Taming the backcountry
Chris and Jenny Fellows are the founders of the North American Ski Training Center, a high-performance ski school based in Truckee.
The center offers clinics for intermediate to expert skiers all around the world. Chris Fellows is also a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America national demonstration team for alpine skiing, the highest level a ski professional can attain in the United States.
With an excellent reputation for teaching students how to ski better at various resorts around Tahoe, and the world ” and the growing number of people wanting to go beyond the resort boundaries ” NASTC has adjusted their curriculum to include a number of backcountry skiing clinics this season.
Fellows recently took the time to answer a few questions about backcountry skiing and the upcoming NASTC clinics at locations in Tahoe and Northern California:
Sierra Sun: How is teaching in the backcountry different from teaching in-bounds at a resort?
Fellows: That’s a good question. When teaching in the backcountry, we’re basically teaching people how to be self-sufficient. At the resort, there’s a lot of infrastructure there that we can use, which is good for what we’re doing with the skiers there. But the minute you leave the boundary, you don’t have ski patrol anymore, they’re not controlling the avalanche danger, there’s no one to bandage up your head if you hit a tree or something…
You have to acquire a set of skills that will allow you to go into the backcountry and have a good time and be safe. So it’s kind of teaching people how to get in there and have a really good time, and at the same time protect themselves from big, nasty falls or avalanches or getting lost.
SS: So do you have much time to focus on people’s actual skiing skills, or is it more focused on the survival skills necessary to ski the backcountry?
Fellows: It’s more about surviving – climbing techniques and using skins, the use of beacons and probes, proper route selection. And there is instruction if someone is having a hard time with a certain type of snow condition.
It’s not like the resort where we can do a bunch of drills, and then practice those drills by doing laps on the chair. You’re not getting that kind of vertical.
SS: What kind of students do you find signing up for your backcountry courses? And do you see a trend in people getting out into the backcountry?
Fellows: What we’re seeing is that a lot of our skiers have been at the resorts for a long time, and they know that maybe there is a busy holiday coming up and they just don’t want to deal with those crowds at the resort. So they’re looking for an alternative, and the backcountry provides a great alternative on a busy weekend.
You can get out away from the crowds, get on a pristine peak, have a little bite to eat, check out the scenery and then have an awesome ski decent down. It really opens up the whole world to our skiers. The resort is great, but once you go under the ropes it’s a whole different world.
SS: What kind of skier do you have to be to enroll in one of the backcountry courses?
Fellows: All our NASTC courses are for intermediate to expert skiers, so somebody needs to at least be able to make parallel turns down blue terrain. If they can do that, they can get into the backcountry.
SS: Are there more strenuous fitness requirements for the backcountry courses?
Fellows: It would be nice to be able to run a mile. Because you’re going uphill, it is more work. But usually we’re teaching along the way, so it’s not such a hard push that people are exhausted. There are water breaks, food breaks, information gathering breaks, teaching breaks… So it’s paced.
SS: So it’s not just slogging up a hill all morning and then skiing down?
Fellows: No, but we do have a course like that for people who really want to get after it. That’s the Climb and Ski a 14,000-foot Peak at Mount Shasta. And that’s more of an all-day-going-long-and-hard experience, and that does have some prerequisites.
SS: Is there anything else people can expect on a typical NASTC backcountry trip?
Fellows: They can expect to really have their eyes opened to a lot of cool information, a lot of nice scenery, some awesome snow because it doesn’t get pounded up by all the skiers, and usually like-minded skiers with them – people who have similar aspirations.
SS: It sounds like fun.
Fellows: It is. It’s a great time.
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