Backcountry Mentorship

Powder aims to feature only the best products and services. If you buy something via one of our links, we may earn a commission.

Backcountry skiing is an endless process of learning and building a relationship with both landscapes as well as people. This can take time: years, decades. Some years it’s easy – you get in the mountain flow. Some years it is a challenge and real barriers will prevent you from your goals.

One of the best ways to progress as a skier and mountain traveler is to learn from good mentors. But how can you find a mentor? How do you know that they are the right person? Like you may have guessed with much of this backcountry education, there is no perfect answer here. Fortunately, there are many people out there who are excited to share their knowledge with you – willing to teach you from their close calls, skills, and expertise. They also likely love to go ski touring, so you will potentially have a great mountain partner to get out with.

What are your goals?

One of the first things I do each winter is set goals for myself. I think about lines I want to ski, places I want to explore, or courses I want to take. From there, I start to build resources for each of those. What skills will I need? How much new gear or what kind of new tools will I want to acquire? Often, I think about partners I will want to work with to learn those skills, or have similar goals in the mountains.

From this, I will think through my list of friends, partners, and educators that I have come to know over the years and reach out to see who is available to go skiing. If I am going to look for explicit help or advice for a day, maybe I will offer a case of beer for their tips on digging a pit profile or setting up a glacier rescue scenario. If you just want to go skiing and spend more time traveling through terrain and snow just let them know you’re excited to ski this season.

The quick way

The quickest way to find mentorship is to pay for it. Many guiding services offer multi week classes that build mentorship with a snow and ski professional. This is a great way to get out with the objective of learning a lot in a short period of time.

Similarly, working with a guide or instructor 1 on 1 is an excellent way to sharpen your skills in a more structured way. Many of my close partners have been on both sides of this relationship and have learned everything from reading terrain to testing snowpack on the fly to how to rappel with skis on. Oftentimes these can turn from a transactional experience to a personal one: you become friends and start skiing on your own outside of a course.

Building a partnership

The longer, but more organic way to find and build mentorship is to meet people in the space that want to get out. I have done this through a number of ways: gone to avalanche workshops, attended backcountry ski events or film screenings, met people through friends of friends, or, like above, reached out to former teachers or instructors that seemed interested in keeping the conversation going.

Obviously, this can feel intimidating. You have to put your hand out and meet people. There are some digital resources, like groups on Facebook or Instagram in some mountainous regions that have the explicit goal of connecting new users with more experienced skiers. Like with anything digitized these days, one must use a certain degree of caution.

Similarly, when you go skiing with someone new, pay attention to not only what they are “teaching” you, but their general perspective on mountain travel and goals. You might find quickly that they do not really share similar interests, or they have a different risk tolerance. Perhaps that partner is going to be good for some adventure someday, but maybe not as a mentor.

When you find someone who wants to ski with you, and teach you something about the sport, remember it is always a two way street. You’re not simply tagging along to suck up knowledge – you’re creating a lasting relationship. Offer to drive, to break trail, to carry some extra snacks. A good mentorship can grow into a good partnership.

I have found this formula to work, but like with anything in ski touring, it takes time and patience and the ability to adapt. You cannot force an organic mentorship or ski partnership. It comes from seasons of getting out with one another and trust building.

Follow through

When I was in my early 20s, I simply wanted to get out more: learn efficient transitions, learn about new zones, expand my terrain understanding. I wanted to just go ski in the backcountry and had few elders to learn from. Much of my skiing was with peers. But, I had a professor from college (universities are great places to meet mentors) that loved to ski low angle powder in off-drainages around my adopted home of Salt Lake City.

When I finally bought a touring setup I jumped at the opportunity to go ski with him. His simple, stripped down equipment and quick way of lapping powder opened my mind to new ways of skiing and experiencing mountains. He would tell me stories from big days in faraway mountain ranges around the world, sharing a generational knowledge that I would have not otherwise ever known. Year over year we skied together and slowly we went from professor/ student to friends.

The biggest suggestion I have for mentorship is when an elder or someone with more experience offers an opportunity to get out, in any form of skiing or mountain travel, take them up on it. Simply: show up and follow through. If you want to build a lasting relationship you must continue to get out and go skiing.