Baker Mountain Guides is transitioning our avalanche education courses over to our new brand, the Northwest Avalanche School. The Northwest Avalanche School will operate alongside Baker Mountain Guides and is founded on the same passion and experience that has, historically, driven the quality of our avalanche education program. This shift marks a return to our core values and brings us into alignment with our identity as backcountry skiers, riders, and outdoor educators.
Brands tell a story, and the story of a brand is one of people, places, and the events that shaped their journeys. The story of the Northwest Avalanche School began long before Baker Mountain Guides.
“Paul is dead.”
These words still ring in my ears, years later. His wife’s voice was strong and clear, despite the immense weight of grief that it carried. “He was killed in an avalanche earlier today, outside Driggs.” I had never known anyone who had died in an avalanche. I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” was all I could think to offer at the time. “We’re in southern Idaho. We’ll be there soon.”
I set the phone down and stared out the passenger window into the inky black of the night. “Paul is dead.” I said. “Fuck,” Dana replied. “Yeah…Fuck,” I whispered. That was all we said. We were enroute from British Columbia to Colorado, after two weeks of touring in the Selkirk Mountains. We were on a collision course with the Tetons, and with the harsh and unforgiving reality of backcountry skiing. We were growing up fast.
Dana parked the truck behind a gas station in Driggs a little after midnight. We crawled into the back and zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags. I rolled over and stared out the window of the canopy. The dark silhouette of the Tetons rose menacingly above the rooftops of town, and for the first time in a long time, I felt scared. I cried for Paul, and for his newlywed wife, and for the life they would never share together. “This doesn’t need to happen,” I said to myself. “I can change this.”
Survival of the Fittest (or Luckiest)
I took my AIARE Level 1 avalanche course 20 years ago at Berthoud Pass in Colorado. Things were different back then. Alpine touring equipment was in its infancy, and telemarking was still super cool. This was the golden age. People had certainly been backcountry skiing and riding long before me, but the mountains were still a pretty quiet place during the winter months. However, the volume was about to get turned up to 11. Improvements in equipment, media attention, and even COVID were to eventually transform backcountry skiing and riding forever. What was once the realm of a handful of eccentric dirtbags has now become the fastest growing segment of the entire ski and snowboard industry.
Avalanche forecasting has changed substantially as well. The mountains present the same hazards they always have, but the explosion in participation has prompted the wholesale renovation of how we communicate and manage avalanche hazard. The popularity of backcountry skiing and riding has been a boon to regional avalanche centers. As budgets have swelled, the money has allowed for a greater network of forecasters and technology upgrades, as well as the refinement of communication tools.
How we teach avalanche courses has followed suit. Years ago, when avalanche forecasting was limited, and confidence in the forecast was often low, backcountry skiers and riders needed to determine what the avalanche hazard was before they could attempt to manage it. This is an incredibly difficult part of the process, even for professionals. Consequently, avalanche courses focused heavily on meteorology, snow science, and the concept of “stability,” in the hopes that students could develop their own, real-time interpretation of the danger in any given location on any given day.
Success was often limited as students struggled to apply these hard, theoretical sciences to the very real and very dynamic mountain environment. People died, especially in continental climates with more complex snowpack structure. Safety and proficiency could be achieved, but typically only via a long apprenticeship in backcountry travel. Even then, it was found that following certain, simple rules was easier than trying to constantly assess snowpack stability. Rules such as “wait 24 hours after a storm,” or “ski and ride slope angles under 30 degrees,” or “head home when the corn is boot top high” are simple tools for making sense of a not-so-simple problem and proved effective at saving lives.
And so began the shift to rule-based decision-making, and ultimately, avalanche education that focused less on science and more on making decisions. Today, most regional avalanche centers produce fantastically reliable forecasts that are informed by a widely distributed network of highly skilled observers and forecasters who are all communicating and collaborating with each other, often in real-time. Forecast structure, language, and imagery has been standardized across most avalanche centers, and tools such as avalanche problems, observation references, and communication checklists have been developed to aid in the decision-making process.
Students no longer need to re-invent the wheel every time they venture into the backcountry. Professional forecasts, paired with rules, checklists, and frameworks have made the backcountry more accessible by making it easier for backcountry skiers and riders to both recognize and manage the hazard. We know that modern avalanche education is working because avalanche deaths haven’t risen at all, despite massive growth in the popularity of backcountry snow sports. But that doesn’t mean that the backcountry is now “safe.” The mountains still present the same hazards they always have.
Baker Mountain Guides
I moved from Colorado to Washington in the spring of 2011 to guide on Mt. Rainier. I was a skier at heart, but back then, mountaineering was where a dirtbag climber and backcountry skier could make a little money. It only took me a summer of walking up and down Mt. Rainier to realize that I didn’t want to walk up and down Mt. Rainier for the rest of my life, so in the spring of 2012 I filed incorporation documents for Minier Guiding, LLC, doing business as Baker Mountain Guides. My intention was to offer backcountry skiing and avalanche education programs during the winter. I put in one more summer season on Rainier before calling it quits. Ultimately, Baker Mountain Guides became a year-round operation, offering summer mountaineering programs on Mt. Baker, proper, as well.
I enjoy everything about the mountains, but backcountry skiing has always been my first love. I cut my teeth as both a backcountry skier and an avalanche educator in the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, which have long held the moniker of “North America’s Avalanche Laboratory.” The Pacific Northwest has a very different snowpack than the San Juans, and over the first few years at Baker I learned a lot about skiing and teaching in a maritime snow climate. As backcountry skiers and riders, experience in different snowpacks is critical for perspective, and quickly became a requirement for all of Baker Mountain Guide’s avalanche educators.
Businesses are simply reflections of who we are as people, and they tend to flourish when aligned with values and heart. We may be best known for climbing the volcano that shares our name, but at its core, Baker Mountain Guides was and always will be a snow company, specializing in backcountry skiing and avalanche education. Like attracts like, and over the years, I hired a lot of fantastic guides and instructors who shared my passion for backcountry skiing, and my conviction in saving lives through avalanche education. Baker Mountain Guides was originally Mt. Baker Mountain Guides, and my dirty little secret is that I named the company after the backcountry terrain around the Mt. Baker Ski Area, not the volcano.
Good people, working hard, and believing in what they do is what made Baker Mountain Guides so successful, but somewhere along the way we lost sight of who we were. At one point, we flirted with the idea that we specialized in hard-core alpinism. I liked the idea of it, but it never really felt true. I didn’t into this gig to be cool, or even to summit mountains. I got into this gig because deep down inside there was a part of me that spent a restless night behind a gas station in Driggs, Idaho.
Over the years, summer mountaineering programs consumed an ever-increasing amount of financial, mental, and spiritual energy, while at the same time, competition and climate change were wreaking havoc on the viability and long-term sustainability of guiding the volcano. Baker Mountain Guides was redlining, trying to be something to everyone, both inside and outside of the organization. Something had to give.
The Northwest Avalanche School
And then, somewhere in China, a man ate an infected bat (or something) and the world changed. The Coronavirus Disease of 2019, soon to be known as COVID, jumped borders and was tearing through ski resorts, and everywhere else, by the following spring. March 20th, 2020 was the day the lifts stopped spinning. Over the next week, masses of skiers and snowboarders elbowed their way into gear shops worldwide, attempting to purchase backcountry touring equipment.
Avalanche education quickly became the foundation of our business, which felt right again. To be entirely transparent, avalanche education is lucrative, for several reasons, but it’s lucrative in a good way. Avalanche courses are more affordable than most of our guided programs, and the typical avalanche course student is younger and less affluent than our mountaineering clientele. There just happens to be a lot more of them. There’s an element of social equity to all of this as well, not least because we are teaching a lot of people how to do something that we love, safely, and for a reasonable price.
In 2023, we decided to do away with our summer programs entirely. This decision was a long time in coming. Over the years, mountain guiding in the North Cascades had become unsustainable, and we were clinging to a false identity of being hard-core alpinists. Letting go created the space to imagine something new and different. We are now able to pour all our time, energy, and resources into doing what we love the most and have always done best. We are backcountry skiers and riders teaching others how to ski and ride the backcountry. We are the Northwest Avalanche School.
Baker Mountain Guides will live on in the form of guided backcountry skiing and riding locally, as well as globally, but all our avalanche education programs will be transitioned to the Northwest Avalanche School. The Northwest Avalanche School will continue our relationship with the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), and offer AIARE Level 1 courses, AIARE Level 2 courses, and AIARE Avalanche Rescue courses. Eventually we would like to host AIARE Pro Level 1 and 2 courses as well, for aspiring ski and avalanche professionals.
A more streamlined organization allows the Northwest Avalanche School to invest almost exclusively in the quality of our instructional staff. This begins with paying some of the best avalanche education wages in the industry, which allows us to hire experienced instructors. We are also able to train and mentor our instructors in the most effective forms of modern, rule-based and tool-based decision-making. Our brand of curriculum emphasizes awareness and pitfalls of the human factor in the decision-making process, as well as comprehensive tour planning and terrain assessment. We’ve developed local terrain assessment tools, such as run-list maps, as student resources that complement our pedagogy, and tie the curriculum together.
But most of all, we are passionate skiers and splitboarders sharing our passion for the sport that we love. Everyone at the Northwest Avalanche School brings their own unique flavor to the party, and we all have a story to tell. These are stories forged in snowy mountains, ski patrol jobs, outward bound gigs, van-life escapades, ski tours gone right, ski tours gone wrong, and the countless avalanche courses that have not only allowed us to share our stories but have become stories themselves. And we almost all have a story of someone whose story ended too soon. That’s why we do what we do.