Backcountry bliss is a numbers game. When all of the numbers fall into place—the right amount of snow, the right angle of slope, the right temperature, wind speed and barometric pressure (high, preferably)—one good backcountry skiing experience can transcend the sport into a way of life. But perhaps the most important number to get right is that of ski partners. And to get it right, you need to follow the Rule of Three, which says the following:
Heading into the backcountry by oneself is both good and bad—good because, if your goal is to be alone in a mountain setting, ruminating on some life goal, or simply breaking trail to blow off steam about a girlfriend, boyfriend or boss, then the solitude is well placed. If something goes wrong, though, you could be in a very bad way. In the backcountry, everything is good…until, well, it’s not.
Two people is better. You have a partner for conversation, for breaking trail or for splitting the load if it’s a big day. When done right, that partnership is empowering. If someone gets hurt, there are options for rescue, an essential backcountry consideration. But there’s also a caveat: If decision-making takes a wrong turn, it’s often one opinion battling another, a potentially crippling position to be in when you’re five miles from the trailhead. It’s always good, in this situation, to remember that you can be certain, and still be wrong.
Three people form a triangle, and a triangle forms the most stable platform in physics. It’s also a team. And a democracy—two votes to one—that helps check and balance the overbearing and hot-headed, so parties are more likely to make the right decisions during times of difficulty. In the event of an accident, one team member can stay with the injured party while the other goes for help. And while a backcountry injury is never ideal, having those resources greatly improves your chances of saving a life. Incidentally, there’s also a 50% higher probability that someone remembered beers for the car ride home.
With four skiers, the bond is a square, and squares are boring. Unless, of course, you’re playing Four Square, an enthusiasm well received by grade schoolers who, come to think of it, probably shouldn’t be in the backcountry without adult supervision. So the subject is moot.
Moving on. Five skiers or more, and there’s simply too many people and no balance. If you disagree, it’s probably because you’re often that fifth person, glomming onto a working four pack because you talk too much and have trouble getting ski partners on a regular basis. Backcountry skiing has a long, storied history of bond-building intimacy as an efficient, self-reliant team climbs into the snowy wilds (I humbly submit this is one of its greatest virtues). With five people, the intimacy of the backcountry moment is lost and all you’re left with is a gang. Gangs, with their splinter factions, power trips and hidden agendas, belong on the streets, not on the slopes. If this still isn’t getting through, try re-reading Lord of the Flies.
Much like a good short story has a beginning, middle and end, the backcountry objective—be it 8,000 vertical feet in the High Sierra or a sketchy White Mountains chute—is chosen, climbed and skied. And what better way to honor a peak than to embrace it with a team of three?