In The Beginning

The journey to the backcountry does not follow a fixed path. Though there are many ways to get there, most backcountry skiers and snowboarders have a familiar origin story. It all begins with a passion to explore; to go beyond bounds where success and survival depend on the skills and the knowledge you carry with you. 

Skiing
Photo By: Dustin Clark

Most of us were introduced to resort skiing from family members or childhood friends. And the vast majority of skiers are content to spend their entire lives banging-out laps on the resort each winter never venturing past the ropes. This is exactly as it should be. To venture into the backcountry requires more than physical aptitude. It requires wisdom and massive amounts of humility. Though fortune may favor the bold, the backcountry may crush the unprepared. For many skiers and snowboarders, the draw of the mountains is simply too great. They’re willing to invest time and effort towards expanding what is possible within the sport they love. The results can be worth risking everything for. 

Featured Video

Nate Greenberg's Story

EVOLUTION

I met Nate Greenberg my freshman year at college. He was setting climbing routes at the local gym and climbing hard every chance he could get.  

Rock Climbing

We teamed up for the occasional outing, but he was always the stronger of the two and I often felt like dead weight. We climbed obscure crags in Northern California, sport routes in Smith Rock, boulders in Buttermilk country and classic trad lines in the High Sierra. Yet I only ever knew of Nate’s warm-weather exploits. When the blanket of winter snow settled in, he would undoubtedly fall off the radar and become obsessed with hitting the slopes. Unbeknownst to me, he was taking skiing very seriously. When many of us were hibernating during the cold months, Nate was cutting his teeth in the immense backcountry of the Eastern Sierra. 

Nate is a natural athlete – that annoying type of person who seemingly doesn’t need to try hard in order to achieve amazing results or accomplish amazing feats. 

Digging an avy pit
But the reality is that every accomplishment is earned through sweat and perseverance. The effort he puts in to bag an objective and return home safely is undeniable. From early dawn patrol sessions, to the occasional slog back to the trailhead in white-out conditions, Nate is learning, adapting and honing his skill. To start down this path, he read countless books on backcountry travel, wilderness, navigation, field medicine and proper decision-making. While working for NOLS, took his first avalanche class from renowned avalanche researcher and PHD, Ian McCammon, who popularized the concept of heuristic traps and the human factor involved in triggering avalanches (the short version: even experienced, well-trained skiers can believe a slope is safe despite objective evidence to the contrary). Later mentors included Don Sharaf of the American Avalanche Institute, and the late Walter Rosenthal, who was instrumental in providing vital avalanche forecasting data and snowpack science that helps inform safe backcountry travel to this day.

Steep skiing in the Sneak Line on Mt. Baldwin, High Sierra. Photo: Brett Lotz

Skiing Liberty Chute. Photo: Brett Lotz

Skinning along the San Joaquin Ridge with the Ritter Range in the background. Photo: Dustin Clark

Nate scouts possible descents with Frank Fazzino. Photo: Dustin Clark

PROGRESSION

Nate is a practitioner of backcountry skiing. Ever learning. Ever adapting. He has spent years traveling in the mountains with skilled partners — expanding his understanding of weather and snowpack dynamics.

Professional athletes understand this aspect well. The action videos that clog our news feeds portray athletes as uncomplicated adrenaline junkies out there taking more and more risk. They seem to push the bounds of what is possible simply because they love the sport, or due to some internal drive mechanism that’s stuck on full throttle. Though there may be truth to that, the reality is that almost every act is methodically deliberate and the result of countless hours of practice and study. For a professional athlete, actions that seem insane stem from a lifetime of experience. And as personal stories accumulate, a skier evolves.

Once mentored, Nate now shifts his career towards being the mentor. As a backcountry guidebook author and President of the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center, Nate strives to engender a community of responsible backcountry enthusiasts armed with the most relevant and up to-date information possible. The mission is to save lives.

EXPERIENCE

For those interested in starting their own journey to the backcountry, here are a few of the recommended paths you can try:

MENTORSHIP

Mentorship

This is a huge aspect of the sport. Be selective. Be critical. Find those ski partners you can trust and who are willing to educate you on the complexities of terrain and snowpack conditions. It’s one thing to read it in a book and quite another to experience it live.

GUIDES
Basically paid mentorship. A great option to learn from seasoned professionals. This can also be a great litmus test for any mentorship you’re receiving – a way of checking for bad habits before they become muscle memory.

COURSES & AWARENESS PROGRAMS
Avalanche.org has you covered. They provide a state-by-state listing of active classes as well as connect skiers with regional avalanche forecasting centers.

Other notable programs and resources include your local avalanche center, the “Know Before You Go” program, The Avalanche Project, and the Atomic Mountain Academy.

Knowing the basics is the price of entry. Safely skiing the backcountry is a never-ending process of learning and understanding. Each of us must fight complacency and actively evaluate conditions. The snowsports community has experienced a staggering loss of life over the past few years, from seasoned athletes to life-long industry professionals. It can happen to anyone. The key is to mitigate risk as much as possible. The journey to the backcountry can be massively rewarding, but it’s never something to be taken lightly.

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Story by Dustin Clark, CamelBak
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Journey to Backcountry

On mentorship and method in the big mountains.

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