Jake, a backcountry enthusiast, has written a series of 4 portraits of people who are leaders in backcountry skiing. This is the second part of the 4 part series.
Most trips into the backcountry are a great day out. Sometimes though, they don’t go quite to plan and occasionally they can go horribly wrong. Adam McCabe, a South Coast boy, has been kind enough to share his experiences, both good and bad.
Adam, cheers for letting us into your life, where are you from and what’s your snow background?
I’m from Lake Cathie, where I grew up, went to school and surfed the fine beaches of the NSW Mid North Coast. After a spell up around Byron and Lennox, going to uni and surfing, or maybe the other way round, I moved to the Bega Valley on the Far South Coast of NSW, where I’ve been ever since. Being a surfer it was only natural for me to strap on a snowboard the first time I hit the snow and that was about thirteen years ago.
When did you first venture out of the resorts?
It wasn’t too long after I first started boarding. I was lucky enough to meet up with a few guys who had solid experience and knowledge of the backcountry, both here in Oz and in the Alps, so they took me out and ‘showed me the ropes’.
I clearly remember my first time out - it was an extremely poor snow year and we walked out from Guthega and half way up Little Twynam before strapping on our snow shoes. We ended up over at the ‘Sirens’ and the snow was only half way down to Watsons Ck with big rocks poking through everywhere.
I was pretty much sold on the experience though - the great outdoors, the space and quiet, and doing something different with a couple of mates. As I like to keep fit, the physicality and challenges of ‘earning your turns’ also appealed to me.
That was the beginning of many trips into the Main Range area and despite a momentary setback a few years ago, I can’t imagine myself giving it up anytime soon.
Which backcountry areas have you grown to like over the years?
For easy access one of my go to areas is the southern end of Ramshead Range, usually out of DHG. I’ll go there if I’m a bit short of time or if the weather is inclement. It’s also a progressive area, where one can practise and improve before heading further out into the hills, to the areas around Leatherbarrel and Twin Humps.
But, overall I do favour the longer and steeper rides that feature on the western side of the Main Range. Out there is like being in another country with plenty of terrain that would challenge the best of us. Curruthers ‘backside’ has several nice chutes and the rides achievable into the Watson’s Ck area from the surrounding peaks are just some that spring to mind. The Sentinel is of course an icon out there, but up until now it has eluded me. It’s on the list for this season though.
Going out to the western faces is a different story though - it’s a long way from home and the consequences, should things go wrong, can be serious. Ice can be a problem, avalanches do occur and don’t even think about it if the forecast is for detereorating weather. It’s not a place for complacency and inexperience.
What gear are you on and what equipment do you carry?
I’m on a LibTech board, fairly standard design, including the bindings. What gets me around out there is a quality pair of MSR snow shoes and adjustable poles. I have often entertained the idea of a splitboard and skins but that’s as far as I’ve got. I’m used to the snow shoes and although a bit slower than skinning their advantage is built in grippers/crampons, an important tool I’ve had to rely on regularly.
I carry enough gear to spend a night if I have to including a Personal Locating Beacon (PLB), bivvy, packable puffy, whistle, phone, shovel, helmet, map, first aid kit, food, water and tools to effect equipment repairs. I carry everything in a 40+ l pack that I always bring, no matter how short the trip or how close to help/civilisation. The slightly bigger pack supports my board better during long carries.
Do’s and dont’s
I always watch the weather in order to pick a suitable ‘window’.
Carry the right gear - especially when it comes to safety, get a PLB, don’t rely on mobile phone coverage, especially in the gullies.
Operate within your limits - a conservative approach lasts longer.
Don’t rush - you can always come back and ride that line.
Be observant of the environment - don’t hang out under big cornices and there are plenty of them out there.
Don’t go bombing lines you’re not familiar with - walk up the line first, get to know the terrain.
Check your gear regularly - once you’re ten kms out and something breaks you instantly become a liability.
Keep an open mind and learn from those who know.
What advice would you give to the uninitiated backcountry rider?
Never ever go alone, go with someone who is experienced and pick their brains about everything backcountry.
Get the right equipment as your life may one day depend on it. Call in and see the crew at Rhythm Snowsports, they have the right gear and experienced helpful staff.
Don’t take your resort approach backcountry, scale it back a few notches, no ski patrol out there to cart you off to the doc.
Start out gradually ie shorter trips close to the resorts. Don’t attempt a long approach to the western faces until you have the experience, equipment and fitness to make it back.
Learn how to navigate and familiarise yourself with the country. There’re lots of terrain traps out there, canyons and ridges that can confuse and add to travel time.
Respect it, but enjoy it - it’s a different world out there, big, remote and bloody awesome.
What’s your most memorable experience?
The good first - Sitting down by Watson’s Ck on a bluebird calm August day eating lunch with a couple of mates, after sharing some great snow during the morning on AAA and Sirens. And I must add another, very similar day, lunching below The Sentinel after riding the chutes on Curruthers northern side. Days I’ll never forget and something so few get to experience. And then there’s the not so good - Overall, I prefer to adopt a cautious approach, something that was quite brutally rammed home to me one day on Ramshead. During a particularly icy day (and there can be a lot of that out there) I was traversing on my board just below the summit on the western side. I thought the whole scene was becoming a little too sketchy so I decided to put on my snow shoes, which have crampons, and climb out. As I sat down on a rock, I slipped and started sliding down the side of the face. Being only partially clipped in I had no real method of self arrest, so kept on accelerating down the ice until I hit rocks after about 70m. The resultant scene was fairly chaotic. There was that instant feeling of numbness, associated with fractures, to both my legs, but that quickly turned to pain. It dawned on me that both my legs were stuffed and that I was stuck on the western side of Ramshead, a long way from help. But this was also where the experience of my buddy kicked in. He was soon by my side and commenced what initial first aid he could render. There was no way we would be able to get me out via our own means, we needed help. With nil mobile coverage we activated my PLB and started waiting.
It was kind of weird lying there watching the small PLB sitting there on a rock with its‘ antenna pointing towards the sky, regularly emitting a bright little flash. Would it work?
It did, but it seemed to take forever. Luckily it was a nice day with little wind. About two hours after activation a spotter plane commenced flying a grid above and by that stage my buddy had also established a phone connection after climbing back to the top of the mountain. Another couple of hours passed and finally I heard the savioural sound of the Snowy Hydro Southcare rescue chopper. From then on everything happened fairly quickly, their doctor and paramedic were winched down and started attending to me. They established an IV and administered some pretty good pain killers, my memory from then onwards a bit spotty. I do remember waking up momentarily while dangling about six feet below the chopper during the winch up before being flown to Canberra. I ended up spending four weeks in hospital, even longer in a wheel chair, but luckily I’ve now healed up sufficiently to again enjoy our backcountry. I do carry around a bit of titanium in my ankle, but I’m doing fine.
I’ve analysed what happened that day many many times in my head and concluded that despite being aware of the conditions (red flag) I went against my gut feeling. I put this down to being with a more experienced rider who was leading the push. I disregarded my own decision making process and followed him, something I shouldn’t have done and will never do again.
It also raises the issue of how important it is to maintain good and agreeable two way communications at all times, but even more so when conditions get tricky. But above all, it’s an example of how a couple of preventable events culminated in a near disaster. Despite my usual careful and deliberate approach to backcountry riding, my slip that day resulted in serious injuries, but it could have been worse. Without the Southcare rescue chopper and its crew I don’t know what the outcome would have been, I’ve certainly learnt that they’re an essential organisation and carry out an unrivalled service, often around difficult and traumatic conditions. So take this lesson on board and be careful, but enjoy our great back yard as I continue to do, possibly even as you’re reading this.
Thanks for sharing your experiences Adam, we’re stoked that you, and your bits of titanium, are still out there getting amongst it.
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