The Most Common Mistakes When Snowboarding Out of Bounds

Snowboard expert Jack S. shares a story about snowboarding in the backcountry and the important and dangerous lessons he learned from it.

Snow-covered mountaintops with a pale gray sky behind them.

Photo by Paul Gilmore

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Join me as I’ll be exploring the most common mistakes snowboarders can make when venturing out of bounds. With the ski resort industry, let alone life as we know it, being turned upside down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m sure we are bound to see an increase in backcountry riding this year. Riding in the backcountry can be expensive and require extensive knowledge about things such as proper splitboard setups, sleds, and avalanche classes—a lot of things that most snowboarders are just too impatient or broke to have.

Since this is a topic I believe one can only explain through personal experience, bear with me as I tell you a story from my early years in Colorado. It’s how I came to know how grueling and harsh the beautiful Rocky Mountains can be and how the most painful experiences can teach us more than we ever knew about ourselves. No one ever thinks the worst situations in life can happen to them until they do, which means we end up unprepared for these enduring challenges. You never want to be caught in a state of confusion and panic when one should stay calm, cool, and collected. Hopefully, I can help you avoid the same ignorant mistakes I made on a gorgeous December day.

Red sign that has a skull and crossbones and reads, "This is your decision point. Back country risks include death."

Photo by Joshua Sukoff

I moved to Vail from Aspen in 2015. That year we had amazing early season conditions with everything on the front side open and most of the backside being prepped to open the following week. This was also a slow time for my shop, which was at the base of Golden Peak in front of Chair 6. Only ski school, racers, and park kids go there. Our manager let three of us take off for the day around 11 that morning.

At one point someone suggested we should end the day by riding “West Vail”. My ego was too big for me to question the idea and we all agreed. Remember, I have no frame of reference where I was inbounds and now we’re going out of the gates! We made our way down to Lionshead Village and jumped on the gondola at about 3:00 which took us to the top where it meets Chair 26. We walked up the hill towards the top of Chair 26 with Beaver Creek in the distance and made our way out of the backcountry access gate (the fact we didn’t duck any ropes was about the only thing we did right).

That’s something I would like to clarify since this seems to be a sensitive topic among skiers and riders alike. I had my pass suspended for two weeks one time for a “misunderstanding” between me and a mountain safety employee at Beaver Creek, not Ski Patrol. One CAN duck under the ropes to the OUTSIDE of the SKI RESORT BOUNDARY as long as one doesn’t intend to re-enter anywhere other than the base. But ducking ropes INSIDE the ski resort boundary is off-limits due to the fact Ski Patrol ropes areas off for safety reasons (lack of snow, down trees, creek exposure, cliffs, etc.). They would advise you to exit the resort through one of the many gates the ski patrol puts up, which we correctly did.

Someone in a red jacket walks up a snowy slope with a snowboard on their back.

Photo by Jason Abdilla

At this point, I would like to point out the first major mistake I made that I wouldn’t recognize as a serious error for years until I gained more knowledge about board shapes and profiles. I only had one board at this time and it was your typical twin-tip all-mountain Burton when I should have been on a board with a semi-directional shape, if not full-directional. Knowing what I know now I would either pick the Jones Flagship as a semi directional or Bataleon Party Wave as a full directional. So always make sure your board can handle the terrain you plan on riding or else you’ll end up getting stuck every 100 feet like me. A wise man will make a mistake once and learn from it but a fool is destined to repeat the same mistake forever. With that said, we started our way down which felt good at first as we trailed each other, one after the other, finding little side hits and jibbing downed trees. We then hit the trees and were making our own tracks.

It was at this point that a wave of uncertainty and doubt came over me and I began to assess what was in my backpack. It was just my work clothes, one Gatorade, and half a pack of Marlboro Reds, all of which would not help my situation.

Suddenly, the landscape went flat and we were in snow up to our shins which was deep enough to almost completely stop us. We all maintained speed trying not to get stuck. At the same time, we were jumping over knocked-down trees which felt almost impossible. Then, one by one, we ultimately got stuck and separated from each other.

Everyone had a different mindset and we were each unsure of what the others were thinking. Keep in mind, I had only met Dustin and Drew that afternoon and Joe and Adam a week before. I never want to be the one who holds the group up because I can’t hang so I’ll usually break myself before I give up and let the mountain beat me. That day was different. It was as if Floyd Mayweather was boxing a 70-year-old Muhammed Ali. My heart was there but my body was failing me, a feeling I wasn’t accustomed to. Luckily, I wasn’t the weakest link in the group. That award would go to Dustin, who had started to get nervous like he was on his first date. He began talking about how this was the lame part of snowboarding, how he wished he had never come with us, and how he was going to die less than a mile from his apartment—all of which was not exactly comforting or encouraging. Joe managed to say the opposite and talked about how he was somehow still having fun and that snowboarding isn’t always easy.

A man on a snowboard stands perpendicular to the slope. He's next to a snow-dusted tree.

Photo by Jack S.

As we finally made it through the flattest part of the Rockies, we all started riding hard and fast, as if we were being chased by a mountain lion. My biggest fear was falling and getting left behind because I didn’t know where I was inside the resort and I most definitely didn’t know my way outside of it. At this point, the sun was starting to set and I was getting scared. I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments that evening when I thought I could possibly die if I took a wrong turn or got caught up for just a few minutes. These guys barely knew me so why should they put their life at risk for me?

It started getting colder but we were all riding hard and over-exerting ourselves which led to high body temperatures and sweating. I was in front of Joe and Dustin and behind Drew and Adam and I didn’t want to be the guy to fall so I’m riding like it’s the Olympics. Suddenly, I felt the snow fall out from underneath me and I looked down to see Adam and Drew about 100 yards in front of me but about 30 feet below. I had just gone off a pretty sizable cliff and had I known that I was about to send it that big then it might not have been such a big deal.

Surprisingly, I stomped the landing only to ride straight into a downed tree which knocked the wind out of me and wedged me in between two trees. It was starting to get dark and panic was really starting to set in. I didn’t know what to do and when I reached for my cell phone, it was dead. Thankfully, I heard Joe yell my name in the distance as I started shouting expletives, “YO JACK, YOU GOOD? JUST CHILL AND GET TO US WHEN YOU CAN! WE’RE STRAIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU.” I made the common mistake of panicking when I was trying to unstrap my binding which was just out of my reach. In doing so, I started to over-exert myself. I had been wearing gloves, not mittens, and ever since that day, I wear mittens because of this very moment. My hands were sweating so bad that when I went to take my gloves off, the inside layer followed and I couldn’t get my gloves back on. I was so warm that the snow wasn’t bothering me so I thought to myself “no problem,” when actually it was one of the biggest problems I could have. In addition, my goggles started to fog from the temperature of my face so I had to ride with no gloves and my eyes tearing up.

An orange sign in the snow that reads, "Caution Cliff Area." The sign is covered in stickers.

Photo by Jack S.

For anybody reading this who understands how the human body works, they’ll know that I was in the early stages of hypothermia. I was ignorant to the fact that my body was starting to overheat and when I made it back to the group, they realized that I was not myself. Somehow I managed to strap my board on and Joe and Adam followed me down through the trees. As the other two rode off, we ended up in Tom Hanks’ backyard. We walked down the street and caught the bus home, all of us speechless except for Joe who kept making Spongebob references.

It’s one of those experiences you never expect to have and when it’s over, you have a profound appreciation for your life. When I woke up the next day for work, I couldn’t move from my bed. I am in no way weak or faint of heart—when I was in high school, I ran six miles without stopping, trained for wrestling, and could bench-press 225 lbs in sets of 12 (don’t misinterpret this statement, I’m nowhere near that type of shape anymore! Again, just a frame of reference). But when I woke that day it was as if my body had been in a hospital bed for years. I didn’t go to work, snowboard, or even eat. I slept on and off for about 36 hours, running over the events in my head.

I can say with full confidence that since that day, I haven’t been half as fearful for me or my friends’ well-being when riding. I must mention something else and bring to light how it would have completely changed the outcome of that day. When we were at the top of the mountain strapping in, there was a group of employees outside the gate. They had just left work at the lodge and were drinking beers about to take the same run as us but they went the right way. However, they made a mistake that we were lucky enough to avoid and if anybody takes anything away from this article it’s this lesson. These guys were all pretty hammered after the run to the bottom and they were in a rather big group with half going to the George (local watering hole) and the others going home. No one thought to do a roll call and no one noticed one of their friends hadn’t made it home until 36 hours later, after he missed a day of work and his parents hadn’t gotten a call from him. They found him about mid-mountain, stuck in a tree well, frozen while he was trying to pull himself out.

Joe and I still talk about what happened that day but neither one of us really realized how easily that could’ve been us. People always say that there are no friends on a powder day. Well, who likes to ride by themselves? Luckily I didn’t let the mountain beat me and Joe is still one of my best friends to this day. So on that awesome, painful day, I accomplished all my goals for the season. I developed a knowledge of Vail’s layout and learned that the mountain isn’t just another ride at Disney World.

Before I wrote this I couldn’t find any other article in the snowboarding world pertaining to the subject. As I stated at the beginning, I feel that this is a topic that can only be discussed since there is no better teacher in the world than experience. We must remember as snowboarders to ride responsibly and with control. I’m not saying we can’t be rowdy and ride like it’s the last time we will ever ride again but there’s a time and place for days like those. When you want to push your limits and knowledge, then you must be prepared to do so. Below I listed the mistakes and lessons I learned from that day, I hope you read over them carefully and can take away something from them. Even though there was a sign warning me, nobody ever told me of the dangers when I went outside the gate that day. Ignorance can be your biggest enemy and to be ignorant of nature can be your last decision in this short life.

A man in a helmet and goggles stands holding his snowboard. Snow is blowing hard and obscures the image.

Photo by Tim Nöhrer

Mistakes and Lessons

  • Have a plan: Always know where you’re going and tell at least one person outside of the group where you’re planning on riding.
  • Be on time: Whenever you plan on going out of bounds, assume the worst and hope for the best. Ultimately that means you need an early start should anything happen to delay you from getting out of the backcountry.
  • Group awareness: Don’t go with people who say they went this really “sick way this one time”. The only places to go that you’re not familiar with are with people who undoubtedly know the area and the safest and quickest way out.
  • Hydration: It was this day that I learned how essential water can be for the body and your mind to think clearly and make calculated decisions.
  • Have the right equipment: Correct board, walkie talkies/cell phone/SAT phone
  • Stay calm even if you’re not: It’s times like these that we get pushed to our physical and psychological limits and discover our true selves. It’s not going to do you or your friends any good if you start crying and screaming for help that isn’t coming. We all make choices and sometimes those choices can have negative consequences which we must ultimately work with towards the most positive outcome. If you’ve ever listened to the black box of a plane crash, whether it ends in catastrophe or a miracle, the pilot always has the same calm, flat tone of voice, communicating with the ground trying to come to a quick, safe solution. I know this may sound intense but I believe it’s a necessary mindset to have when there’s nobody coming to your rescue and you have to fight for survival.
  • Snowboarding is a team sport: Just like staying calm is essential, it does help for the group to stay with the same positive attitude. The moment that one guy begins speaking about how everybody is going to be eaten one by one by mountain lions is the moment everybody starts to question themselves and starts thinking only for themselves. The group must remain a unit—remember the goal, look out for each other, and care more for your friends’ well-being than your own.
  • Stay positive
  • Make sure everybody makes it home: Snowboarding is the most amazing feeling in the world and I wish I could do it all day, every day for the rest of my life. But at some point, we all have to go home. So make sure your friends make it off the mountain safe so everybody can ride again the next day.

If you enjoyed this little story and think you might need help with your backcountry gear then please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Snowboard experts here on Curated for free advice. We’re happy to discuss whatever issues you might have with your gear!

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Written By
Jack S.
Jack S.
Snowboard Expert
Hello all, ​ My name is Jack (My birth name is John but everyone knows me as Jack) Sherwood and I'm from a small town south of Atlanta called Newnan. I was lucky and born with a dad who hated the beach and loved taking us out west at an early age. From 12 years old I knew I would spend the rest of m...
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