There’s nothing like gliding down the slopes of one of our country’s majestic, snow-covered mountains. But remember — skiing, splitboarding, and snowboarding can be extremely dangerous. We spoke with Level I Avalanche Instructor and backcountry skiier, snowboarder, and splitboarder Larry Banks for his tips on slope safety, especially how he uses our Midland T71s in the mountains of the Idaho Panhandle backcountry.
How long have you been skiing/snowboarding?
I started skiing when I just got out of high school, then switched over to snowboarding about 1992 on Mt. Hood, so about 36 years in the mountains, over 30 of that snowboarding. I moved out to the Inland NW in January 1998 after I made a snowboard trip to the region and decided I wanted to change my mindset and wanted to be closer to the mountains for a work/life balance.
Where do you splitboard?
I spend my time split between 40% resort riding and 60% backcountry. My PanhandleBackcountry.com website partner and I began doing a lot of exploring throughout the Inland NW about 10 years ago, consisting of NE Washington, North Idaho, and Western Montana. It’s been exciting as there were, and still are, many lines that have not been skied, let alone split-boarded in the area. Sort of a last frontier as it takes either long tours or the use of a snowmobile to get out in these areas.
What type of snowboarding/splitboarding do you do?
Specifically, I love freeride terrain. Steep complex lines engage my mind to a new level as there is a lot of pre-work about terrain, snow stability and mental prep that goes into dropping something that has consequences. That said, I also enjoy fun pow laps with friends on mellow terrain as we can get in several runs in a day, especially as the days get longer.
Which Midland radios do you use for snowboarding?
Oh, I love my Midland X-Talker T71VP3. I have found that Midland FRS radios far exceed other brands for range, clarity, ease of use. Just yesterday, we were deep in the Northern Bitterroot mountains, between Idaho and Montana, we had conversations with Melissa from the avalanche center, located on a peak over 12 miles away. Actually, the radios picked up every other group in the area. But with more than 36 channels and 121 privacy channels, a quick change and we were back in our own world. Yet, knowing that if there was an emergency, we have ability to connect with a multitude of other groups.
Do the radios help your skiing process? What do you use them for?
Radios improve overall communication which equates to safety. For backcountry skiing, a person may have stopped on the climb due to equipment issues. When on the ridge tops, there’s usually wind cranking and even being 10ft away becomes difficult to have discussions or give directions. A team member could be sitting in a precarious spot on a slope, wind howling, and I am still able to relay information to get them in a safe spot on the slope. I’ll also note, we use snowmobiles a lot for approach due to the distance to access the best terrain. Sleds mean getting stuck, a lot. LOL. A group could get a long distance away before realizing they’re missing someone. With our Midlands, we become a safer team.
Any advice for people wanting to get into backcountry skiing?
First off, get the gear and education. That consists avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe. Learn how to use them as well as take a Level I avalanche course. Know your local avalanche center website to get the forecast and do your due diligence before going out into the mountains. This is just the basics for getting into the backcountry, as it is a never ending learning process.
Also, reach out to someone with experience as a mentor. Don’t rely on what they are doing or saying, but to help you develop your own experience and mindset. Understand that being in the mountains is about constantly learning. Always know that Mother Nature is in control, you are a guest in that world. Be sure to stay humble.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen/done on the slopes?
LOL, that’s a loaded question, there are some things best unsaid, ya know, do as I say, not as I did. Seriously though, I look back at what we used to do before I had the snow, weather and avalanche education I do now, and I am amazed that we survived. I will note, the top level pros out there today are pushing new limits to the snow sports game. You can watch any snow sport video, whether ski, snowboard or snowmobiling and just be awe inspired!
How can people improve their safety while skiing/snowboarding?
- Be prepared, whether resort riding or backcountry. This involves everything I noted above: gear, education, practice and communication!
- Have your radios. They’re small, lightweight and fit in your jacket pocket. If you know where the radio key button is, you don’t even need to take it out of your pocket. The voice and speaker quality on Midlands are excellent.
- Additionally, I really believe in wearing an avalanche transceiver in-bounds. Last season there was an avalanche at our local resort on a slope that friends and myself have ridden hundreds of times over the last several decades. The slide caught seven skiers, of which it took 3 souls. Transceivers would have helped local the victims quicker with a higher probability of survival. Accidents can happen anywhere there is snow and a steep enough angle; it’s the nature of playing in the mountains. Lastly, when in resorts, respect the ropes and closed areas. Know that when you go beyond any boundary, you are in the backcountry and the slopes are not controlled.
- As for backcountry, do your homework, don’t just charge out and decide that you’re going to ride X mountain or slope. Have a plan A and Plan B, if things are sketchy, there is no shame in turning around. Live to slide another day!
Anything else to add?
Support your local avalanche center!! If everyone that recreated in the backcountry donated $5 to their local avalanche center every year, the center would be funded to run a forecast every day of the week, which is the ultimate goal of every center and in the end, saves lives.