering and snow-safety travel skills. The demand for clinic spaces at Chamonix has led the academy to institute a lottery system; registration begins March 10th.

 

If you’re interested in attending the Jackson academy in February 2021, registration will be open next fall.

 

Brigid Mander is a skier, traveler and freelance writer based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She has lived in Chile, British Columbia, Canada, and various western U.S. states in the pursuit of skiing and adventure. She is a contributing editor at Backcountry Magazine, and her work has frequently appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe Ski JournalSkiingWomen’s Adventure, and on action sports websites such as ESPN’s X-Games, Teton Gravity Research, and Outside Online.

 

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