Silverton, Colo. based ski guide Michael Barney is no stranger to risk. After guiding for 17 years in Colorado, Alaska, Iceland, Chile, and beyond, he keeps returning home to his family in the tiny town in Southwestern Colorado. And, despite guiding over 80 days a season, he still takes time to explore the San Juan mountains on his days off.
In all his years guiding, traveling, and, most importantly, skiing, Barney has learned a few lessons about how backcountry skiers—and skiers of all types—can spend more time reflecting on the question of why they do what they do. Working with avalanche professional Doug Krause, cinematographer Jason Ebelheiser, and his primary gear sponsor Black Diamond Equipment, Barney decided to create “The San Juan Series,” a three-part video series.
“I think for a lot of backcountry skiers it’s about more than a few face shots, it’s about the process of the tour,” says Barney. “There are so many variables to planning and executing a successful tour that we are hoping to help people start and move through this learning process at an appropriate rate.”
Each episode focuses on three important tenets to the mindset of a skier: “Patience,” “Humility,” and “Perspective.” From waiting out persistent instability issues in the snowpack to taking his daughter to school via snowmobile, the videos aren’t focused on highlighting the gnarliest skiing viewers have ever seen. Instead, they focus on the things that make skiers human.
“We think the video series is an original take on the experience of being a skier—not technical, not prescriptive, not a gear list or gear review… [and] not “all good all the time” type of look at the life of a skier,” he says.
Episode 1: “Patience”
“As a young guide or backcountry skier it is easy to ask questions and learn, but as we get older and as you become more of an ‘expert,’ I think we all struggle to continue learning,” reflects Barney on the deeper meaning in “Patience,” the first video of the series. “It’s not easy for an expert to admit what or when they don’t know.”
Drawing from his experience as a guide, Barney recommends post-ski tour reflections after each ski day both on a personal level and with your partners to help understand the process to become more patient.
“As a ski guide, [operations I work for] have afternoon or evening meetings reflecting on each day,” Barney says.
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“The idea is to provoke conversations and learn from our mistakes,” Barney continues. “We are reflecting as a group and giving constructive feedback to each other on a daily basis.”
While most backcountry skiers start the day with some semblance of a meeting—ideally, at a minimum, a beacon check—not many recreational skiers take the time to reflect on the day in terms of risks, decisions, and both positive and negative feedback.
“Just because you haven’t died in an avalanche yet doesn’t mean you are making good decisions. We all suffer at times from negative positive reinforcement. When you reflect on your day, you must dig deeper than ‘no one got hurt and we didn’t trigger an avalanche so we must have nailed it.’”
Episode 2: “Humility”
Every expert was once a beginner, and every expert can still make sophomoric mistakes. With this mentality, the second episode of “The San Juan Series” takes a hard look at the development of backcountry skiers as they gain experience.
“As a young guide or backcountry skier it is easy to ask questions and learn, but as we get older and as you become more of an ‘expert,’ I think we all struggle to continue learning,” says Barney. “It’s not easy for an expert to admit what or when they don’t know. Don’t become an “expert” too soon!”
Barney’s recommendation to develop humility is to find someone with more experience to ski with on a regular basis, forming a mentorship that will likely help both participants learn and embrace the unknown.
“The reality is that it takes a long time and a lot of work to really make informed decisions while skiing avalanche terrain,” Barney adds. “Taking avalanche classes, finding good mentors, learning from your local avalanche bulletin, hiring a guide, debriefing every tour, and being honest with yourself is a good start to making appropriate backcountry decisions.”
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Episode 3: “Perspective”
Perhaps the most powerful episode of the three, “Perspective” juxtaposes images of Barney taking his young daughter to school combined with one of the biggest backcountry ski lines directly over the town of Silverton. The first image is clearly invaluable and the other is simply a reward for having the right amount of patience, humility, and—perhaps most importantly—perspective on what matters most.
“Loving skiing and having other things you love in life can coexist,” says Barney. “By being prepared I try to minimize the risk of skiing in avalanche terrain as much as possible. I try not to let my schedule or emotion drive the decisions I make in the backcountry.”
The guide’s most pertinent advice is something every skier should try to follow:
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