Volcom’s Avalanche Awareness Tour with Nathaniel Murphy and Bryan Iguchi

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Class is in session this winter—avalanche class, that is. Nathaniel Murphy addresses the crowd gathered at Snowboard Connection in downtown Seattle: “Ok, so if you were going to venture into the winter backcountry what would you think about bringing with you?” In the back someone whispers, “A freshly packed bong and a new lighter?”

Stifled laughter. But the jokester highlights a point. There is often a disconnect in the snowboard world between line-stomping media glory and the calculated, often conservative decision-making that happens off camera to keep everyone safe in the backcountry. This disconnect can lead to a lot of riders who are new to backcountry getting themselves in trouble.

It’s this gap in knowledge that Bryan Iguchi and Nathaniel Murphy, a Big Sky local who guides winter backcountry courses for NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School), are hoping to fill. Backed by Volcom, the two have been touring the mountain west this winter with Volcom Stone’s Backcountry Awareness Tour in an effort to educate the growing number of riders who are seeking pow beyond the ropes.

Adam Gerken, co-owner of Snowboard Connection says he’s sold three times as many splitboard setups this winter as he has the equivalent backcountry safety gear.

“Clearly more and more people are going into the backcountry,” says Adam, “and either there are a lot of experienced backcountry riders who are all of a sudden sick of snowshoeing, or there are lots of people buying the boards—some to access the backcountry without the proper knowledge and training to be safe.”

He worries that the latter is true, which is one of the reasons he was keen to host this event. Having lost friends to avalanches over the last decade he wants the next generation to be better educated.

The event is essentially abridged a standard Avalanche 1 course and is meant to be a first step towards educating new backcountry riders on what they need to learn to improve their own backcountry safety. Over the course of the evening, Guch and Murph break down the basic criteria for evaluating whether a slope is safe. They talk about the ‘avalanche triangle’ that needs to be evaluated each time you head into the backcountry: terrain, weather, and snowpack. To have a true green light to shred, all of these criteria need to be considered safe.

Murph stresses, “You can always find something safe to ride in backcountry no matter what the avalanche conditions are, but the trick is knowing what to look out for and where to ride. Knowing when to ride a bigger line and when to back off and find mini-golf stuff takes time and practice in the mountains.”

As Guch and Murph discuss the observable factors that go into backcountry decision making, they also warn against unseen ‘human factors’ – Familiarity, Acceptance, Commitment, Expertise, and Tracks, and Scarcity remembered as FACETS – which can compromise objective decision making.

“It’s important to be aware of how your mindset influences your decision making and remain objective, not make choices based on seeing other people’s tracks, or just because you spent all day hiking, or because you want to get a shot,” says Murph.

In other words, learning to avoid the mental traps is as important as learning to avoid terrain traps. Iguchi offers his own perspective that you might not guess if you’ve only seen him charging epic lines in videos.

“I’ll go out into the Tetons where I live,” says Guch, “and if the forecast is ‘considerable’ or higher and I’m seeing warning signs out there, or hearing ‘whoomfing’ while I’m hiking, I have no problem tucking my tail between my legs and heading right home.”

Bryan Iguchi is no stranger to the backcountry, with two decades of riding in the Tetons and beyond. But he didn’t come by that innately. Having moved to Jackson from southern California he saw all of this awesome terrain, and simply went out exploring without “any idea of what we were getting into.” Twenty years later, all of those experiences are planted in the proper context and can be applied to future decisions.

“Yeah, we did a lot of stupid shit back then. That’s Lance [Pitman] in this one,” Guch says, pointing to a photo where a rider is surfing on top of a fractured slope of refrigerator-sized slabs. “We called him ‘AvaLance’ that season. We got really lucky a lot early on, but we also learned a lot.”

Learning through mistakes may be a great way to gain knowledge, but in the backcountry a mistake can cost you your life. Guch is hoping to cut out the middleman of that process. The event is admittedly not meant to be a comprehensive avalanche course; more like a syllabus of ‘required reading’ for becoming competent in the backcountry. Guch says it will hopefully help open up a continuing conversation about backcountry safety within the snowboard community. Northwest legend Jamie Lynn even showed up to give away a probe, shovel, and backcountry pack. You can’t argue with that endorsement.

If you are new to the backcountry, please learn how to use your safety equipment, talk and ride with experienced friends, and, most importantly get educated.

For more information on avalanche classes and resources, visit www.avalanche.org to find a forecasting center in your state, and http://avtraining.org for education links. And remember, saying no in the backcountry can sometimes be the most important decision you will ever make.

Main Image: Guch and Murph present at Tactics Boardshop in Eugene, OR. Photo: Courtesy Nathaniel Murhpy.


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