Tag Archive for: education

How to Prepare for a Season of Backcountry Touring

Get your gear and yourself ready for the Best. Season. Ever.

As the snow starts to accumulate at higher elevations, a spark is lit in the backcountry community—it is time to start preparing for the winter ahead. Just like transitions when touring, a planned process helps dust off the skis and bindings and get one thinking about avalanches, decision-making and winter conditions in the backcountry. Here’s are the areas we suggest adding to your preparation process:

Bluebird Backcountry guest checks to make sure the tail end of his skins is properly secured. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Check Your Gear

Pull out your skis, boots, and poles to check for any cracks, missing screws, or damaged pieces. Make sure the glue on your skins is not glopping up and the tip and tail pieces are in working order. Did you take a fall in your helmet last season or is it more than 5 years old? If so, it’s time to replace it. 

The final step in checking gear is inspecting your avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. Start by putting fresh batteries in your beacon, then check to make sure all the lights work and the search and send functions are properly operating. An added step in preparation is to do a range test with your beacon to see if it’s reading off accurate distances. This task is not hard as it may sound—simply pace out 3 meters in a driveway, place a beacon at one end in the search mode, then test your beacon to make sure it reads around 3 meters. Move 1 meter closer and check the reading on your beacon. Do this until you are within 1 meter. The final step is to check your shovel and probe for any cracks, and make sure the locking mechanisms are in working order. Finally, check the cable/wire in your probe to see if it is ripped or fraying in any place.

Physically Prepare

Getting in physical shape for touring makes the experience far more enjoyable. Backcountry skiing and splitboarding requires a lot of physical strength in more than just your legs, so doing some well-rounded total-body workouts along with cardio is really beneficial to get the most out of the downhill after working hard on the uphill. The better shape you’re in, the more laps you can do!

Mentally Prepare

A significant focus of avalanche education is understanding our own heuristics—the mental shortcuts or patterns that allow us to make decisions and solve problems. These heuristics influence trip plans, decisions made prior to touring and while in the mountains, and how we deal with unexpected situations. Think about the inherent dangers of backcountry touring, dig into how you make decisions, know where your blind spots are—are you motivated by powder or easily succumb to what other people think is right without voicing your opinion? Taking the time to understand your mental processing and decision making leads you to being an aware and reliable backcountry rider and partner.

Bluebird AIARE instructor demonstrates how to take notes while digging a snow pit. Photo: Erik Lambert

Refresh Your Skills with Continued Education and Practice

Another major factor of mentally preparing is reviewing avalanche education materials and continuing to learn. This step is so critical in the mental preparation area that it gets its own category. Before the season begins, make sure to review your avalanche education materials, sign up for an Avy Refresher Course, and practice with your rescue gear. Then practice again and again! Revisiting avalanche education materials before the season begins is a great way to both mentally prepare and get stoked for backcountry adventures. Focus on reviewing the following areas: avalanche rescue, trip planning and touring in a group, how to do a proper debrief, weather/snow conditions leading to specific avalanche hazards, tracking the snowpack. If you’ve never taken an avalanche course and plan to recreate in the backcountry this winter, we highly recommend signing up for an AIARE 1. If you don’t feel experienced enough to do that yet, come take our Backcountry 1–3 lessons at Bluebird to get practice with touring equipment and basic backcountry skills.

Start to Track the Conditions

If you’ve taken your AIARE Rec 1 or 2, you know how important it is to understand what’s happened over the entire season in order to track the current avalanche danger. The day your local forecasting center starts writing forecasts for the winter (usually at the beginning to mid-November), start reading them! Sign up for daily forecast emails and make a habit of reading the forecast with your morning coffee. CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) is the forecasting center for all mountain ranges in Colorado, check out their website! Focus on the Avalanche Hazard Rating and the General Summary along with tracking the type of avalanche problem, then dive deeper into the Forecast Discussion and Observations if you’re more experienced. As you start to tour in the early season, make note of what you’re seeing happen with weather changes (crusts forming, fresh snow, rain on snow, etc.). This will assist you in understanding what’s happening on top of and within the snowpack. After all, in general the layers of highest concern lie buried below the surface.

Find Appropriate Partners

One of the most challenging parts of touring is finding backcountry ski/snowboard partners that have similar goals and the necessary education to travel responsibly in and around avalanche terrain. The first step is to get the education yourself—be the best backcountry partner you can—then be honest with what your education and experience levels are when looking for partners. Meeting partners in avalanche education courses is always a great option, or consider checking out our Partner Finder on Bluebird Backcountry Community. Come to Bluebird with someone who you’re interested in touring with as a low-consequence trial day before planning a bigger tour day.

Backcountry partners pause mid-tour to discuss their objectives and get a sense of their location. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

The 6 steps outlined above are a great starting point to prepare for a winter and spring of backcountry touring. The process outlined above is time-tested by avalanche professionals and guides, encompassing the most critical preparation steps in order to keep returning for more powder turns, and winters, in the backcountry!

What’s Next After Backcountry Basics and Your AIARE 1?

Last year you completed Bluebird’s Backcountry 1–3 lessons, then ended the season with an AIARE 1. Or maybe you’ve taken AIARE 1 and 2 and are looking to take your touring to the next level… So what’s next? 

At Bluebird, we believe in the importance of instruction and mentorship before jumping into the deep end of backcountry touring and big-mountain objectives. That’s why we’ve added Advanced Courses to our education program this season. These courses are designed for more experienced backcountry travelers. These courses offer hands-on instruction of technical skills, along with time to practice what you learned in your backcountry training and AIARE courses. It’s a great way to round out your backcountry toolkit and build experience and confidence in a more controlled environment.

From the nitty gritty of gear maintenance to ski mountaineering skills, our Advanced Courses offer a wide variety of information. We recommend taking Backcountry 4 – Reading Terrain and Backcountry Leadership and Communication as a starting point, then exploring other courses that interest you.

Take a look at Bluebird’s Advanced Courses for the 21/22 season!

START HERE

 

Backcountry 4 – Reading Terrain

In order to be aware and travel wisely in the backcountry, you must be able to read terrain, interpret avalanche hazards and danger ratings, and build a solid plan for the day. Reading Terrain offers a chance to practice these skills and is a great step for those who have taken AIARE 1. Come practice with navigation tools, route planning, and build a strong understanding of how to efficiently travel in and around avalanche terrain. 

Backcountry Leadership and Communication

Days in the backcountry quickly become frustrating when leadership and communication is not executed well. That’s why we believe this is a crucial course for everyone, no matter your backcountry experience! This course covers risk tolerance, how to set up the tour day for success, decision making in groups, the importance of debriefs and learning from experience, and why strategic communication, leadership, and planning are so important. Plus, this is all done while touring and riding!

EXPLORE MORE ADVANCED TOPICS

 

Winter Emergency Skills

Last season we did a short clinic on winter emergency skills, and this year we are diving in way deeper! We’ll learn what to do in a backcountry winter emergency, what it takes to remove an injured person from the backcountry, and the fundamentals of communication during these situations. Come prepared to dig in the snow, build rescue sleds, and learn critical skills to help build your confidence as you step farther into the backcountry.

A group of students builds an emergency overnight shelter in a clinic at Bluebird Backcountry. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Equipment Maintenance and Repair

Many of us have felt the sting of purchasing expensive backcountry touring equipment. This course teaches you how to maintain your equipment so it lasts longer and how to repair unexpected breaks in the field. Plus, get some pointers on what to put in your repair kit. 

Ski Mountaineering 1

Ever wondered what ski mountaineering really is? This course is the perfect introduction for anyone interested in taking their backcountry touring to the next level in bigger mountains. Your instructor will break out their ski-mountaineering equipment, teach the basic skills of ascending and descending in steep terrain, and explore our expert terrain at Bluebird to get a feel for what ski mountaineering is all about. It’s recommended that anyone taking this course is an experienced backcountry rider, is very comfortable with their equipment and transitions, and is able to ride 35º+ terrain.

Ski mountaineer on Three Fingered Jack. Photo: Ben Kitching via Unsplash

Women In The Backcountry : Next Level Skills

Come spend the day learning in a fun and welcoming environment with the incredible Brittany Konsella—highly accomplished ski mountaineer, all around shredder, and second woman to ski all the 14’ers in Colorado. This course is designed for female-identifying and non-binary individuals looking to bolster their backcountry skills and take their riding to even farther into the backcountry. It is recommended that participants have taken their AIARE 1 or have at least 2+ years of backcountry experience. This six-hour course will discuss all the details of backcountry touring for gear for female-bodied individuals, dive into group communication and varied travel styles, and discuss how to set goals. You’ll walk away with tips and tricks from experts on steep skiing/riding and all this backcountry touring. 

REFRESH YOUR AVALANCHE KNOWLEDGE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON

 

Avy Refresher Course

Designed for anyone who’s taken an AIARE 1 or 2, Avalanche Rescue Course, or those with many years of backcountry experience. This one-day course (with a digital component as well) is meant to be taken near the beginning of every season to brush up on your rescue skills, practice reading and navigating terrain, and re-engage your avalanche awareness after a summer away from snow.

Still looking for more? We’ll be offering 4 specialty clinics throughout the season with experienced guest instructors. 

The old-school way of learning how to backcountry ski involved throwing newbies into harsh environments with little instruction or fun baked in. We think there’s a better way. That’s why Bluebird has developed our educational progression that starts with the basics, prepares you for your avalanche education, then provides opportunities to practice these skills with a bit more instruction in a less risky environment. Take the next step and continue to progress in your backcountry pursuits with Bluebird! And please let us know if there’s something else you’d love to learn about backcountry skiing or avalanche safety that you don’t see here. We’re always evolving our curriculum and pay special attention to our guests.

Are you an Advanced+ Member? You get access to two advanced courses (or an Avalanche Refresher course) as part of your membership! 

Sign up for an advanced course today and get ready for the Best. Winter. Ever.

5 Reasons to Refresh Your Avalanche Knowledge Every Season

Whether you took your last avalanche course this season or last decade, you’re probably due for a refresher. Avalanche knowledge is a lot like learning a language or practicing calculus—if you don’t do it for a while, you start to get pretty rusty pretty fast. And we don’t mean to be dramatic, but in avalanche terrain, knowing your stuff can literally be the difference between life and death.

If reminding you how little calculus you remember didn’t do the trick, here are five more reasons to consider signing up for an avalanche refresher course at the start of the coming season.

Two backcountry skiers look at snow crystals during an avalanche safety course.

Avalanche refresher courses give you an opportunity to ask deeper questions and learn the latest science. Photo: Erik Lambert

1. Your brain is your most essential piece of safety equipment.

You wouldn’t go a season without tuning up your skis, right? Likewise, it pays to polish up your avalanche awareness knowledge ahead of a new season. We know plenty of skiers who are diligent about inventorying their first aid gear and perfecting their repair kit but go years between clinics or courses. Remember: Your equipment can only take you so far when it comes to avalanche terrain. It’s smart decision making and sharp know-how that really keep you safe out there.

2. The science is constantly changing.

Every year, papers come out with new findings about what triggers avalanches and what the most effective rescue methods are. Snow science is still a growing field of study. The best way to make sure you know the latest? Take a refresher course with an avalanche professional on an annual basis.   

Two backcountry skiers with avalanche shovels practice avalanche rescue digging techniques

When seconds matter, having your rescue techniques dialed can make the difference between life and death. Photo: Owen Richards

3. Life-saving rescue depends on muscle memory.

When an avalanche strikes, you only have about 15 minutes to get to buried victims before they run out of oxygen. In high-pressure scenarios—like having to save a friend’s life—stress hormones and racing thoughts impair your critical thinking. Your brain just can’t problem-solve on the fly. Instead, you rely heavily on whatever is committed to rote memory. That means that avalanche rescue techniques only work if everyone in your party is sharp on their skills and can perform a search without thinking twice.

4. There are tons of different techniques for different scenarios.

What if you’re rescuing someone by yourself? What about a multiple-burial situation? The more you know about backcountry skiing or riding, the more specific questions you’ll begin to have. If you took your AIARE 1 course as a novice skier, you may not have known the right questions to ask. Even if you did, you likely didn’t know enough to absorb all the different nuances. Taking an avalanche refresher course every year gives you the opportunity to fill in the gaps as you become more in-tune with your own needs and concerns.

Two backcountry skiers in a snowy landscape look at the slopes in the distance.

Staying up-to-date on your avalanche skills makes you a better mentor. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

5. It makes you a better mentor.

Maybe you have friends who are curious about splitboarding. Maybe you want to backcountry-ski with your son or daughter someday. Part of the beauty of backcountry skiing and riding is that they’re community-based sports with legacies of mentorship and lifelong learning. Hang around long enough, and you’ll find yourself with an opportunity to mentor someone you care about.

The best way to make sure you’re ready when that time comes is to keep your avalanche knowledge fresh and up to date. After all, when you pass on the best information you can, you’re doing your part to keep the next generation of skiers and riders safer than the last.

 

Book your AIARE 1, AIARE 2, or AIARE Avalanche Rescue, or avalanche refresher course today.

Ski Noir 5280 Might Just Be the Coolest Ski Club in Colorado

Quincy Shannon is saving up for a charter bus. Make that a fleet of charter buses. 

Shannon, a Denver native and the founder of local ski club Ski Noir 5280, is a man of big visions. Right now, a lot of those visions center around finding new ways to share his lifelong passion for skiing with people who might never have gotten a chance, whether because of their socioeconomic status, the color of their skin, or a lack of transportation from Denver’s inner city to the mountains. (That’s where the buses come in. But more on those later.)

Shannon could have been limited by any of those factors, he says. But he got lucky.

“My mom, who’s a Denver native, her dad put her in Colorado’s ELK program when she was a kid,” he says. “She was one of very few Black kids in the program at the time.” But, thanks to that opportunity, she fell in love with skiing—and passed that love onto her son.  

Shannon practically grew up on skis, stepping into his first pair of bindings at age 3. Ultimately, skiing with groups like Denver’s Slippers-N-Sliders Ski Club shaped him into who he is today. 

“For a young kid who grew up in an inner-city type of reality where drugs, gangs, and all of those things were definitely a part of the backdrop that I had gotten used to, it was a great escape to be able to come somewhere in which you can just look and feel and smell and realize: Wow, life is really worth something more,” he says. 

Ski Noir 5280 members Ahmaad Brunson and Kacy Wilson transition for the downhill. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

The Color of Colorado Skiing

Colorado has more ski resorts and skiable terrain than almost anywhere else in America. Despite that, its few Black ski clubs have remained small—much smaller than Black ski clubs elsewhere, like the Jim Dandy Ski Club in Detroit or Black Ski in Washington DC, which have hundreds of members each, Tele Mike says.

Part of that is because Colorado has different demographics—there are just more Black communities in places like Detroit or DC, Tele Mike explains. And part of it is a matter of state history.

“There is definitely history here in Colorado of spaces that were not protected for groups of people who may identify as different in any kind of way,” Shannon says, noting that national parks remained legally segregated as late as 1948. “A lot of the focus [on racial issues in America] is on your Alabamas and your Mississippis, but we don’t always look West.” Even in Colorado, which Tele Mike says is fairly progressive, he still gets odd glances in the mountains, and new partners sometimes assume he doesn’t have much skiing experience or skill (that is, until they watch him start carving gorgeous turns.) 

Even in the West, Black ski clubs started as a safety-in-numbers measure for Black recreationists, Shannon says. Today, that feeling of safety still plays a role in the clubs’ popularity, but the camaraderie piece is huge, too.

“If I fall down twice and I’m by myself, I might say ‘Screw this. This just isn’t for me,’” Shannon explains. “But if have somebody with me to say ‘It’s OK man,’ or ‘I just fell , too, we got this, we’re going to get down together,’ then there’s a level of support that allows people to push themselves just a little bit further.” 

Mackenzie K. Phillips shreds hard at Bluebird. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Sharing the Love

By 2018, Shannon realized he had way too many friends that he wanted to take skiing, and that it just wasn’t easy to get everyone the gear and education they needed. So, he decided to turn his passion for teaching into something bigger: a ski club aimed at introducing skiing and snowboarding to young professionals in the Denver area—and growing the historically small percentage of Black skiers in Colorado.

Shannon put together a team of close friends. For a few weeks, they gathered in his living room regularly to talk about their goals and dreams for a ski club. They wanted something that was both unapologetically Black, and welcoming to all types of people. It should be both a safe space for first-timers, and a place where experienced athletes could find the camaraderie and partnership they needed.

Mike “Tele Mike” Russell navigates a few inches of fresh on Bear Mountain. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Tele Mike

On that inaugural team was Mike Russell, known to his friends as Tele Mike. Tele Mike is (you guessed it) a longtime telemark skier. Like Shannon, he got his start on an outing with a Black ski club, this time in Arizona.

“I didn’t take any lessons or anything—I just went flying down the intermediate run without a whole lot of control, yard-saling and nearly missing people,” Tele Mike laughs. “When I got to the bottom of the run, I was bruised, cold, and wet, but I loved it. After that, I started taking all my vacations to go skiing.” 

It was nothing more than a fun hobby until September 11, 2001. Tele Mike was commuting to work on the New Jersey Turnpike, watching the sky, when the second plane hit the Twin Towers. The moment threw his priorities in sharp focus.

“While witnessing 911, I asked myself what I truly wanted to do with my life. The undeniable answer was to become a skier. I moved to Colorado four months later.” Since then, he has skied big mountains all over the world. Shannon knew he wanted Tele Mike on the Ski Noir 5280 team. And for Tele Mike, it was a perfect fit. 

“I love showing anyone the beauty of the mountains, no matter what culture they’re from,” says Tele Mike, whose own heritage is Black and Native American. “I’ve worked with some inner city kids who don’t want to go to college or be in the corporate world because of all the things that can go on there with being a person of color and having to swim against the current. So I like to show people that skiing or snowboarding can be a path to a great lifestyle, as well, and that they can find a home here in the mountains.” 

Ski Noir 5280 members get in some laps at Bluebird. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

A Radical New Ski Club

In 2019, Shannon launched Ski Noir 5280 along with Sondra Scott, another Colorado Native, and Tele Mike. Since then, they have amassed over 50 paying members, as well as a much greater number of interested skiers. The club has provided a crucial entry point for dozens of new skiers and snowboarders, and a tight-knit community for everyone involved.

Ski Noir 5280 is now accredited by the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a nationwide organization dedicated to improving opportunities for Black skiers and riders. That status allows Shannon to partner with groups like Patagonia and Aspen Snowmass, which have donated gear. The donation system helps the club lower the barrier of entry to new skiers even more.

The next step? Transportation equity. 

Transportation has been one of the biggest challenges for prospective Ski Noir 5280 members, Shannon says. Today, he is working to raise enough money to purchase a charter bus, which will allow the club to give skiers and riders in need a lift to the slopes. In the future, he hopes the project can provide transportation to local middle- and high-school kids, and to groups in need regardless of age, race, background, or ability level. 

The mission: Introduce the sport to new skies and riders—and make it look good. Pictured: Maurice Wills. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Building Partnerships  

In 2020, Bluebird Backcountry reached out to Ski Noir 5280 to invite Shannon, Scott, Tele Mike, and other Ski Noir 5280 members to Bear Mountain. The ultimate goal was a mutually beneficial partnership—an educational exchange. 

Bluebird plans to offer its beginner-friendly, ski-patrolled terrain to assist with Ski Noir 5280’s mission of sharing skiing in welcoming environment. And Ski Noir 5280 hopes to further Bluebird’s accessibility mission in return. 

“We have a lot to offer. We can do a historical walking tour of Denver and explain what redlining and segregation and all those other terms look like and feel like and taste like. We can explain how the Black community of Denver formed and what it’s like today,” Shannon says.“That way if Bluebird has a student or a child or a person from these neighborhoods, they can have a point of connection. They can say, hey, I’ve been to Welton Street Cafe. I’ve been to Mona’s. The food’s pretty good there, huh?’” 

Taking the time to understand someone’s background and point of view goes a long way toward bridging gaps in the Colorado ski community, Tele Mike says. 

“I know it can be awkward, but just talking and communicating is important,” he explains. “Reach out to someone and ask them if they want to try this sport. And once you get diverse people in the door, treat them like you would any one of your family or friends.” 

The hopeful result? A ski community that feels like home—for everyone. 

I Tried Backcountry at Bluebird—What Now?

Congratulations! If you just finished up your first day at Bluebird, you’ve embarked on your journey to earning your turns. It’s a whole different world than riding the lift up, right? (Just ask your tired quads.) 

Now that you’ve gotten a taste for the backcountry, it’s time for some continuing development. Part of the backcountry’s allure is that it’s an unforgiving place, and being a mindful, informed, avalanche-aware skier is a lifelong practice. However, learning as much as you can and getting some experience under your belt early on is one of the best ways to keep enjoying those powder turns for many seasons to come. Here’s what’s next. 

Keep showing up

Practice makes perfect—and Bluebird’s ski patrol means you can focus on honing technique rather than on avalanche danger. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Like any skill worth having, backcountry skiing or splitboarding requires practice. The best way to hone your technique (and get fit enough to have fun at altitude) is to click into those bindings and skin uphill as often as possible. We may be biased, but we definitely recommend coming to Bluebird Backcountry a few times during your learning years. That’s because here you have a ski-patrolled zone to explore—a less risky option than heading out into the unpatrolled backcountry before you have those crucial avalanche awareness skills. (Bonus: Bluebird guests get a discount for themselves and a friend on their second visit (check your post-visit email for the discount code.)

Take your first (or second) lesson

If you’ve taken a downhill-skiing or  snowboarding lesson at a resort, you know it’s impossible to master all the skills in just one day. The same applies when you’re getting the hang of the uphill portion, too—it’s tough to retain all that information in a single dose Bluebird offers Backountry 1 lessons for first-timers, as well as Backcountry 2 and 3 lessons to move students all the way from never-ever to avalanche course-ready. Between lessons, keep your knowledge fresh by spending an hour at a specialty clinic, where you can pick up skills like navigation and pro skinning techniques. 

Seek out mentors

Heading out with more experienced friends is a great way to hone backcountry skills. Photo: Doug McLennan

There’s something really special about friendships forged in the backcountry, and one of the best ways to master a new skill is by pushing yourself with friends who are more knowledgeable. Lots of the best backcountry tips are earned through experience, so hitting the skin track with a friend who’s got some tours under their belt is a great way to add to your repertoire. (Looking for a mentor? Check out Bluebird’s Ski with a Mentor program.)

Sign up for an avalanche course

An AIARE avalanche course will give you a framework for backcountry decision-making. Photo: Erik Lambert

The bottom line is that there’s no way to responsibly recreate in the backcountry without some knowledge of avalanches and how to avoid them. You can start your avalanche education by attending a workshop at your local gear retailer or avalanche center, checking the forecast every day during the season, or picking up a book like Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. But there’s no substitute for experience—a few days in the field with a qualified AIARE instructor will teach you some of the most crucial wilderness skills in your toolbox. 

Already finished your AIARE 1? Time to start looking at partner rescue and AIARE 2 courses. Like we said—the pursuit of backcountry mastery means a commitment to lifelong learning. And all that time getting to know the mountains? That’s half the fun. 

Lessons from a Lifetime Spent in the Colorado Snowpack

Picture it: it’s the mid-1990s, and Summit County is getting yet another record-setting storm. There’s relatively little traffic on I-70, so getting up to Breckenridge, Keystone, or Copper Mountain is an easy trip. If you’re a snow-loving kid growing up in Denver, things are as good as it gets. 

For Lucas Mouttet, that was reality. He spent those snow-heavy La Niña years ripping laps at the Summit County ski areas, and when it was time to head off to college, Lucas wasn’t ready to leave the Colorado mountains behind. So he enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he studied microbiology and immunology. 

With the ski areas along the I-70 corridor now 90 minutes farther away, Lucas started looking for a closer mountain fix for his weekends. That’s how he discovered backcountry skiing at Cameron Pass.

“I would bootpack up by myself,” he recalls. “Then I read an article in the local paper where someone made a comment about the ‘idiots’ doing exactly that.” When two people were killed in separate avalanches in the very spot where Lucas had been skiing solo, he realized he needed to learn more about how to travel safely in the backcountry. 

The Bluebird Avalanche Education Director, Lucas Mouttet, in action.

Though backcountry skiing was on the rise, it hadn’t yet gained the level of popularity we see today, so Lucas had to get creative to get an avalanche education. He chatted up brand reps at the local gear shop to learn more. In 2006, he started working with the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol, which acts as a search-and-rescue group and teaches avalanche courses in the Cameron Pass area. 

The following season, Lucas completed his Instructor Training Course with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the industry standard for avalanche education curriculum. But he didn’t stop at completing the certification—he continued checking out snowpacks around the world, climbing and skiing across the United States, South America, and Europe. (His favorite place to ski, aside from his home state, is British Columbia.) In 2016, Lucas launched Never Summer Outdoor School, which conducts avalanche and wilderness medicine courses in Colorado and Wyoming. 

Today, Lucas is the Bluebird Avalanche Program Director, and he oversees each of the AIARE courses offered at Bear Mountain. In addition to managing Bluebird’s staff of qualified AIARE instructors and communicating with students, this also means honing avalanche curriculum, scouting out the best spots for courses to bring students to teach them as much as possible about the snow, and sometimes acting as course leader. (And, since Bluebird is a startup, it also means plenty of “other duties as assigned.”) 

When he’s not playing in the snow with his students, Lucas is likely playing in the snow with his family. He, his wife, and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10 (the older of whom has already skied West Bowl at Bluebird this season), live just down the road from Bluebird Backcountry in Steamboat Springs, where they spend as much time as possible together on the slopes. 

Lucas’ best tip for spending long days outside? “A hot drink in a thermos,” he says, without hesitation. “I probably go through 10 boxes of Yogi Egyptian Licorice tea every winter.” 

Lucas and his family spend as much time as possible on the slopes together.

Sign up for your AIARE course at Bluebird

Keep an eye out for a future post on Lucas’ tips for showing up fully prepared to your AIARE avalanche course!

Quiz: Which Backcountry Lesson Is Right For You?

At Bluebird Backcountry, our philosophy is that it’s easier to learn about avalanche safety—a crucial component of backcountry education—when you already know the basics. That theory is rooted in a core tenet of experiential education called the hierarchy of needs. This idea was developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, and posits that our basic needs (food, shelter, water) must be met before humans can move onto more complex endeavors (in this case, snow science). 

That’s why Bluebird introduced the backcountry lesson during our first season in February 2020. After the huge success of that lesson, our education team decided to expand. Now, you can sign up for all kinds of Bluebird educational offerings, all of which are designed to help get you ready for an avalanche course by giving you a strong foundation of both technical skills and backcountry confidence.

Take this quiz to figure out which Bluebird Backcountry lesson is right for you.

First, tell us about yourself.

How many times have you been backcountry skiing or splitboarding? 

A – Zero! This will be my first time.

B – Just once. 

C – A handful of times.

D – I’ve been quite a few times, but never taken an avalanche course.

E – I’ve been touring for 1+ years and have taken my Rec 1 avalanche course.

 

How familiar are you with your touring gear? 

A – Not at all. If something went wrong, I’m not sure I’d know!

B – A little. I can transition without help. 

C – Pretty familiar. I know what everything’s called and what it does, but I couldn’t fix anything if it broke.

D – Very. But I could probably be more efficient at using it. 

E – Very. I am ready to learn more about the gear needed for more technical or multi-day tours.

 

How long are you comfortable being outside in the winter backcountry? 

A – I have no idea! I’ve been snowshoeing or skiing at a resort, but I know this is different. I’m not sure what to expect. 

B – Most of a day, especially since I know there are warming huts on the mountain.

C – I know how to stay warm and hydrated, so I’m mostly confident for a full day outside.

D – I’m a seasoned winter athlete. I’ll stay out as long as it takes to get in a bunch of laps!

E – I’m very comfortable with long single day tours and looking to plan multi-day trips.

 

Quick: Moguls, groomers, or steep couloirs?

A – I’m still working on tackling ungroomed terrain—my comfort zone is that sweet, sweet corduroy.

B – I’m ready for some medium-sized bumps, but I’m not sure about icy spots or obstacles. 

C – I’m comfortable on just about anything at the resort.

D – I’m ready for whatever conditions the backcountry can throw at me. 

E – I’m a strong rider, comfortable in backcountry snow conditions on slopes 35º or steeper.

 

Are you comfortable using maps to plan a route and follow it? 

A – Maybe, if I’ll be on trails the whole time.

B – I think I can identify avalanche terrain, but I’m not super confident yet.

C – Most of the time. I can even set a decent skin track! 

D – Oh yeah. I’m a pro at using my Gaia GPS app

E – I’m great at using mapping applications and want to learn more about translating the map to in-person terrain and navigation.

If you got…

 

Mostly As

Backcountry 1: Intro to Backcountry

Our classic Intro to Backcountry lesson is geared toward brand-new backcountry skiers and riders and folks who have only clicked into their AT bindings a handful of times. You’ll get to know your touring and rescue gear and learn basic skinning techniques, backcountry etiquette, Leave No Trace best practices, and how to transition from uphill to downhill. 

You’ll leave this course acquainted with your gear and ready to hone your backcountry skills. At the end of the three-hour (half-day) lesson, your instructor will make a personalized recommendation for the next step in your backcountry journey. Then you can decide whether to take another lap or head back to the base area for a s’more.

Book Your Backcountry 1 Lesson

 

Mostly Bs

Backcountry 2: Backcountry Skills

This lesson is geared toward skiers and splitboarders who have spent several days on touring gear and are comfortable with their equipment and basic skinning techniques. In Backcountry 2,  you’ll learn best practices for staying comfortable in the remote backcountry (including basic equipment troubleshooting), develop more efficient skinning techniques for varying terrain, and improve your downhill technique in variable conditions, which requires very different movement skills  from typical in-bounds skiing or snowboarding. 

You’ll leave this course knowing how to prepare for a day in the backcountry, and with better uphill and downhill technique. At the end of this lesson, your instructor will make a personalized recommendation for the next step in your backcountry journey.

Book Your Backcountry 2 Lesson

 

Mostly Cs

Backcountry 3: Navigation & Avalanche Prep

You’re so close! The final installment in our three-lesson Backcountry Progression is the bridge between the skills you’ve already learned and your avalanche education. This lesson is geared towards folks who are familiar with their touring gear, can skin uphill in terrain of varying steepness, and can comfortably ski or splitboard most of the terrain at Bluebird Backcountry. It covers mapping, navigation, and trip planning basics and introduces how to make useful observations about current conditions, as well as more advanced skinning and downhill movement. 

You’ll leave this course feeling prepared to learn about avalanches and how to avoid them. Most importantly, you’ll know enough about backcountry travel that you’ll be able to focus on what matters in your AIARE course.

Book Your Backcountry 3 Lesson

 

Mostly Ds

Continuing Ed

Sounds like you’ve got some backcountry experience under your belt, and you’re ready to sign up for an AIARE avalanche course. If you’ve got some time before your AIARE 1 sign on for a Ski with a Mentor session, which is basically a short private lesson where you can pick your mentor’s brain on the skills you’re looking to improve. 

 

Mostly Es

Advanced Courses

You’ve taken your AIARE Rec 1 avalanche course and are ready to keep building your toolbox of backcountry skills. Refresh your knowledge at the beginning of the season by joining an Avy Refresher Course. Once you’ve brushed up on avy skills, keep practicing by taking one of our new advanced courses like Ski Mountaineering 1 or Winter Emergency Skills! We recommend starting with Backcountry 4 – Reading Terrain and Leadership and Communication, then pick from any of the other exciting advanced courses that interest you. 

 

Use this handy flowchart to help you choose the best backcountry lesson or advanced course for you.

Why You Should Take a Backcountry Lesson Before Your Avalanche Course

For years, newcomers to the backcountry have faced a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Should I take a backcountry lesson to learn to backcountry ski or splitboard, then take an avalanche course? Or do I need to have an avalanche course under my belt before I go off piste? 

They’re good questions—you’re certainly more equipped to make smart decisions in the backcountry once you’ve taken an avalanche course, but it’s a daunting proposition (and a big investment) to sign on for a three-day course when you’ve never been in the backcountry before. 

So Which Comes First: Avy Course or Backcountry Lesson?

At Bluebird Backcountry, our philosophy is that it’s easier to learn about avalanches when you’re not figuring out your gear for the first time or working hard to keep up with the group. That’s why our team of education experts has developed a progression of backcountry lessons geared toward folks who are new to the backcountry and preparing for their first avalanche courses.

The bottom line? You’ll get more out of your course once you get the basics down. 

Here’s what you should know before you take your avalanche course. 

How to Use Your Backcountry Gear

A backcountry skier performs a beacon check on a snowy hillside

Knowing some basics (like a beacon check) will go a long way when you’re trying to learn about avalanche safety.  Photo: Patrick Woods

Where do I carry my transceiver? How do these bindings work? Wait, my boots have a “walk mode”? 

You’ll want to make sure you know the answers by the first day of your AIARE course. That way you can focus on the curriculum—backcountry decision-making, identifying hazardous terrain, and snow science basics. 

Bluebird’s Backcountry 1 course covers all the basics of gear and backcountry transitions. At Bluebird, you can either rent gear or get to know your own on your backcountry lesson.  

How to Tour (and Ski or Ride) Efficiently

Two backcountry skiers move quickly along a frozen skin track during a lesson

Learning efficient skinning techniques before the first day of your AIARE course means you’ll have an easier time keeping up with your group.

Getting to the top is a little (okay, very) different when you’re getting there under your own power rather than on a lift. Once you’ve learned the basics, it’s a lot like hiking. But it takes some getting used to, and the technique is easier to learn when there’s a pro showing you the ropes.

The same goes for skiing or riding downhill. There’s no grooming in the backcountry, which means the terrain is a lot more variable. That, too, takes some getting used to—it’s not like skiing groomers or even moguls. You’ll have a much easier time keeping up with the rest of your AIARE cohort if you’re already familiar with good technique and backcountry snow conditions

How to Be Self-Sufficient in Winter Weather

A skier on a backcountry skiing lesson drinks water from a nalgene water bottle in winter

Self-care in the backcountry is a skill, too.  Photo: John LaGuardia

At a traditional ski area, you can head into the lodge to warm up, grab a snack, or hydrate. While there are warming huts (and delicious snacks) available at Bluebird Backcountry, you can think of Bluebird like a transition zone. None of those amenities will be available once you head into the backcountry proper.

You’ll want to know how to take care of yourself (and what snacks to pack) in the winter wilderness by the time you embark on your AIARE course. That’s why Bluebird instructors spend time covering self-care and backcountry tips and tricks in our backcountry lessons

This season, Bluebird Backcountry is offering Backcountry 1, 2, and 3 lessons to move students from never-ever to AIARE-ready (keep an eye out for a future post to help you determine which lesson is right for you). Ready to get started? Book your backcountry lesson here.

A group of backcountry skiers enjoy their backcountry skiing lesson

Backcountry 101 students hit the skintrack.  Photo: John LaGuardia