Thoughts on Guided Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding in Hakuba

Hakuba MountainLife Blog

Thoughts on Guided Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding in Hakuba

As the local Hakuba backcountry ski season approaches I like to review past experiences and training. This gets my brain back into professional guide mode after being out of the game for the last 2 months in between north/south winters. A great place to start is to remind myself of what is expected of a professional guide, and think about times in the past when I hit the nail on the head, and more importantly, where I did not do well. Don't trust any guide who claims to never do a poor job! Guiding is a fun job with many nuances and challenges. Executing my job according to a defined set of professional skills is satisfying.

The following components of good professional backcountry guiding will be familiar to anyone who has undertaken specialized ski guide certification in countries like Canada, New Zealand, US, Japan and other IFMGA nations. I think this is what sets us apart from most untrained industry participants. When I am working, I am actively thinking of the following things, both in the trip planning stage, and then constantly when I am in the mountains with my customers following me. I thought some of you may be interested. I'll keep it brief, with a few vaguely relevant photos thrown in.

Client Care is a huge part of good guiding, and is all about making sure you are safe, comfortable, happy and having fun. And lets not forget GOOD SKIING, given the limitations of conditions. Your guide should also help you understand what is going on through clear communication, and should maintain control of the group. Control is important, and it can be lost very easily. There are so many ways to finesse client care, and many small things add up over a day.

Risk Management. It is absolutely mandatory that your guide be able to recognize hazards, analyse them and prioritize them. Then make decisions and employ strategies to minimize the risk for the group, within the objectives of the backcountry tour. And to have emergency procedures in place for when something goes wrong. In Hakuba, some of the hazards include: avalanches, glide cracks, cornices, uncontrollable slides on ice, open water and poorly bridged streams, tree bombs, rock fall, very deep snow, very poor storm visibility, hitting a tree, and environmental concerns such as intense wind, snowfall and cold.

Technical Skills. Different guided days call on different technical skills. Sometimes it is the basics like relevant, efficient and accurate snow science observations. Or navigation in an unfamiliar area, in a whiteout or in dense forest with endless rolling terrain and streams. Occasionally it is exciting stuff like getting customers into a line past a difficult entry using an appropriate rope system. It also includes very professional wilderness first aid skills (retrained every 3 years!!) and rescue skills in the event of an avalanche, or falling in a very deep snow hole or stream.

Professionalism. Different customers prefer different styles of professionalism. But there is a basic minimum of professional conduct required of a good guide. Beyond not getting into a heated debate about political ideology, this includes having the right attitude. Spending the time to plan and prepare a fun safe and appropriate tour for the group - with alternatives and backups. Having properly working equipment and carrying the right tools in your backpack. Very high levels of guide physical fitness is also included here, along with ski/snowboarding skills.

Terrain Assessment. This essential guide skill supports the whole day. Very briefly: your guide must be able to select a good route up and down the mountain, both in the macro and micro terrain scales. A lot more can be said on this topic! Poor terrain assessment, route finding and track setting leads to poor client care, poor safety, poor skiing, and an overall not-fun experience for everyone who paid for a better day out.

Application. This word means choosing the right tool or method of mountain travel at the right place and time. Your guide not only needs to be using the right application for the current situation, but also looking ahead in the changing terrain, snowpack and weather and anticipating what application might be needed next, and figuring out when he should switch. Examples: skinning, using ski crampons, walking in ski boots, walking in crampons, skis/boards on the pack or just carried, digging out steps, using an ice axe, using a rope for glacier travel, or short roping, or climbing a small section. In Hakuba's backcountry it is often pretty straightforward, but on some days, it is surprisingly easy to get it wrong, leading to poor client care, with an emphasis on diminished comfort and/or safety, time-efficiency and flow.

Some backcountry guided days simply do not work out very well. They are just tough days. Other days go very well, and I think that is due to the guide consciously doing their job with a mind to the elements listed here. Often customers new to guided backcountry skiing do not realize why the day went well. But the next time they have a poor guided day they will start to recognize and value the difference.

To ensure your backcountry guide in Hakuba is working as a thinking professional with training suitable to mountain ski touring, check their website for mentions of these organizations: ACMG, NZMGA, AMGA, JMGA, IFMGA. And then hope the guide you actually get on the day is not an untrained employee of the company.



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Previous articles...

Where To Get Started in Hakuba's Backcountry. Part 1.

I am converting a few of our Hakuba MountainLife Magazine articles into blog posts to make them accessible to a wider audience. This post has the "Where to Get Started" articles from our 2012 and 2013 issues. There are a few more from the series that I'll post later. They are all aimed at helping less experienced people get going in Hakuba's backcountry, however they should not be used like a guide book. Many people use our professional backcountry guiding service in Hakuba to take them into this terrain safely. Others like to adventure themselves.

Guiding in New Zealand

One of the big benefits of pursuing professional guide qualifications under the ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) is that it has opened up new working opportunities that before were just not possible. For example, I have been very very fortunate in New Zealand, where I am working for Alpine Guides Limited. They run a number of guiding operations which I thought I'd describe briefly in this blog post.

Operational Risk Management

We are a backcountry guiding operation, and safety comes first, always. In this blog we describe some of our daily risk management routine. This has been daily habit for several years now, whether we are guiding that day or not. This is what we believe to be the minimum required professional standard of care owed to paying guided customers. Do not assume everyone does this.

Gear That Outperforms: Gloves

People often ask me for reviews and opinions. So occasionally I will list a few gear items which I think outperform the others. Pieces of gear which do their job really well, and make my job more fun, more comfortable, or safer. In this blog post, it is a pair of sunglasses, and a pair of gloves. Let's get one thing honest from the start: I do not get any free gear from brands. Typically I try to buy from brands which support the avalanche and guiding industry, but only if their products are good in the first place.

Remote Terrain, Kita Alps, Japan

Take a look at the photos in this blog post. One of these days I will run a guided trip into this section of the Kita Alps. It is, without a shadow of doubt, the best ski touring (and guiding) terrain in all of Japan. It won't be an easy trip, nor cheap. I would anticipate at least a 5 day tour. Depending on the depth of soft snow (ski penetration) it takes 8-12 hour just to reach the fringe of the zone, without one single downhill turn along the way. It would be a shame to take two days just to execute that approach move. Tough first day, ey.

Mount Steele, Yukon, Canada

In early June 2016 we made a trip to Mt Steele in Kluane National Park, Yukon. Due to a large storm and inappropriate avalanche conditions relative to the final 1000m of ascent terrain, we did not bother trying for the summit. There were four of us in the group, of which three were old friends from Canmore and originally Swiss migrants to Canada, past and present Mountain Guides, and very active outdoorsmen. The oldest in the group was 72, I was the youngest, 43. Two in the group had been to the summit of 'nearby' Mount Logan in 1977. It was a privilege for me to be invited to join this great group on an expedition style trip.

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