Knowledge is Powder; Thoughts after Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014
Growing up, I was immersed in the retail industry. My mom owned a women’s clothing store and I would tag along on her buying trips to Chicago. While I made small talk with her vendors, Mom would be thoughtfully rifling through next season’s goods to stock the shelves of her shop 9 months in advance. This careful process resulted in a successful small-town business. Her success is the inspiration for my earning a bachelor’s degree in Retail. (I also earned one in Journalism, for reasons I’m guessing are pretty obvious.)
So after I moved west, I left the traditional “Fashion” community and (unbeknownst to me at the time) joined the “Outdoor Community.” After agreeing to accompany Sean on the countless outdoor expeditions on his bucket list, “his bucket list” became “our bucket list” and before I knew it, I was the center of an extreme case of GAS—gear acquisition syndrome, which is a never-ending black hole of consumerism in which I flounder, daily. One down jacket leads to a pair of yoga pants and some mukluk boots and a new pair of cycling shorts… (My GAS has a mind of its own. I will stop here for the sake of time.)
So when I started going to Outdoor Retailer (OR) in January 2011, I was experienced with retail shows, but a novice in understanding the intricacies of outdoor buyers, sellers and product. I quickly learned about the industry trendsetters, leading avalanche education experts like Bruce Tremper, respected veterans like Glen Plake, and innovation leaders like ABS, and their Avalanche Airbag system. I also noticed badass women stepping up to the plate of the Outdoor Industry ballgame, holding their own in various circles like Molly Baker and her Tiny House project, or Revelstoke regular Izzy Lynch. Simultaneously, I was creating my own backcountry skiing education—piecing it together under the strict, careful watch of my husband, who has spent years on remote expeditions with his AAIRE Level 2 certification and is on his way to Level 3.
Given my position as a vocal steward in the community through Two Sticks and a Board, I am inspired as a woman, a blogger, and a backcountry skier to speak out about the direction of this “backcountry” industry that is taking North America by storm (which has been a long-standing norm in Europe and beyond). First, my truth: I am not an expert in avalanche safety. Rather, I am continually learning from many of the world’s leading “experts,” and I am a consumer. Just like you.
I left OR with a feeling of hope for the innovation of the future, but a great fear for the education of tomorrow. Although there are incredible organizations out there like the Utah Avalanche Center, the Canadian Avalanche Center and Backcountry.com (and so many others) providing quality, accessible information to the consumers, there is a huge population of backcountry newbies that are inspired to take on steep lines out of bounds without accessing the education. Click-click and voila! You’ve purchased yourself a beacon, some skins and a touring setup—time to pillage your first backcountry powder line. Right?
Buying a beacon (along with all other avalanche safety gear) and feeling prepared is like a 5-year-old hopping into mom and dad’s car with big dreams of driving places. You have to learn how to use the tool before it can work for you. The same goes for experienced backcountry skiers buying the latest avalanche airbag system and feeling like they can head out of bounds on their own without checking the forecast and doing their own snow science evaluations. It’s the difference between perceived risk, and actual risk. Traveling in the backcountry is an ACTUAL RISK, but with all the tools and technology today, it isn’t perceived as risky to many.
Today, I put out an open call to the Outdoor Industry bloggers: We post our powder photos showcasing the best body alignment and powder spray, but why don’t we also post the photos from the avalanche pits we dug… or from the 36 minutes we spent evaluating a slope before making the ascent… or the hours we spent pouring over maps and weather forecasts the night before and the day of. I haven’t seen Tweets like, “Just dug the best #AvalancheTestPit of my life! #SafetyFirst”
… but maybe we should.
Lets keep that stoke about the backcountry going, but lets also put a REAL face on the backcountry scene this winter—and into next winter. If not for your friends who are just starting out, do it for the young generation who is just getting their boots wet this season in the “sidecountry” at resorts around the country. Encourage them to get educated. Encourage them to be their own best knowledge-source before heading beyond that backcountry gate. Being with someone “more experienced” is great, but you still need to gather your own thoughts on the weather, stability, forecasts, etc. Seeing that “someone has already skied it” shouldn’t necessarily give you a green light. Get smart. Be smart.
Or, as the Utah Avalanche Center likes to say: Knowledge is Powder. (And I agree!)
Here are Sean and Cassie, scoping out a topo map in Norway before our first big day of climbing and skiing. We had a guidebook of the region we were skiing as well as a number of maps (our first few purchases upon arrival). With Cassie being new to the sport, Sean was explaining to her how we choose our lines and how we determine where to go based on the avalanche forecast, weather, etc.
Here is Sean, reading more maps on a day we were very unsure of stability. We stopped for a break at this mountain hut to speak to some other travelers about their experience, and evaluate wether or not to move forward with our ski. Eventually, we continued on from this hut, but not far ahead ended up turning back because we weren’t comfortable with the conditions. No sick powder shots from this day, but we are here to tell the story… and that’s what matters.
This was out first morning in the Lyngen Alps, and here we are having coffee with David, the man who owns the guesthouse we stayed in. David is also a mountain guide and a nurse and knows the mountains surrounding his home like the back of his hand. He recommended we buy the guidebook of the area (which we did) and he told us about the snowpack we could expect in each area we were considering. We didn’t necessarily “take his word for it” and go ride, but rather we added his thoughts to our knowledgebase for the day, and then scoped out the terrain on our own terms before skiing it.
Here we are on another day, digging a test pit before heading up a slope. I can speak for the group when I say it was not pleasant standing here for an hour, evaluating the snow in the freezing cold. The visibility wasn’t good and the wind was howling. But we did it, and we continued to do this as we needed to in gathering information about the snow pack.