A Bluebird Backcountry Weekend
By Mindy Wu
Over the luckiest clear sky, bluebird weekend at Mt. Hood, three Trail Mixed Collective Portland members, including myself, became AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) Level 1 certified through the SheJumps Snowpack scholarship. In other words, we received standardized avalanche training for the backcountry. I entered the weekend knowing Vivian from other Trail Mixed events she has led and had the pleasure of meeting Crys at the scholarship welcome dinner—a cozy, casual meetup at the Ratskellar Lodge. At the dinner, we also met members of SheJumps and MountainSavvy—the organization through which the course was held—and our wonderful instructors Tarah and Anna. The two of them are some of the few female avalanche instructors in the country, so it was an absolute honor to learn from them. Weeks before the AIARE course weekend, a couple of us also connected to organize a group AirBNB in Rhododendron, so we had the opportunity to really spend a lot of time together and get to know each other, despite the experience being only two days. This scholarship is designed to encourage accessibility of snow sports to marginalized and underrepresented voices in the community, and it was incredibly comforting and encouraging to be in such a supportive, intentional space.
I definitely had some nerves going into it. Though I’m comfortable with downhill skiing, I’d never entered the realm of backcountry until a mere week before this course. With the weekend having been in mid-February, I had only acquired the required ski setup at the end of January after weeks of research. Gear—whatever it is used for—can be so confusing! It’s hard to get a straight answer for what you need, as it depends on so many factors: budget, use, features, etc. Having not known anything about backcountry, I started with outdoor blogs, Evo guides, calling Portland gear shops, talking to friends. And everyone seemed to have a different answer, which I realized was due to everyone’s different goals and interests within touring. I decided on the shift bindings and boots, which have both touring and resort skiing capabilities, cutting down my costs a bit as well since I could stick with my old skis. Ultimately, there are so many options for gear, and everyone will have different opinions. The key is knowing your own goals.
On the first field day, we skinned past the Climber’s Lot at Timberline to learn about the snowpack and basic avalanche rescue. We reviewed our backcountry booklets, conducted pre-trip checks, practiced beacon rescues and shoveling, and analyzed snow pits. It was a day packed with learning and new information—I never knew there was so much to know about snow and so much potential danger that comes with its beauty as well. The risks were rightly emphasized, in addition to the many precautions to take in order to minimize those risks. The next day, we simulated more of an actual tour from the Sunrise Lot at Meadows. This time around, we completed our pre-trip checks again, discussing the forecast and potential dangers. Then, we set off into the woods. This day was much more led by us, as we could decide and provide input toward what we thought was safe, what observations we had of our surroundings, and what we wanted to ski!
As someone who grew up in the Northeast, I had never skied backcountry powder like that, and I can totally see how spoiled the West Coasters get. We did an intermediary run upon finding some good powder in the woods, and I was surprised at how different the thick, fluffy snow felt in comparison to the firm ice I was used to in New Hampshire and Vermont. After that quick run, we skinned further towards treeline and ended the day with a final run
inbounds all the way back down to the parking lot. We debriefed with group observations and possible trip improvements, and after a long but incredibly fun two days of being in the snow, we were finally certified! With so much appreciation for our course instructors, we were also all excited to keep connecting with our coursemates. Our learning didn’t stop there with that closing group huddle in the Sunrise Lot. We knew the winter season had barely begun, and we were going to see each other again in the backcountry with our newly acquired skills.
Having accomplished this weekend course under my belt, I felt not only a sense of growth as a skier and outdoors enthusiast, but also the newfound inspiration to share what I have learned. One of the greatest things about any community I love is the learning and passing on of skills—this beautiful exchange of knowledge and interests—and I’m incredibly excited for all the future winter seasons of learning and sharing.