Backcountry skiing with your teenage son
When I was 14 years old, I remember standing at the top of Lake Louise’s Summit Platter, looking north at all the powder-covered ridges and bowls, and saying to myself, “It’s too bad we can’t ski over there.” I could see at least a dozen lines just calling out to be skied—untracked lines that could make a boy cry, inspire epic poetry, launch a thousand ships…. But alas, I was just a Montréal kid out west for spring break, and I had no idea that skiing “over there” was what some people did every day.
I’m sure my parents would have been backcountry skiers had they known such a thing existed. Instead, we were a family of downhillers, carving turns where at least ten-thousand turns had been carved before. I don’t begrudge my parents the three long years I spent waiting in lift lines, but now that I know better, I could never go back. And had my father one day pulled me aside and said, “Son, I think it’s time you and I talked about real skiing,” I have no doubt that I would have hung on his every word, rapt by the prospect of fresh powder in remote places.
You see, backcountry skiing is—and always has been—cool amongst teenage boys. When Norwegian hunters first skied off into a raging blizzard over 4000 years ago, you can bet the teenage boys in the hunting party were the coolest ones in the tribe. And when spring break is over and kids everywhere drag themselves back to school, it’s the kid who wen tbackcountry skiing for a week who gets to lord his coolness over all the others.
That’s not to say you should take your teenage son backcountry skiing just because it’s cool, or because he’ll be able to rub other kids’ noses in it when he gets home. That kind of attitude goes against the whole ideology of backcountry skiing (which lies firmly entrenched somewhere between communism and hedonism). My point is that backcountry skiing is an easy sell—so easy, in fact, that you could even drop phrases like “with your parents” and “father-son bonding” into the conversation and your son would probably still go for it. All that’s left is making sure the experience lives up to the expectation.
There are a number of ways to go about this critical introduction. To put it in ski parlance, there’s the soft landing, the firm landing, and the “pancake”. For most kids, the soft landing is the way to go; for certain teenagers who’ve already been introduced to the privations of camping life, the firm landing may be more appropriate. But the pancake, or “splatter”, isn’t good for anyone.
The basic premise of the soft landing is simple: go skiing, have fun, be safe, eat well, sleep in a real bed. Things that should be avoided in the soft landing approach: long days, brutal weather, running out of food and/or water, getting lost, narrowly escaping an avalanche, eating oatmeal for dinner, or sleeping in a cold bed with someone else’s long underwear hanging above you. The firm landing is more or less the same as the soft landing, but may include longer days, more oatmeal, sleeping on a thin mattress and/or becoming intimate with your neighbour’s intimates. The pancake, on the other hand, involves any combination of things likely to make a sane person wish he were at home in front of the television, and is guaranteed to quash your son’s interest in ever venturing into the wilderness again.
The best way to make sure your backcountry bonding trip avoids the pancake is to plan the trip well in advance. First, decide where you want to go and for how long. Are you going for one day, a few days, or a week? Do you want to return to your hotel room every night, or would you rather stay in a remote mountain lodge, away from the distractions of television and your son’s natural inclination to shun you whenever in close proximity to other teens on spring break?
If you just want to go for a day or two, and you’re convinced your son has outgrown the shunning phase, your best bet is to hire a private guide. It’s possible to hire a guide just for the two of you, but a more economical (and often more enjoyable) route is to join a small group that the guide has already put together. Just be sure you’re not joining the Big Mountain Testosterone Team—nothing kills youthful enthusiasm like being left in the dust by half a dozen A-type lawyers eager to demolish last year’s record of 10,000 vertical feet in 18 hours.
If you’re feeling either slightly more adventurous or slightly less certain of your son’s loyalty in the face of peer pressure, your second option is to spend up to a week at a remote mountain lodge. There are well over a dozen lodges and huts to choose from within the Mountain Parks region, ranging from the extremely spartan (no running water, no electricity, dorm style sleeping—the firm landing), to the exceedingly comfortable (hot showers, private bedrooms, gourmet food—the soft landing). Your preference will no doubt hinge upon your (and your son’s) need for personal space, attitude towards snoring and body odour, and the length of time you’re willing to go without a shower.
The second major consideration in choosing a backcountry lodge is the type of skiing the lodge is known for. Some lodges specialize in big mountain skiing with lots of vertical (up as well as down), while others specialize in gentler terrain and a slightly slower pace. Be realistic about what your son will enjoy—your best bet is to go to a lodge with lots of options, so that some days you can ski hard, and other days you can come back early and take a nap….Whichever backcountry skiing option you choose, always remember the following profound, yet shallow, truths:
- Nothing kills a good time faster than low blood sugar; always bring a chocolate bar.
- Teenagers often suffer from a mix of vanity and insecurity; if you get one good photo of your son, he’ll cherish it forever.
- No matter what the skiing was like, always gloat about the knee-deep powder.
A note about cost: At first blush,backcountry skiing may seem expensive. Hiring a private guide is not cheap, and neither is renting specialized backcountry ski gear or paying for a week in a remote (often helicopter-access) lodge. But think of it this way: if your son takes a genuine interest in backcountry skiing, he is well on his way to free (or almost free) skiing for the rest of his life. Once he learns the art of staying safe in the mountains, he can say good-bye to $70 lift tickets and $10 mochaccinos, and hello to a world of limitless skiing where the only bounds are the ones he creates himself. That, in a nutshell, is what skiing is all about.
Photos from top:
#1; “Purcell Mountain Lodge vistas”
Photo Credit: Mark Mallet
#2; “Purcell Mountain Lodge meadows”
Photo Credit: Mark Mallet
#3; Photo Credit: Kevin McGrath
#4; Photo Credit: Daniel Schecter
#5; “Purcell Mountain Lodge”
Photo Credit: Mark Mallet
~By Mark Mallet
Mark Mallet is a member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, and the former manager at Purcell Mountain Lodge – a “soft landing” backcountry lodge just west of Golden, BC.
The Backcountry Lodges of British Columbia Association
The Alpine Club of Canada
Avalanche Information & Training:
Canadian Avalanche Association