Robin Van Gyn's Keys to Guiding in the Backcountry

TETON GRAVITY RESEARCH / September 25, 2015

Written by MacKenzie Ryan

Robin Van Gyn just returned to Canada after a busy season of working for SASS Global Travel in Argentina. The Whistler-based pro snowboarder splits her time between filming and guiding in the backcountry. She also lent her combo of riding and guiding skills to the all-female backcountry snowboarding flick, Full Moon Film, coming out next fall. 

Van Gyn was kind enough to give us some beta about how to become a guide, keep your clients safe, and still push your riding. Here's what she had to say.

#1: If a lady shred wants to get into guiding, how can she go about doing that? 

It's a process, for sure, It differs between Canada and the US and Europe, so it's best to start doing research right away. Ian not even a "full" guide yet. I am still working on logging hours on snow and doing what I can to get there.

Start with a professional-level avalanche certification and a relevant medical certification like a Wilderness First Responder or Outdoor Emergency Care. Next, get some time on snow with experienced people, and observe and listen.

Monster backside slash. Ben Girard Photo

Monster backside slash. Ben Girard Photo

It's all about being aware, taking in all the info you can get, and applying it to the things that you are seeing and feeling.

I am really early in the game as a guide. I take orders and openings with clients from someone else who has much more experience than I do. That is the process. We learn from people who have more experience in avalanche terrain and try to pay attention to what they are doing and TAKE NOTES.

Keeping (clients) safe has a lot to do with communication on terrain, snow, and ability. If we know what we are getting into and what clients are capable of, the decision-making becomes a lot easier. There is always something to learn. To challenge our clients, we see where they have room for improvement. It might be terrain. There is always something to learn, even in the mellowest of terrain. 

Safety First, even when it comes to big spins in the Whistler backcountry. Ben Girard Photo

Safety First, even when it comes to big spins in the Whistler backcountry. Ben Girard Photo

#3: How did that guiding and risk mitigation experience come into play as you shot Full Moon Film? 

Full Moon is filled with strong women who can all stand on their own feet when it comes to knowing the snowpack and being aware of the risks, etc. We all check the weather for the day, the avalanche bulletins. We are ready and efficient with all our gear. This makes everything pretty easy when it comes to decision-making as a crew. 

I communicate what I know with them and them with me, and it becomes easy to move as a crew safely in the mountains. I think we could benefit from more practice with rescue, but I am also confident that any one of them would be totally prepared. 

I think human factors are more of a risk for us. Knowing the cameras are on, being competitive with each other, and going to terrain we are really familiar with are all things we need to think about. These are things that are common and hard for film crews to avoid in many cases. When the cameras are out, it's obvious that sometimes we are willing to accept more risk. That can also become a problem. The mountains will humble us so quickly.

#4: Can you elaborate on your split role as a guide and a pro snowboarder?

Like I said, I am not quite a "full" guide, but the process has really helped me in snowboarding. It made perfect sense for me to supplement snowboarding with guiding. Moving towards that goal has taught me so much. 

It starts with being scared of everything and then learning to trust you experience and your gut. As backcountry  athletes, we sell the lifestyle and our sponsors' products that go along with that type of snowboarding. I think at some point I saw the disconnect between pushing people to go there and then realizing that they may or may not have the tools to do it safely. This really pushed me to try to encourage other people to get some sort of training, basic or advanced, to coincide with what I was selling as a lifestyle.

Hiking for the Goods. Ben Girardi Photo

Hiking for the Goods. Ben Girardi Photo

#5: Can you talk about guiding and riding the backcountry in foreign countries where you might not have avalanche forecasting? 

Without having a resource like the Canadian Avalanche Association, we have to rely more on all the inputs we are given or collecting to make decisions. Whether it's terrain, weather, snowpack, or our crew, we have to really take all the information we get. Then we just get our hands in the snow and feel and see what it's doing. 

That being said, I don't think you can totally rely on forecasting to know exactly what's going on in a specific area that you are planning to travel. It's a HUGE resource. It can provide great info, but it's a blanket. We need to do some footwork wherever we travel anyway. There are too many variables to say, "It will be safe here because the forecast said so."

By no means do I feel like I can go anywhere in the world and take people out safely in avalanche terrain. I am not there yet. I have so much more to learn before I would feel comfortable doing that. It takes so much experience to be able to pull all the parts together.

Outrunning sluff in Haines, AK. Phil Tifo Photo

Outrunning sluff in Haines, AK. Phil Tifo Photo

#6: How do you help clients manage their fear in the backcountry? Their expectations? Your own?

Fear is a good thing. It keeps us in check. It's there for a reason. It's all about communication. If we are all clear and honest about what's going on, understanding where we are going and what we are doing becomes that much easier.

Leading other people is a totally different thing. You have to step out of your normal snowboarding mind and go into a different mode. There is less room for error. As long as you are aware of hazards, whether it's terrain, snowpack or guide attitudes, you have the ability to recognize that. Then the decision-making within that leadership role becomes more straight forward.