While the Avalanche Skills Training (AST) Level 1 has quickly become the prerequisite for backcountry travel, ski guide Ross Berg feels that the new wave of advanced skiers migrating beyond the boundary ropes could use some additional training.

“A lot of people don’t understand the value of taking a higher level course,” said Berg. “Many people’s experience is the (AST 1) and I don’t think that’s giving the best example of what can be offered by a backcountry clinic or a guide. I want people to go do cool stuff — why are 90 per cent of people going to ski Husume? There’s way more things to ski.”

The Winterstoke Festival — led by Berg’s company Altus Mountain Guides — had roughly 30 participants with many attending multiple clinics over the weekend (March 14-15). Sessions ranged from basic courses such as Intro to Ski Touring to the more advanced Steep Skiing and Ski Mountaineering 101.

Winterstoke Festival backcountry Whistler
Steep skiing veteran JD Hare demonstrates his technique at Don’t Swill in the Whistler Backcountry

Berg was pleasantly surprised with the turnout given the snow conditions lately, but believes backcountry skiers were taking the opportunity for further training at an affordable price. “I didn’t make a nickel on this, this wasn’t for me to make money,” said Berg. “I want people to actually step the game up, safely. I have a big background in Chamonix and people there are more educated and more skilled because there’s a culture of hiring guides, taking courses and heading into the mountains responsibly.”

Big mountain veteran J.D. Hare, who gained his technical skills by training for an attempt at Canada’s highest peak, Mount Logan, in his late teens, led the advanced steep skiing clinic.

“There’s been a massive paradigm shift in the average skill level of the average skier,” said Hare. “The concern is that that’s leading to a lot of false confidence. The resort is such a different landscape because it’s controlled and shredded so hard. I think there’s a critical need for another level of transition between in-bounds coaching and skiing on exposure in the backcountry.”

Winterstoke Festival backcountry Whistler steep ski
Avalanche instructor Bram Whillock works on his steep skiing technique in Chamonix Chutes, Blackcomb backcountry

Local backcountry splitboarder Jeff Slack was the only Steep Skiing clinic attendee on a snowboard and was able to take away valuable information.

“It was mostly on how to read terrain, how to identify hazards and how to mitigate risk,” said Slack. “Those skills are 98 per cent the same whether you are on skis or a snowboard. I’ve ridden with friends who are guides, but I’ve never gone out with ‘working’ guides, so it was neat to see their decision-making process and risk management in action.”

With the strong attendance despite challenging weather and poor snow conditions, Berg hopes to see the Winterstoke Festival return in 2016 in order to expose backcountry travellers to training beyond their initial avalanche course.

“There’s a mindset that you need to develop ski touring, terrain and mountain skills along with avalanche skills, it’s a whole package,” said Berg.

This article first appeared in The Whistler Question on March 17, 2015