Women of Winter Backcountry Clinic at Crystal
Only the top half of Crystal Mountain Ski Patroller Christina Von Merterns is visible.
“The pit only needs to be about a meter deep,” she tells us, half hidden inside the large snow pit she’s dug into the hillside. Our group is crouched around her three hours deep in the backcountry of Crystal Mountain Ski Resort. “That’s the about amount you’ll affect.”
By “affect,” she means our ability to trigger an avalanche while skiing or snowboarding out of bounds. Right now, we’re at the foot of, say, a 45 degree slope beneath East Peak: Prime avalanche pitch; straight in avy trajectory. With a season plagued by deadly slides, here’s to hoping Von Merterns—a veteran patroller and touring guide—has calculated the conditions right for today.
She scrolls her finger down the exposed layers of snow, taking us back through two weeks of storms and warm spells. Then she carves out a snow column, gives the top two layers the stress test. Neither breaks off readily. They’re solid. We’re safe—all 25 of us backcountry neophytes who have been guided out here by Von Mertens and her fellow patrollers. It’s the first annual Women of Winter Backcountry Clinic put on by evo snowboard shop and the resort. Pros, like celebrated local Maria Debari, are on hand. It’s already been a day chalk full of memories—and brushes with reality.
But, OK, maybe “neophytes” isn’t quite right. Most us of have been out there before, lured by pow fields, coaxed in by less-than-prude ride buddies. Typically, we’re the token female in the pack. We can shred, but we prefer a calculated gnar—and a Plan B. So most of us are here to indulge in that concerted perspective: To ride with ladies and gain responsible backcountry habits.
Molly Hawkins, evo’s marketing whiz, was privy to that eagerness. “We really wanted to connect ladies who were interested in venturing into the backcountry in a safe, fun and non-intimidating environment,” she says. “It was a great way for some of these ladies to dip their toe into the backcountry … to find out if it’s something they want to explore more.”
A mid-week classroom session taught us the fundamentals to consider before venturing out: Weather (wind, temp, precip); snowpack (bedlayer, weak layer, top layer); and terrain (slope, aspect, elevation). We also dialed in demo gear: splitboards, touring skis and MTN Approach collapsible skis; and reviewed dressing for backcountry travel.
Early Saturday, we poured out of the Bullwheel up at Crystal and into the gray light. After overcoming the torturous separation of new, sticky…as…hell skins, and donning the proper gear layers, we filed out, up the cat track and into the mid-morning snowfall.
“My favorite part of the clinic was being able to get familiar with gear that is not normally demo-ed, and do it in a comfortable setting,” says Lindsey Davis. She’d demo-ed MTN Approach skis, a new collapsible touring ski—meaning she carried her board on her back. Trooper.
But, “comfortable setting” is relative. And dependent on terrain—which, like the weather, changes constantly throughout a backcountry trek. Take our first steep climb up a water logged, rather slippery slope.
Not much for skins to grab onto. Slight chaos. A few gals wound up in tree wells. Others fell to the snow like Bendy Wendy dolls. But nonetheless with NW hardcore spirits intact, we laughed, got up, laughed, fell down, laughed, and managed to trudge on—sometimes relenting to bootpack.
“Backcountry touring isn’t easy,” says Crystal’s Justus Hyatt, who co-organized the clinic. “I was really impressed to see everyone pushing through the difficulties with a smile and loving it!”
Hawkins agrees: “I have never in my life heard so many laughs and seen so many smiles on one hillside as I did on Saturday. It was a really cool thing to see.”
It’s true, while the backcountry’s peaceful stillness is one of its allures, and we easily shattered that atmosphere. But then, that’s partly why we were here: camaraderie.
The other part being education. Several times along our route, Von Mertens gathered us in the tree groves for avalanche rescue lessons. We’d synced up our beacons signals earlier. Now, she was explaining signal searching, done most efficiently by using compass points to locate the strongest beeps for the buried beacon. Then a grid strategy is used to quickly probe for the body. Michaela, a professional rescue pup, was the obvious digging pro.
By noon, our caravan reached the frozen lake at the foot of East Peak. One thousand vert feet since leaving the cat track we stood in a valley curtained by cascading walls of snow dappled by evergreens, all beneath a clouded sky. We were sweaty…then cold. On the way up, we’d crossed the haunting remains of an earlier slide. We’d marched on despite weary muscles and aching limbs. I have utter respect for Jeremy Jones.
But it was evident among our clan that our love for the mountains, for enchanting scenery and experiences like these, outweighed little things like, say, a sharp pain in the legs. After a quick break, we were up again, burying beacons for others to find.
Then, after Von Merterns dug her pit in a flurry of shovel-pitting snow, we huddled about her for our tutorial on snowflake sediment. Fortunately, the snow was heavy, wet, and compacted, making for safe conditions. Nothing weak to cause slides.
Unfortunately… the snow was heavy, wet and compacted. Nothing for titillating powder conditions. Still, if there’s one thing we NWers are not newbies to, it’s conditions like these. And a handful of us were determined to ride. So we traversed up 20 more minutes to score some turns—heavy mash potatoes and all.
Dropping in, it quickly became apparent that splitboards take some extra manhandling—they’re heavy and stiff.
But those few turns—they were the reward. They’re the “reason” we do this.
A blazing sun lit our fast descent out of the backcountry. As we came up on the resort bounds, a golden hue draped across the surrounding slopes like a banner celebrating our crossing the finish line.
At the top of the gondola at the Summit House, we were hosted to wine and cheese. “This course really just scratched the surface of backcountry travel [and] avalanche awareness,” says Hawkins, “and I think it exposed the girls to the things that they should really know.”
It also exposed us to new friends, to other ladies who shred. And that could be the best take away from it all. “The best memory has to be the laughing,” Hawkins says. “That, and the camaraderie.”