Photo Credit: www.graybirdguiding.com
Part 6 – Interview with Shane Robinson Owner & Lead Guide at Graybird Guiding Backcountry Skiing, Snowboarding (spilt-boarding) Q&A Series
The boom in backcountry skiing, snowboarding and other snow-sports was brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic as ski resorts started closing down like falling dominoes starting in March of 2020 as state and local counties mandated ‘stay at home’ (SIP) orders as coronavirus outbreaks spiked.
Winter season 2020/21 will likely see similar trends especially pronounced if resorts are unable to implement effective protocols of limiting on-site visitors’ capacity, and social distancing especially indoors in common areas which will result in COVID infection outbreaks resulting in resorts’ closures.
Of particular concern is that finally CDC acknowledges that the coronavirus infection transmission is airborne by aerosols which means it is highly contagious. This fact does not bode well so we’ll see how this flu season and winter months play out.
Back to our topic, our backcountry Q&A feature looks at backcountry from a range of diverse perspectives, from an amateur to expert backcountry skier, from a ski shop small business retailer to backcountry touring guide, these Q&A series provide some key insights and also we’ll list resources to consider for avalanche safety training that is critical to stay safe in the backcountry. Most importantly, we list key resources to connect you with folks who share a passion and love for the backcountry.
Part 6 Q&A interview with Shane Robinson Owner & Lead Guide at Graybird Guiding based out of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) (most backcountry tours start at Mt Baker, a 3 hours drive northeast of Seattle, WA)..
Could you tell us a little about your background in snow-sports, and how you came to create your training and touring company? How your backcountry training camps became one of the best all-around?
My first backcountry experience was a hut trip in Colorado, when I definitely had a cursory understanding of the backcountry and avalanche terrain, but I did know enough to pick a hut with minimal avalanche exposure. After college I went on to ski patrol at Copper Mountain, in Colorado, and Squaw Valley, in California. Through those jobs, I was trained in Avalanche Education (Level 1 and 2), and I got to work in Avalanche Control. Then I moved to Seattle, WA with my now wife who had been accepted into a graduate program here. It was here, in the Cascades that I really fell in love with backcountry skiing, and I spent 10+ years just backcountry skiing recreationally before I decided I missed working in the mountains. I took my Level 3 avalanche course (now called a Pro 2), completed the AMGA Ski Guide training, worked as an apprentice ski guide, and in 2018 started my own company – Graybird Guiding.
Level 1 avalanche education courses is some of the bread and butter work for ski guides in the states, and while I think the general framework of the course is very good, I don’t think the level 1 course alone is enough for most people to feel confident about traveling in the backcountry unless they have very experienced friends to help mentor them after the class. So I created the Zero to Hero camp, which is the Level 1 training plus at least three more days in the field. This extra time allows the group to get into more complicated avalanche terrain. It’s all about mileage in this kind of terrain where you have to constantly be making decisions about how and where to go. Our camp allows participants more time in this terrain with our coaching and mentorship.
We’re also a small company focused on smaller groups. We’re not trying to teach as many classes as possible to as many people as possible. I think of it more like a club. Each year, we would rather focus our efforts on a smaller number of people so we can give them more time and attention. It’s not meant to be an exclusive club or anything – we want to ski and ride with everyone – but we the experience of those who come with us to be as high quality as possible. We view our clients more as ski partners, and we just want to make them the best partners as we can.
How many backcountry training levels do you offer?
Essentially, we offer training at any level of backcountry from beginners to expert level training and objectives. We run a bunch of trips geared for people with more intermediate and advanced experience, but also do a bunch of custom trips for people with all levels of experience.
With the impact of resort closures due to the Covid pandemic from mid-March of this year, can you describe if there’s an increase in demand for backcountry snow-sports?
It’s still a little early to say (November 3), but all signs are that it’s going to be a busy year ahead. Backcountry touring has been growing for years, and Covid pushed a lot of people into outdoor recreation. Hiking, Mountain Biking, Camping, and most all outdoor activities seem to be booming this past summer, so I think it will carry on into winter recreation.
What is the most important aspect of backcountry that you would like to get across to new-comers?
Absolutely, check your local avalanche forecasts and take or refresh your avalanche education. But the basic Level 1 avalanche class is meant to make you a good “team member”, not a team leader (that is what the Level 2 class teaches). So if you only have a Level 1, you should be going with people with a lot more experience. Or hire a guide for extra days beyond that level 1. Other countries hire guides more frequently for days in the backcountry. In the US there is more of figure it out your own culture, and I would encourage people to seek out that expertise more in the backcountry, whether it’s with a guide or with more experienced friends.
The backcountry is what’s considered a “wicked learning environment” meaning it does not give you good feedback. You could go out one day and nothing goes wrong, so you think you made all the right decisions. Avalanches are low probability but high consequence events so if you miss-judge that feedback it can can be very consequential.
How does a newbie get started?
Start with the equipment. Beacon, Shovel, and Probe are essential avalanche gear. Touring bindings and skins are also necessary. There are a lot of hybrid skis, boots, and splitboards that ride well in the resort and backcountry or more dedicated backcountry gear. Once you have that, many ski areas will let you walk up certain ski runs (sometimes at certain times – check each resort), so you can learn to walk up and do the transitions without any avalanche hazard there.
From there, look for Intro to Backcountry courses or Avalanche courses. Then it’s a lifelong learning process, so keep training and taking courses or hire guides for trips.
Recommended essential start-up gear and manufacturers with a success track record of building solid backcountry gear/skis/boards?
I use Salomon skis, bindings, and boots. Most all companies are making great gear these days. Support your local backcountry ski shops. Especially during these times, support the local shops, and they will have the best advice for gear.
Photo Credit: www.graybirdguiding.com
What mountain guide trips are you planning for 20/21 winter?
I love the Canadian mountains, but we can’t go there this year, so I’m going to focus on my backyard – the Cascades. We have amazing terrain here, and I’m actually looking forward to doing more exploring here, and looking into some less traveling zones. In the NW the RV culture is unique so we’re working with some clients to rent RVs and we’ll check out some spots via RV. It’s like your own Covid ski in/ski out bubble.
What is the takeaway message you’d like folks to learn from your experience and outfit?
Take a decision holiday this winter. Life is so complicated right now, and the backcountry doesn’t have to be. Hire a guide (even if you never have), and let us make all those decisions for you. We’re professionals who have trained to know where the best (and safest) snow is, we’re there to show you a fun day in the mountains while managing the risk, and we likely know how to dodge some of the crowds, So give yourself a decision holiday. If you are going to hire a guide, look for AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) certified ski and splitboard guides.
What would you like to add as interviewee Bio/credits/link(s)?
Our instagram is our most up-to-date and important piece of marketing, so @graybirdguiding. You could also add my personal instagram link at @shanecrobinson And our website is at www.graybirdguiding.com
Read our Q&A part 1 – Backcountry Skiing, Snowboarding (spilt-boarding) interview with Alyssa Olenberg-Meltzer who got into backcountry skiing and loves it from the start; she has four winters of experience and shares her hard-earned wisdom.
Backcountry Skiing, Snow-Sports Resources
✔ San Francisco Backcountry Skiers Facebook Group: ‘San Francisco Backcountry Skiers (and Riders) is a resource and inspiration for people in the San Francisco area (and beyond) who are interested in backcountry skiing and riding. SFBS welcomes both experienced and aspiring backcountry skiers and riders.’ Membership type: free, public group. 3.3k members. Visit their FB group page.
✔ SnowPals.org is a non-traditional snow-sports club for busy Bay Area professionals. Join SF Bay Area professionals to expand your circle of ski and ride buddies (resort based and backcountry), btw, that’s how we came up with our name: Snow (Snow-Sports) + Pals. Membership type: one-time paid membership fee of $20; join SnowPals. Read members’ intros to get an idea who joins. Founded in 1999 by a small group of friends; we are now 8,249 members and growing. Celebrating our 21st year of connecting folks to expand their circle of snow sports activity partners.
✔ California Ski Company in Berkeley is one of the top ski shop retailer for ski gear for sale and rentals, plus boot fitting and equipment service. Cal Ski Co is a ‘specialty ski shop focused on ski equipment sale and rental since 1989. They sell and rent equipment for both Resort and Backcountry Ski Touring. Their team of expert ski boot fitters are the best in the business. They repair and tune about anything that slides on snow. Looking for a job? Cal Ski Co is currently hiring as of October 29, 2020. Full-time and part-time employment available: job openings, ski tech and boot-fitter. Experience is desirable but not necessary. The only criteria is that you are a skier. Interested or know of someone who is? Email resumes to .’
✔ Backcountry and Outback Adventures for Telemark and Randonee Ski Rentals, Fremont, CA and Larkspur, CA – Outback Adventures is a comprehensive outdoor adventure guide service, rental shop, and paddlesports and nordic ski specialty retailer located in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Located in the Giant Forest area of Sequoia National Park, Wuksachi Lodge is a modern lodge with 102 guestrooms. It offers a cocktail lounge, a full service restaurant and both a retail and ski shop. At an elevation of 7,050 ft. (1,980 m), Wuksachi Lodge is only 4 miles away from the Giant Forest Museum.
Delaware North Parks & Resorts offers multiple services like overnight accommodations, retail, food and beverage, etc. at Kings Canyon National Park in the area of Grant Grove and Cedar Grove. Limited Internet is available in some areas of the main lodge. Wuksachi Lodge is open throughout all the seasons.
At an elevation of 6,500 ft (1,980 m), the Grant Grove Cabins is located in the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park. It offers 6 types of cabins; some are even opened all year. Main attractions like a sequoia grove, gifts shop, markets and restaurants are half a mile (800m) away from the Grant Grove Cabins. Open: All Year (limited in the winter)
✔ PEAR LAKE WINTER HUT
Managed by the Sequoia Parks Conservancy, Pear Lake Winter Hut is a rustic hut of 10 bunk beds that opens during winter and requires reservations but only for wilderness skiers who travel to Pear Lake during the cold season. At an elevation of 9,200 ft. the hut sits high above Lodgepole. This hut includes a wood-pellet stove. To get to it, you need to go through six miles on skis or snowshoes. Reservations can be made online or by phone: 559-565-3759.
Got a key backcountry resource not listed here that you’d like to share? Contact . Advance thanks for sharing.
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