One question we were often asked is, how do you begin with splitboard touring? You got snowshoes or your first splitboard and safety equipment ready. You already know what avalanches are and attended some snow safety training. Going down the mountain is no problem for you and you already have some dream lines in your mind you want to ride.
Bigger questions arise like how do I safely move in the backcountry? How do I find touring buddies that will go with me and make it a safe and a pleasant journey?
A lot of people struggle with these issues in the beginning especially if your peer group is not particular interested in your new backcountry endeavors and prefers to stay within resort boundaries. Often the standard answer is to go with more experienced people and to learn from them. That might work well if your friends are backcountry touring enthusiasts but if you don’t have these people in your peer group it gets more difficult. Often experienced splitboarders or ski tourers are not so eager going with beginners. Why should they? Usually fitness levels, skills, and objectives don’t match. Not because they are self-centered egomaniacs but because it has to do something with trust. Is your touring partner capable of taking the necessary actions in case something goes wrong? If he or she is already on his physical limits does he or she still have enough power and strength to rescue me? If we look further at this perspective, if you are the one with the most experience in a group you also take full responsibilities, no matter if you are a fully certified mountain guide or a regular bloke. One wrong call, an accident where people get hurt and professional alpine rescue has to be called can cause lots of stress, anxiety, questions of guilt, explanations towards family and friends. Then in the aftermath you have to explain the incident to some officials, starting with investigations by the alpine police or even legal prosecutions that want to clarify if the accident was the result of reckless decision making. As the most experienced member you should have known it better!
So this brings us back to the initial question where to start with, when options, skills, and experience are limited in the beginning?
Well the short answer is. Just go. The backcountry is no place where death is luring behind every corner as soon as you leave resort boundaries.
As long as you stay in well below 30 degree terrain in non-glaciated areas, the risks of getting into serious trouble are quite low. Also keep away from steeper faces that are above you to prevent remotely triggered avalanches from the ridge above the slope you are on. As last exclusion, keep away from steeper faces that are below you.
Educate yourself. Reading splitboarding.eu safety tips might only be the first step.
Reading a book about avalanche theory will give you a more solid understanding about avalanches, risk management and safety precautions. At the end of this article we compiled a small list with literature we think is worth a read. Follow the weather forecast and avalanche bulletins of your local mountain area (an overview of sources for Europe can be found here) on a regular basis to get familiar with the snow pack and danger patterns that change during the course of the winter season.
Try your first splitboard tours on resort slopes to familiarize with your equipment (Follow the FIS rules). We know slope splitboard touring can be quite dull and boring but it really helps to get started. Best thing is to do it when the resort is closed or even better at shut down skiing resorts like the Rauthhütte.
- You can do this alone
- You can go your own pace
- You can practice the first ascent techniques
- You get in shape.
Depending on snow conditions ascending on steeper slopes can be quite challenging in the beginning. If the resort is closed do not to go when they prepare slopes with groomers, steel ropes can be a serious hazard during slope prep works. Also check if they allow slope touring and do not destroy freshly groomed slopes because the next day your tracks might be frozen what resort operators do not like.
There is no need to be ashamed of going up a ski slope with switched on beacon, shovel, probe and the rest of the equipment. On the contrary, this is how you learn to optimize your equipment and internalize standard procedures such as turning the transceiver on and off after the tour or to check your partners.
Visit mountaineering camps that not solely focus on avy rescue. A good splitboard mountaineering camp should teach you on all sorts of different aspects like:
- how to do tour planning
- how to read the terrain
- how to access the backcountry in a safe manner
- how to choose a safe ascent route
- choosing a proper skin track
- how to ride down in a safe manner
This provides also a very good opportunity to meet like-minded people with similar skill levels. For Austria we can highly recommend the SAAC 2nd Step Camps, Choice Splitboard Camps or splitboard-camps.at, but there are many others for instance from alpine clubs as well.
Take as many opportunities as possible to get in the backcountry. Every new tour widens your experience vastly in the beginning. Many alpine clubs offer guided single day tours that don’t cost a fortune. This often means going with ski tourers which can be a challenge because their terrain and tour selection is different but nonetheless you will learn a lot. Split fests, like our Split & Relax or the Alpine Splitfest from our swiss colleagues also provide a good opportunity. There are other splitfests in Italy, Pyrenees, Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada and many other countries. In fact, there are so many that we cannot list them all. If you know some in your region please do not hesitate to add it to our event section.
If you are a small group you can organize your own unique single or multi day-backcountry adventure by booking a mountain guide. As a small group of five or six people it won’t cost a fortune. Ask the guide if he has experience in splitboard touring. You do not want to spend all your energy on long traverses or in long access routes with many flat terrain sections. Always challenge your guide with questions and ask for advice. Good mountain guides should have strong communication skills and should happily share their knowledge with their clients!
As your experience and fitness level grows, why not take part in a splitboard journey that will take you to other countries as well. From time to time we will present some unique journeys on splitboarding.eu.
Get active in our community. Here you can meet lots of like-minded people and build up your reputation as trustworthy touring partner.
Some important points if you plan your own backcountry tours
- Always know where you are. In case of emergencies you should always be able to tell your approximate position. Remember the valley, the name of the peak or ridge you are on, the exposition of the slope.
- Always know how to get back safely
- Always plan enough time. In most cases tours take longer than initially planned. Murphys law often applies. Your skin might get wet and does not stick to the skis. Your pole may break, you may lose a screw or a strap from your binding. During the years we encountered all of these failures on our tours.
- Always take enough food and water supplies. There is nothing worse than running out of energy. Your performance drastically reduces.
- In the beginning only go on sunny days with stable weather window. Dealing with bad weather conditions requires a lot more experience. Navigating in white out conditions can be very difficult, baking down if the visibility decreases is highly recommended
- Take decisions together, oriented on the weakest group member
- Always be defensive. Better say no when in doubt. Mountains usually don’t run away so there is always a second and third opportunity on another day or in another season.
- Don’t focus on a single ambitious goal. Just be grateful for being in the mountains and don’t strive for perfection. There is always another peak, line, ridge or slope that can be ridden.
- Don`t trust solely on digital devices, always take a traditional map and an analog compass
Here you find a quite interesting article about tour planning with further info: https://www.splitboarding.eu/en/safety/trip-planning
Werner Munter: 3x3 Lawinen: Risikomanagement im Wintersport. Tappeiner, 5. Auflage, 2013, ISBN: 978-8870737752
Rudi Mair, Patrick Nairz: lawine.: Das Praxis-Handbuch von Rudi Mair und Patrick Nairz. Die entscheidenden Probleme und Gefahrenmuster erkennen. Tyrolia, 5. Auflage, 2015, ISBN: 978-3702235048
Bruce Temper: Avalanche Essentials: A Step by Step System For Safety and Survival. Mountaineers Books, 1st Edition, 2013, ISBN: 978-1594857171