[Q&A] Encouraging patience in the backcountry with Marty Schaffer

[Q&A] Encouraging patience in the backcountry with Marty Schaffer

Marty Schaffer grew up in the backcountry. His parents operated Blanket Glacier Chalet, a helicopter access backcountry lodge close to Revelstoke. Schaffer has been exploring the backcountry since he first started skiing and he’s now been a backcountry guide for 18 years. In addition to now running the Blanket Glacier Chalet, Schaffer founded Canadian Powder Guiding or CAPOW. CAPOW provides avalanche training and educational trips for those new to touring as well as seasoned backcountry enthusiasts. FREESKIER sat down with Schaffer to discuss the importance of patience when it comes to backcountry missions.

What is the biggest thing that the backcountry has taught you?

I think the simple answer is ‘patience.’ I think everyone has a learning process, even myself having grown up in the industry, skiing in the backcountry. I mean, I don’t even remember learning how to backcountry ski because it was just skiing to me—you left the front door of the Blanket [Glacier Chalet] to go skiing.

I feel like when you’re new to the backcountry, you look at someone with experience and you think that they have some sort of way of understanding avalanches, like they can look up at a slope and determine with certainty if it’ll slide or not. And over time, and the more you learn, you realize that snow science is always going to be inexact. It’s the same with weather, that’s also totally inexact.

The one thing you can control is terrain—that’s the one constant. So, I think with experience you learn how to manage terrain, but patience is that fine line of managing the terrain with the snowpack. There’s no shortcuts. In the human mind, we want to work harder to try to outsmart something and with snow you can’t just work harder to understand snow stability better. If you try to outsmart it and you try to get there early, that’s when you’re gonna get bit.

You see people ski these big lines and they get away with it. It’s hard on our egos as guides to watch that with our guests. The funny thing with snow is you can get away with things a lot… until you can’t. So doing your due diligence, keeping your ego in check and being patient is the way to have longevity in this. If I were to sum up what the future of backcountry education would be, patience would probably be the topic.

When you’re planning a backcountry mission, what are the critical steps that need to be taken?

Managing your own desire is critical. When we’re new to touring, we think that you simply drive up with your homies, listen to tunes on the skin track and when you’re at the top of the line, you might dig a pit and then decide if it’s 100-percent ‘yes’ or 100-percent ‘no.’ Humans are irrational decision makers—we are going to go with what looks good at that moment. So, if it’s a beautiful day and you’re looking down at a perfect powder slope, it’s hard to say ‘no’ in that moment. But the reality is you can’t base your decision on the safety of a line based on a gut feeling on a decision that you made on the fly.

Every day we pop open the computer really early, we check the current weather—what’s happened in the last 24 hours? What’s happened overnight? We evaluate that change. We obviously read a report, so you know what recent avalanches have happened. Next, we really focus on the forecast for the day, but we also consider our avalanche problems. Although writing a danger rating is important, we don’t make our decisions based on that danger rating.

So, when you’re looking down at that pow line, you can apply those avalanche problems and that’s how you stimulate the conversation. You don’t go dig a pit and start from scratch. If you’ve talked about the weather events, the forecast and the snowpack before you already go out, you know how to ground truth in the field and you know which problems you should be looking for. If you take that systematic approach, you can keep your desires out of it.

What advice would you give people when it comes to evaluating the forecast in advance?

Bottom line, if there’s enough change to knock snow off of trees, there’s enough change to knock snow off the mountains. If you think about the four main weather inputs—precipitation, temperature, wind and solar—if those have significant change, that’s when you have to reevaluate things.

What tips would you give to backcountry skiers when it comes to evaluating the snowpack?

As an avalanche profession, I don’t actually dig a whole lot of snow pits. The only time we dig pits is to evaluate a current weakness gaining some strength. If you’re following the weather forecast and you’re watching the snow fall, that is where the patience comes in—digging more pits isn’t going to help you overcome those predetermined factors. It’s really all about having that patience—building up slowly using terrain is the only way.

How do you weigh risk versus reward when it comes to skiing in the backcountry?

I don’t think it is much different than weighing those decisions in other parts of your life. We take chances all of the time whether you’re considering buying a big purchase or investing. And if you just do it totally randomly, sometimes it can work out sometimes it can go terrible, but the best thing you can do is, gain as much information, talk to as many people as you can and build up that systematic approach before you make that decision.

I mean, you can go all in on crypto, and there’s times that it can pay off for you, but no one knows what’s going to happen. And yeah, you can get bit really hard when investing, but it is the same thing with terrain. And so we know in investing, it’s the slow plan over time that’s going to be successful and I think it is similar with backcountry terrain. There’s definitely going to be some consequence along the way, but there’s also times to make moves and others to pull back.

Over time then, how did you develop your systematic approach to recreating and guiding in the backcountry?

Unfortunately, I watched a lot of family friends die in big avalanche events. I remember being 10 years old and a family friend died in an avalanche and that was the first person I knew that died. I learned the consequences of the backcountry and developed a level of respect. If you have that respect, you understand what can go wrong and I think that leads to more patience.

Are there more tools and resources today as opposed to the past for others to develop that systematic approach and patience in the backcountry?

Definitely. The sharing of information is HUGE. It doesn’t matter where you are in North America, the are great platforms where people are reporting avalanches. Ten years ago, I feel like recreationalists wouldn’t report if there was an avalanche. It was like shamed. But now, I see these communities really encouraging people to share. If you report, there’s a level of understanding that we all make mistakes, and out of those mistakes there is a lot of learning. And that’s the coolest part. You can watch what’s happened and we can all learn from that.

The safety tools haven’t changed drastically over the years. But the information we now have at our fingertips helps breed the level of patience you need to have when adventuring in the backcountry.

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