BACKCOUNTRY MENTORSHIP PROGRAM
Voile: After our first interview, we know you both have impressive resumes when it comes to the backcountry and spend A TON of time exploring the Uinta Mountains. How does this experience play into ISA’s Backcountry Mentorship Program?
Shaun: We both have been teaching the AIARE curriculum for a long time. Through this, we are able to share the Uintas with our students and watch the lightbulb go off in them. When students are expressing things like, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable coming out here in this kind of terrain. There’s nobody around. Like what do you do?” So we thought, let’s create this program that caters exactly to your learning objectives and outcomes. The idea (of the Backcountry Mentorship Program) grew out of this.
Weston: While it might have started like that, now the Backcountry Mentorship Program has evolved to bridge the gaps in formalized avalanche education. An Avalanche 1 shouldn’t serve as a stand-alone, but rather as part of a whole progression. Also, it seems like many other Avy 1 classes have become people’s introduction to the backcountry. You really shouldn’t take an avalanche class without at least putting your skins on or learning how to get into your tech bindings. While we have many folks wanting to gain some experience before taking their first Avalanche 1, we also have folks wanting to go from a recreational backcountry background into the professional realm. Whatever it may be, with this program you get personalized education and mentorship.
S: The curriculum in standardized avalanche education is amazing but I do think those classes are limited by the fact that there can be around 21 students for 3 instructors. And you have to default to the lowest common denominator. We have a 3 to 1 ratio.
V: Many of us Utahns have been spoiled by learning to backcountry tour in the Central Wasatch with top-notch forecasting, oodles of observations, a GSP backcountry ski map, and reliable service in most zones. For folks looking to step out of their backyard comfort zone, how does the mentorship program help?
W: There’s a great community and a lot of mentors in the Wasatch. To be honest, while the Wasatch is great, we see a lot of bad practice out there. And learning the right way is important. As our good friend J.T. Robinson says, “Have a mentor, be a mentor, and continue to learn.”
W: Plus formalized education is easier to digest. When you learn in the Wasatch with friends, a social group, or in college it can be fairly easy. But to people who just came into town it’s like, “Oh my god. This is so intimidating. How do I get into the backcountry?” And we can help them.
S: It’s unlimited in its flexibility. I realized as I was teaching a lot of certified avalanche courses, a lot of people don’t know basic map reading skills. Even if you are using Caltopo, if you don’t know how to take the satellite and then look at a topo map and make sense of the two, you can really get yourself hosed. So in the mentorship program, we will take maps and work on in-depth or basic map skills to make sure you have that skill in addition to the avalanche component, terrain management, survival skills, etc. We can dive into a little bit of the medical side but that’s not our forte. However, we can link people up to the right medical programs.
W: Ready for my cornball moment? The mentorship program is like the bridge to anywhere. If you want a bridge from an Avy Level 1 to a Level 2, if you’ve never toured to a Level 1, or recreational to professional, it’s the bridge to go wherever you want.
S: I love it! That should be on our website.
V: With the customization, are there prerequisites for the mentorship course?
W: No, that’s one of the beautiful things about it! There are no prerecs. So many times in life there are prereqs and this is like, show up as you are and we will teach you what you want and need to know.
S: The biggest thing in all of our programs is we really ask our clients and participants to come ready to learn and share with us what you want to get out of it. Come having an idea, let us meet you there and show you a whole expansive view beyond that as well.
W: Our guides love it too! We have guides who ski, tele, splitboard; a bunch of women, a bunch of guys. We can set you up with whoever. Because everything is so customizable, you can have the same guide or we can switch and swap and you get different perspectives. We are flexible and able to give people exactly what they want.
V: What does the group size look like and how do you match up different objectives?
S: Everything we run (other than our Spring Ski Mountaineering camp) is private- privately booked and privately run. When we tried opening programs up to a group, we kept asking ourselves, “How do you match up skills? How do you match up expectations”
S: And going back to Weston’s point, if we opened it up to the public, then we suddenly have to deal with prerequisites to make sure people are on the same page. So for our mentorship program and guided tours, everything is privately booked and privately guided. So we can match expectations, skill level, and desire.
W: Let’s say for example you and your partner or a group of friends want to take it together; we can do that for sure. You guys have more similarities than differences in that realm and know what to expect from each other.
S: Multiple people can sign up but as long as they are privately booked (together) so you know who is in your group and you all have decided to go through this experience together.
V: Plus, then participants are getting all of the attention instead of having to split it up between the group, which is a huge benefit!
V: In the Backcountry Mentorship Program, what’s the balance between reading snow stability, route finding, rescue skills, backcountry decision making, etc.?
W: We hate to abuse this word, but it’s totally customized. Whatever you want. If people are like, “I really just want to learn movement. I need to figure out kickturns, they’ve been plaguing me for 15 years. How do I do a freaking kick turn?” Cool, let’s put a priority on that. It could have nothing to do with avalanche stuff. We could have others that are like, “Okay so I’m studying for this avy exam. Help me prep.” So we can do whatever people want.
W: Shaun does a really good job goal-setting the first time we meet with people. Personally in my guidebook, I’ll write down those goals and make sure we hit all of them. Then at the end, (of the three mentorship days) we can go back and see if there’s anything missing.
S: And it’s cool because the mentorship program is three days and you get to choose whether you want them consecutively or whether you want to break them up throughout the season. We’ve even had people sign up for an entire season of mentorship, so a double mentorship, where they did six days with us throughout the entire season. They wanted to eventually take their Avalanche Level 1 but they wanted to understand a lot more before going into that course. So we were able to follow the season’s snowpack from the start all the way to the end while also covering a lot of terrain management and on-the-go snow observations which was really cool!
S: Then we’ve also had people use us like a steep skiing camp. They wanted to figure out how to safely get into steeper, more committing terrain in the backcountry. They’d been backcountry users for a long time and they just wanted to feel comfortable when, why, and where to go to get some steep skiing in the backcountry. Those are two custom approaches to the mentorship program that are definitely pretty different.
V: Are there less-obvious perks to the Mentorship program people probably wouldn’t think of?
S: Access to your guide. They can become your mentor at the end of the program. We definitely don’t want people to abuse it so don’t be asking things like, “Where would you go skiing today to find the best pow? Hey, can I follow you today, you know, as buddies?” This is a professional business and we ask that you respect our knowledge and craft. But we do welcome students to continue contacting us with email questions from some of the topics we went over, as well as book a day of continuing education. We’d love to have you out and continue to grow those relationships!
S: Plus Weston and I are a part of that guide team too and have that experience as well. It becomes more of a point of community. When you go through the mentorship program, you are in the fold of our community and our community reaches far beyond Inspired Summit and into the backcountry community as a whole.
Learn more about the Backcountry Mentorship Program here.