Who Goes First?

Backcountry Essentials: Politeness, entitlement, sandbagging, and fear

Follow the backcountry skier's etiquette to decide who goes first. PHOTO: Ryan Creary

Follow the backcountry skier’s etiquette to decide who goes first. PHOTO: Ryan Creary

WORDS: Doug Krause

Doug Krause is a skier, guide, patroller, and forecaster from Silverton, Colorado. His favored locales include the Andes, Rockies, and Chugach Mountains.

Bruce Tremper’s Third Commandment of Safe Travel dictates, “Thou shalt never go first.” Few of us are capable of adhering to that behavioral constraint. His point is that stability testing should not threaten life or limb. Fair enough. If I am unsure, afraid, or ignorant, I’m happy to peer cautiously from the back as someone else drops in. When all systems are a go, it gets harder. Sometimes we simply are keen for first tracks.

At a ski area, victory goes to the swift and sure. Backcountry behavior is more complex. A partner and I have an unwritten rule that whoever presents the idea that wins tour du jour gets right of first refusal. If someone broke the majority of the trail on a difficult ascent, then that may take precedence. We occasionally indulge in the lost art of courtesy. It’s hard to be courteous and resist going first when you’re staring down a tight couloir or threading a terrain feature through which the first track will clearly be superior to all the rest. I bank courtesy, so I feel comfortable being selfish when I want to.

On a line I’ve skied plenty of times, I often defer to the less fortunate—deposit in the courtesy bank. If the surface conditions are questionable you can learn a lot by watching someone else ski first. That’s a sandbagging, but if they’re drooling, let ‘em have it. Loud cursing is an indicator of sub-optimal snow conditions.

There may be a guest versus host dynamic. When someone shows me a new piece of terrain I hang back and let them hit it first. If I’m playing guide I expect followers to chill out unless they’re offered first taste. If there is plenty of room for everybody, why not let a guest go first? Maybe skiing the path safely requires familiarity.

When the above techniques are exhausted and everyone is still eyeing the line like a salty tar in a brothel, there will be competition. Simple games of chance like flipping a glove or roshambo are effective. If it feels more like Russian roulette, you are definitely doing something wrong. Large groups can serialize games of chance or try their luck with a melee or feats of strength.

Mr. Tremper is right. The first track is often a de facto stability test. That is good reason to balance your Victorian courtesy with your Hobbesian desire to slay the pow.

  Last week’s backcountry tip: Faceting

Add a comment

  • Androo

    I like the suggestion that it’s courtesy to let someone ski on untested backcountry territory. “No please, you get yourself stuck in an avalanche”. Very gentlemanly.

  • Matt

    Well Androo, if nobody feels conforatable dropping first, it might be a good indication that the skintrack you came up is also the best way down.

  • ptor

    Obligatory ski-cutting by the first skier should be part of this discussion… unlike the unrealistic and dangerous habits of skiers we see in the movies.

Updates and Social Media

Latest News Facebook
Twitter Mtnadvisor