Intuition in the Backcountry – Cultivating Your Mountain Spider Sense

June 24, 2013 D'Arcy McLeish
Heli Skiing Setting
Worth the Risk
– Photo Dave Silver

Risk is inherent in almost everything we do. From driving a car to walking down the street, we are always at risk of something. In the mountain environment, that risk becomes both heightened and critical. But is that a bad thing? For sure, doing some of the sports we do, be it heli skiing, ski touring, climbing or riding a mountain bike, I think all of us realize that we potentially take on greater risk than what we encounter in our everyday lives. But that doesn’t stop us from doing what we love. Of course not.

Last Frontier Heli Skiing Safety
Our guides honing their spider sense.
Photo – Last Frontier

But one thing I have learned in my experience in the mountains, from being a dirtbag climber, avid backcountry skier, wilderness guide and professional ski patroller, is that listening and cultivating your mountain intuition is critical to surviving in the mountain environment.

I like to call it your spider sense.  Several years ago the South Coast suffered from several deep instabilities that plagued ski patrollers and guides throughout the winter. Something of a rarity on the Coast to be sure, but what is vivid in my mind is one of our avalanche forecasters saying during a morning meeting before heading out on avalanche control that “if it feels weird out there, it is weird, so listen to your spider senses and don’t take any chances.”

Know When The Push The Limits - Photo Bryn Hughes
Know when to push the limits
– Photo Bryn Hughes

Over the next few years, the depth of those words really sunk in. Managing avalanche terrain can be stressful, and speaking with professional ski and mountain guides many of them say the same things; don’t push the terrain. There are days when you can push things and ski the gnar and there are days where the mountains must be faced with humility. And for anyone in the mountain environment, be it a climber on Everest, an enthusiast out ski touring on a Saturday afternoon or a heli ski guide leading a group of clients, it’s important to listen to your instincts without bias and without arrogance. Arrogance, as one IFMGA Mountain Guide told me, “has no place in the mountains.” And I agree. The risk we face is great enough without bringing our ego into the mix. We can never conquer the mountain environment, at best we can only experience the many gifts it has to offer, but for all us, that has to be on the mountain’s terms, and not ours.

Alaska Heli Skiing
Easy to be humbled
– Photo Dave Silver

So how do you develop your mountain sense? By getting out there with people who know more about it than you do. And that can be with anything. When I learned to climb I went out with climbers who had experience. It’s not always easy finding folks willing to take you under their wing, but mentorship in the mountains is important. Take courses. Avalanche courses like the CAA Level 1 operations course are a great start to a long and safe life in the mountains. Learn first aid and self rescue, be it from a hired guide or from friends who know what they are doing. But at the end of the day, what really teaches us to survive is mileage. Experience counts for so much out there. So go out and start climbing. Start backcountry skiing, ask your guide questions about their decisions when you’re out there skiing pow. Learn to read the signs, the terrain, the weather and most of all, try and understand the fact that the mountains demand respect and can never truly be conquered.

Be safe, ski hard.

Links to training and info:

Canadian Avalanche Centre –

Association of Canadian Mountain Guides –

American Avalanche Association –