A pair of skis are the ultimate transportation to freedom.
~ Warren Miller
The popularity of backcountry skiing and snowboarding has exploded in recent years. Crowded ski areas and costly passes are pushing people out of bounds. The backcountry provides a sense of adventure and freedom that cannot be achieved by riding a lift. However, backcountry touring involves much more than simply skiing and riding. Avalanche education is a common starting point, but it is not the complete package. We have found that new backcountry skiers and snowboarders often underestimate the challenges of backcountry touring. While most people don’t ultimately kill themselves, they often wind up sweaty, frustrated, and sometimes lost. Suffice it to say that more than one backcountry novice has spent an unplanned night in the mountains.
Which is why we, at Baker Mountain Guides, believe in the value of backcountry skiing and snowboarding education. The purpose of this post is to provide a summary of Baker Mountain Guides backcountry skiing and snowboarding curriculum so that you can make an informed decision regarding your backcountry education. Additionally, we’ll review the venues that we use for different elements of our curriculum, as well as regional weather and snowpack trends.Backcountry Courses | Backcountry Venues | Weather and Snowpack
The learning curve is steep and the consequences grave, but fear not, fellow travelers. Our backcountry skiing courses and ski mountaineering courses are specifically designed with the recreational backcountry traveler in mind. No matter your goal, there’s a course for your specific needs. Our well-scaffolded curriculum paired with the rugged beauty and record snowfalls of Mount Baker, the Twin Sisters, and the North Cascades makes for an unforgettable learning experience.
All of our backcountry skiing courses and ski mountaineering courses are broken up into either Tech Courses or Pro Courses. Tech Courses are designed to provide specific technical knowledge in a short course format. Pro Courses, on the other hand, are for recreational backcountry skiers and snowboarders wanting to tour at the same level as ski and avalanche professionals. Pro Courses offer the chance for student-led objectives and mentorship while tech courses are led by instructors who demonstrate skills and allow time for practice. Below are our five available backcountry skiing courses and ski mountaineering courses.
Baker Mountain Guides backcountry tech courses are designed for those seeking a concise and affordable approach to learning technical backcountry skiing and riding skills. From introductory skinning techniques to rappelling into couloirs, our tech series has you covered.
Required Skiing & Riding Ability: Intermediate
Duration: 1 Day
Baker Mountain Guides Intro to Backcountry Skiing Course is designed for competent skiers and snowboarders wanting a crash course in backcountry travel. The backcountry is NOT an ideal place to learn how to ski or ride, so we require that participants have intermediate to advanced downhill sliding abilities. As ski guides, we understand that the goal of backcountry touring is to ski and ride great terrain in great snow, so we have built the Intro to Backcountry Skiing Course around making turns. Instructors will assist students in the use of any new equipment, introduce common travel and efficiency techniques, and provide a running dialog of their decision-making process. Avalanche awareness and rescue will be sprinkled throughout the curriculum.
Required Skiing & Riding Ability: Advanced
Duration: 3 Days
Baker Mountain Guides Steep Ski Mountaineering Course seeks to equip experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders with high-angle ropework skills that can be employed to minimize the likelihood of falling when accessing steep terrain. Students will learn techniques such as ski lowers, ski rappels, and belayed skiing and riding. Although the Steep Ski Mountaineering Course includes steep skiing and riding objectives, the curriculum does not cover decision making in avalanche terrain. If you are wanting to develop your skills as a leader in steep, backcountry terrain, check out our Ski Mountaineering Pro Course.
Required Skiing & Riding Ability: Advanced
Duration: 4 Days
Skiing and riding glaciated terrain presents objective hazards in the form of crevasses. To mitigate crevasse hazard you must 1) know how to not fall in a crevasse and 2) know how to get yourself out if you do. Baker Mountain Guides Glaciated Ski Mountaineering Course is designed to equip students with both skill sets. Additionally, skiers and snowboarders utilize the rope differently than climbers and the curriculum is customized to address these differences. The course concludes with a ski descent of Mount Baker proper.
Pro Courses are designed for recreational skiers and snowboarders wanting to develop their leadership skills and operate at a professional level. The only certifying body in the United States for professional Mountain Guides is the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA). If you’re looking to become a ski guide, our courses can definitely help you gain the knowledge to get better at your craft, but you won’t come away with a certification. If certification is not your goal, just the professional level of knowledge, our courses offer a similar curriculum as these industry professional-level courses but tailored specifically to you, the recreationist.
Advanced skiing and riding ability, as well as AIARE Level 1 avalanche training, are pre-requisites for our two Pro Courses:
Duration: 4 Days
If you’re just getting into backcountry skiing, the common progression is: take a level-one avalanche course and then you’re set loose to gain experience and “figure it out” while hopefully not dying in the process. To fill this void, we developed the Backcountry Skiing Pro Course. The idea behind the Backcountry Skiing Pro Course is to teach strong skiers and snowboarders how ski guides successfully plan and execute backcountry tours in unfamiliar terrain. Students learn how to research terrain options as well as weather, snowpack, and avalanche conditions so that they can perform professional-level hazard assessment. The field curriculum focuses on strategies for maximizing efficiency and margins of safety so that you can go big AND go home at the end of the day.
Duration: 6 Days
Ski mountaineering essentially requires cross-disciplinary proficiency in backcountry touring and technical climbing. Many people are strong and experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders, and many people are strong and experienced climbers, but few people are both. Baker Mountain Guides Ski Mountaineering Pro Course is designed for experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders who want to ski off of summits. The curriculum focuses almost entirely on ropework and movement skills for traveling through technical terrain, be it steep or glaciated. Winter camping techniques are covered as well since many ski mountaineering objectives require multiple days.
The Ski Mountaineering Pro Course challenges students to research terrain and conditions, evaluate hazards, and make decisions regarding what to ski/ride and why. Instructors provide mentorship throughout the process, with the goal of developing our students into both leaders and peers.
Baker Mountain Guides backcountry ski courses and ski mountaineering courses are built around a number of exceptional venues that provide a diversity of terrain options. In fact, we’re confident that we offer the absolute best terrain for learning how to backcountry ski and snowboard. Nowhere else in the county will you find better access to traditional backcountry touring, steep ski mountaineering, and heavily glaciated, big mountains. Anything that you could possibly do on a pair of skis or snowboard, you can do with Baker Mountain Guides.
Drive time from Bellingham: 80 minutes one-way
Elevation: 4200 ft. – 6000 ft.
The Mount Baker Backcountry ◙ refers to terrain adjacent to the Mt. Baker Ski Area. The two main zones are the Shuksan Arm and Bagley Basin. The Shuksan Arm is accessed through the ski area via Chair 8 and does not require touring equipment. Consequently, it’s heavily used by ski area patrons. However, the backcountry in Bagley Basin can be easily accessed from the car and does not require a lift ticket. Bagley Basin and the extended backcountry offer phenomenal, non-glaciated backcountry terrain for intermediate to advanced skiers and snowboarders. The terrain is mostly near and above treeline and characterized by many smaller mountains with complex valley systems in between. Last but not least, the Mount Baker Backcountry holds the world snowfall record of 95 feet during the 1998-1999 season.
Baker Mountain Guides utilizes the Mount Baker Backcountry on all of our backcountry ski courses and ski mountaineering courses. The Mount Baker Backcountry is a great training ground for foundational skills in backcountry touring and technical ropework. And, of course, the skiing and riding are pretty good too.
Drive time from Bellingham: 50 minutes one-way
Elevation: 4100 ft. – 6800 ft.
The Twin Sisters Range ◙ is a subrange of the Cascades, located between Mount Baker proper and the Pacific Ocean. The terrain is mostly non-glaciated and is characterized by craggy peaks, couloirs, alpine faces, bowls, and glades. We like to think of the Twin Sisters as being like a miniature Grand Tetons. Objectives include excellent ski mountaineering on clear days and tree skiing on storm days. Access to the Twin Sisters is via privately owned and gated timber roads. Baker Mountain Guides agreement with the timber company grants us commercial access as well as the ability to operate snowmobiles on the roads.
Baker Mountain Guides uses the Twin Sisters for ski mountaineering curriculum on our Steep Ski Mountaineering Course as well as our Ski Mountaineering Pro Course. The Twin Sisters allow for easy access to steep terrain that is excellent for the instruction of technical ropework skills as well as steep skiing and riding movement techniques.
Drive time from Bellingham: 60 minutes one-way
Elevation: 3,600 ft. – 10781 ft.
Mount Baker ◙ is one of the most heavily glaciated mountains in the contiguous US, second only to Mount Rainier. Unlike Mount Rainier, public land management allows for guided ski and snowboard descents from the summit, which makes Mount Baker the best glaciated backcountry skiing and snowboarding classroom in the country. Mount Baker’s topography allows for ski and snowboard descents of all aspects. The upper mountain is characterized by 30° – 50° headwalls that are generally crevasse free. Mid-mountain terrain offers moderate glacial runouts through and around icefalls and crevasse fields. Forest Service roads are not maintained during the winter, so access requires the use of snowmobiles.
Baker Mountain Guides uses Mount Baker proper for ski mountaineering curriculum on our Glaciated Ski Mountaineering Course as well as our Ski Mountaineering Pro Course. Glaciated terrain allows for crevasse rescue instruction, the application of glaciated route-finding skills, and the reward of skiing and riding a big mountain.
At Baker Mountain Guides, we’re all about earning our turns. We believe that terrain worth skiing or riding should be terrain climbed. That being said, snowmobiles come in pretty handy for getting into venues that would otherwise be inaccessible. The Mount Baker Backcountry is accessed via WA State Highway 542, which is maintained all winter long by WashDOT. However, the Twin Sister and Mount Baker proper are accessed via unmaintained timber roads, which require a snowmobile shuttle.
Snowmobiles provide Baker Mountain Guides with a competitive advantage by dramatically decreasing the amount of time and effort required to get into terrain. Consequently, we can deliver ski mountaineering curriculum in fewer days than our competition. This saves you money on instructional fees and miles on your legs. And you get to ride on a snowmobile. How great is that?
Mount Baker and the surrounding region receive an immense amount of snow. During the winter of 1998-1999, the snow telemetry station located near the Mt. Baker Ski Area recorded world-record-setting snowfall of 1140 inches (95 feet). Snowfall in the Cascades is primarily driven by mountain orographics. Mount Baker proper is located at the head of the Straight of Juan de Fuca ◙ and is the closest Cascadian volcano to tidewater. The Pacific Ocean provides endless amounts of moisture, which is forced up and over the Cascades by the winter jet stream. As the warm air rises, it cools, moisture condenses, and snow falls over the mountains. Additionally, the topography of the Mount Baker region forces incoming storms to converge upon themselves. Blizzards literally crash into each other over the Mount Baker Backcountry.
Warm air can hold more moisture, and in general, Mount Baker has a warm temperature regime. Most of our snow falls between 28° and 32° F. Temperatures in the single digits and teens are considered to be exceptionally cold. Rain can occur at any point during the winter, but the Mount Baker Backcountry also receives plenty of low-density snow at temperatures in the mid to low 20’s.
Consequently, Mount Baker has what is known as a “Maritime Snow Climate.” Heavy snowfall, a warm temperature regime, and a deep snowpack facilitate rounding processes. Rounding creates small snow grains that pack together tightly and bond well to each other, which forms a relatively stable snowpack. With a stable, mid-winter snowpack, we are often able to ski and ride more aggressive terrain than would be possible in other parts of the country. If this is the first time that you have seen the terms “Orographics,” “Maritime Snowpack,” “Temperature Regime,” and “Rounding” then we would encourage you to consider adding avalanche training to your backcountry skiing and snowboarding education.
Feel free to reach out to us if you’re interested in these courses and find out why we’re so excited about them. Shred safe our friends.
Want to learn more about backcountry skiing or riding? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Backcountry Skiing.