25 Film Photos From a 3-Day Backcountry Yurt Trip in Montana
Splitboarding, ski touring, and guided avalanche training deep in the remote Tobacco Root Mountains with Big Sky Backcountry Guides
Graham Hiemstra, Hans Aschim
Contax T2, Yashica T4
A decade ago the number of days I got on hill in a winter often numbered in the high triple digits. Now, I rarely need two hands to keep count. Though my dream of snowboarding for a living has long since faded, my love for the mountains hasn’t. And my interest in adventure (and powder) has only grown. I’ll happily trade a season of mediocre resort boarding for a few epic days in the backcountry.
Learning to splitboard has fueled this fire, opening up terrain that’s always been out of reach. Having a few key friends with similar mentalities and equal skill levels has been huge, too. From Hokkaido and Sun Valley to Jackson Hole and Mount Baker, making at least one powder pilgrimage a season has become a priority.
For 2020, a 3-day backcountry trip outside Bozeman, Montana kicked off the season.
As my number of days spent out of bounds has accumulated through the years, so too has my understanding of the need for proper backcountry education. I always carry an avy pack—beacon, shovel, probe, snacks, layer, first aid, headlamp, etc—but my skills in reading terrain, assessing avalanche conditions, and picking safe lines among a sea of options could certainly improve.
To change this, I booked a 3-day Level 1 Avalanche course with Big Sky Backcountry Guides and, along with fellow New Yorker, Field Mag contributor, and former ski bum Hans Aschim, headed out to Montana.
Bell Lake Yurt was our home for the week—a custom-built 20 foot wide canvas yurt some six miles deep into the Tobacco Root Mountains. Big Sky Backcountry Guides & Bell Lake Yurt owner operator Drew Pogge was our guide. As a longtime writer and former editor-in-chief of Backcountry Magazine, we could talk the usual media guy bullshit. As a board member of the American Avalanche Association and badass ski mountaineer with successful ascents around the world, we knew when to shut up and listen.
Throughout the week we traded “classroom” lessons in the yurt with technical demonstrations in the snow. From digging pits and looking for instability in the snowpack to learning to identify red flags, forecast changing conditions, proper rescue techniques, the amount of knowledge passed between the three of us was immense. And invaluable.
Yes, we did a lot of uphill skiing. But we earned plenty of thigh deep powder turns too.
"Backcountry education isn't just about learning how to save your own skin, and that of those you’re with, but about avoiding danger to begin with."
Backcountry education isn't just about learning how to save your own skin, and that of those you’re with, but about avoiding danger to begin with. The smartest decision one can make is to avoid sketchy terrain and unstable conditions altogether. That said, anyone lacking an education and understanding of the environment is putting others at risk over themselves—if your partner triggers a slide, will you know what to do next?
We made the decision to advance our education before learning first hand know gnarly things can get, and I’m glad we did. But it’s also important to note that our education will always remain ongoing, and that taking an Avy 1 Course isn’t a certification to travel safely in the backcountry.
For those interested in moving into the backcountry, education is tremendously important, but it’s best built on top of an expert ability level (whether on skis or snowboard) and years of riding deep snow inbounds. No number of hours spent in a classroom will ever replace firsthand experience. And not all instructors, guides, or courses are created equal. (For the record, we highly reccomend Bell Lake Yurt's course, regardless of where you're based.)
So, do your research and don’t skimp on an education that both could safe your life and those who you’re with, and open up a whole new world of future adventure.
And in the meantime, enjoy these 35mm photos of some very fine, and very safe, low angle turns.