Thousands of Australian skiers and snowboarders venture into alpine backcountry areas chasing that extra thrill. As a result, they’re seeking more skills to make themselves safer in the mountains. Founder of New Zealand’s World Heli Challenge Tony “Harro” Harrington has heard their call and developed a backcountry 101 program at Mount Buller, Victoria. With expert staff, Harro will teach alpine enthusiasts how to use safety and rescue equipment, how to read terrain and what to do in a rescue situation.
Hailing from the surf beaches of the NSW Central Coast, Harro has always been happiest in the outdoors. For most of the year he’s travelling and considers world-renowned ski town/resort Jackson Hole, Wyoming, his North American home, along with Alaska, where he’s been working on and off for 22 years.
For a decade, Harro was the senior photographer for action sports company Teton Gravity Research and he’s worked with the industry’s top athletes, including backcountry legend Jeremy Jones. What this all boils down to is that Harro knows his stuff. He’s been in gnarly terrain and plenty of sticky situations, so when it comes to learning how to play safely in the backcountry he’s your man.
Witnessing a growth in Australian skiers and snowboarders keen to venture beyond resort boundaries, Harro was inspired to create the Mountain Safe program and run it out of Mount Buller, a popular ski resort with plenty of black runs and accessible sidecountry.
“There’s a lot of information out there on the web, but there’s a great disconnect between what you can read in a book or online or (watch) in videos and actually doing it and asking questions,” Harro says as wind whips snow against the windows of his Buller-based gallery space.
With that in mind, Mountain Safe was borne. Aimed at skiers and boarders who want to ride powder overseas, in or out of resort, the program will focus on learning basic backcountry skills. Groups will be a minimum of four people and capped at eight, plus a ski patroller and mentor. Mountain guides, patrollers, trainers and athletes have all given their expert input, ensuring the program covers all safety, terrain and equipment considerations. This southern season will be the first time the sessions are held in Australia, and Jones, a leader in splitboarding, is one of the athletes confirmed as a mentor. He’ll have a hands-on role in what is a massive coup for Buller.
When quizzed on why Jones wants to take part in a program Down Under, he said: “Our goal with films is to inspire people to get out there, but we also need to educate them because it is really serious once you venture into the backcountry.
“I take courses every year, and it’s one course that I never graduate from,” Jones adds. “The stakes are incredibly high, so knowledge is really important and it needs to be shared.”
Harro, who estimates he’s had more than 300 heli days, echoes Jones’ sentiment: “This course is really great for the basics, for raising awareness and to get people thinking and talking about the backcountry.”
The program kicks off with theory, giving participants a foundation in what gear they need and what resources (online or otherwise) are out there to help in their winter adventures. About 30 minutes will be spent in a resort classroom learning everything from preparation, equipment, avalanche conditions and how to read snow forecasts. Staying safe, Harro says, is all about planning where you can and can’t go based on conditions and weather.
It’s this planning Jones also emphasises: “I read the avalanche reports (and) figure out the aspects, which to avoid and which ones we need to be concerned about.”
Based on that information, Jones and his riding buddies plan where they’re going, and tell loved ones their location and expected time of return. It’s simple stuff. As someone who continues to make a career out of backcountry exploration, Jones says what he’s learnt is that “things that never happen, happen all the time”.
“It’s truly an uncontrolled environment and you have to be present in the moment and aware of what’s around you. My mistakes have been rushing and not being present, and so that’s a daily battle for me.”
But before you even get to that point, Mountain Safe aims to get you living and breathing winter conditions before you step foot on snow. You can do this by researching resorts and mountain ranges, and watching the weather. However, no matter how much you understand on paper, the hard skills are learnt in the great outdoors, where weather changes dramatically and a bluebird day can pose just as many dangers as a blizzard.
If you’re keen to learn about the science of snow, this course isn’t for you. Although it starts with theory, practical skills are the main focus. Mount Buller is a prime learning environment, with its two faces and steep sidecountry offering challenging terrain. Over the following three hours, a mock avalanche search will be carried out, during which each participant will have a go at finding a buried beacon. They will also learn simple shovelling techniques, such as shovelling in line with the angle of the slope.
“When people go under (an avalanche) basically you’ve got six minutes… anything could happen,” says Harro. “The majority of deaths happen in avalanches not from suffocation but from when people get swept down. Because when snow starts moving it warms up, it solidifies and it snaps limbs.”
If an incident occurs, using a beacon, shovel and communication device must be second nature.
“You can have all the toys but it doesn’t mean jack shit unless you know how to use them,” says Harro.
Out on the slopes, on Buller’s Federation Bluff, Mountain Safe participants will learn how to read terrain, such as fallen cornices and debris. They’ll also be taught how to assess risk and make a decision about whether to ski an area or not.
“Always plan on a worst case scenario,” says Jones. “What happens if someone gets injured and can’t be moved, who do you call? Phone batteries die within minutes in the cold, sometimes phones have no signal. Always carry a phone charger and, even better, also carry something like an inReach or SPOT (satellite) device so you can set off a signal in a remote area for someone to find you if something does go wrong.”
The majority of accidents affecting Australian tourists overseas don’t actually occur in those giant mountain ranges we see in freestyle films, but in smaller, more accessible terrain – another reason Aussie pow chasers need to know their stuff, and remember Harro’s wise words: “Err on the side of caution; go by your gut feeling.”
Out of the cold, surrounded by Harro’s impressive ski photography in his Buller gallery, it’s easy to nod in agreement to his advice. It never truly hits home how important alpine education is until you find yourself in a sticky spot in wild, winter weather on a mountainside somewhere. That’s when you hope everything you’ve learned comes flooding back. For a younger Harro, however, it was sink or swim.
On Harro’s second trip overseas he recalls hitting 60-foot booters with a best mate. They’d been doing it nearly all ski season. One day, like numerous times before, Harro went first and landed the jump. His mate followed but wasn’t so fortunate. He landed hard, on what they assume was a rock, and “snapped his back in half”. Harro had to make the quick decision to leave his friend’s side to get help.
“No-one had taught me, so I learnt then. I kept my cool,” Harro says.
It’s an incident that proves how important it is to choose your riding partners wisely, something Jones says is one of the most vital considerations when preparing for an adventure.
“The riding partners are critical to a fun and safe day out in the mountains,” Jones says, “and the main thing for me is having someone who does not have a have a big ego, as that is the most dangerous thing in the mountains.”
TOP SIX BACKCOUNTRY TIPS
1. Buy a transceiver, shovel and probe, and know how to use them.
2. Do your research; look for information on the website of the destination you’re going to.
3. Have the right gear in your pack: a spare pair of goggles, spare layer, a spare phone battery, snacks and water.
4. Ride with someone you trust.
5. Plan your route. Go to a location, look for risks and consider how to mitigate those risks, then make an educated decision about whether to ski that slope.
6. When you do ski something, pull up somewhere safe and out of the way of a potential avalanche.
IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG
1. Relax, take deep breaths and go back to your notes in a mini book you have on you.
2. If you have access to your buddy, wrap them up in a space blanket.
3. If you don’t have phone reception, consider skiing back to a point where you will.
4. If you’re the one caught in a slide, swim like crazy to the surface.
5. If caught, when the avalanche starts to slow, move as much as possible to create a big pocket of air around you.
1. Carry a mini notepad with important phone numbers of local ski patrol, ambulance and police services.
2. Before you go skiing, ask a resort patroller for current information about what areas are open and what the temperature is doing.
3. Stay fit all year round, not just during ski season.
This article originally appeared in Wild 159. For this and more great articles delivered to your mailbox in print, subscribe here.