Cooking Up a Great Run

Posted on September 27th, 2013 by | 2 Comments

Donny Roth is a ski guide and professional skier who splits his time between Colorado and Chile.  You can follow his personal blog at or check out his guide service in Chile at

Imagine you have walked into a restaurant looking for dinner.  You sit down to the table and open the menu and the only thing listed are all the contents of the kitchen.  Or more accurately, it lists most of the ingredients in the kitchen.  Now, imagine that the waiter asks you to order your meal.  And he asks you to order for everyone at your table.  Sure, you might be able to create the greatest meal of your life.  But think of the variables!  How talented is the chef?  What mood is he in?  What are the preferences of your friends?  Are there allergies to consider?  It would be a challenge to say the least.


There is a reason that restaurants have menus with set dishes.  You as a patron don’t want to create a meal, you want to choose the one that fits your needs or wants for the moment.  If you have a big group with a mix of preferences, you’ll likely choose a restaurant with a few, safe choices.  If it’s just you and a buddy, you might take a chance on a place that’s a little less known.  

Even at home, we all understand this concept.  Sometimes you open up the fridge and see what you can whip up.  Maybe you recognize all the ingredients and make something familiar.  But maybe you take a chance and try something you never done before.  If you don’t use a cookbook, you may take more chances if you know you can order a pizza in case of disaster.  But sometimes you don’t feel like taking the chance or going through the hassle and you’re happy with a frozen pizza tossed into the oven.  

The point is this:  Even with food, one of the most familiar things in our lives, pulling together all the pieces and creating something wonderful is a challenging task.  Why do we think this should be easy in the backcountry?

In the backcountry, the line you take – going up and going down – is like the meal you will make; the characteristics of the snow are like the ingredients in the kitchen; and the members of your group are like the people at the table.  

Who are you?  Are you a master chef?  Or have you just left your parents’ house and while you know how to eat like a pro, the truth of the matter is that frozen pizza and take-out burritos are the norm.

Okay, let’s close the loop a little more.  We’ll set aside the expedition to a never-skied-before range, which is the project of the master chef.  And we’ll also acknowledge that the ski resort is the frozen pizza – sometimes excellent because of its simplicity.  Let’s say most backcountry skiers are like people who have some skill in the kitchen and are looking to cook up a great meal occasionally.  What’s the best way to do this?  A cookbook – of course.

This winter, think of the public avalanche bulletin as sort of a list of ingredients.  A map, or a good guidebook, becomes the cookbook.  Consider the group you will tour with.  What type of adventure are you looking for?  The bulletin will list many of the ingredients you will likely find outside.  When you’re outside, you’ll still have to confirm that the ingredients are present; but the report should be pretty close.  Using a map or a guidebook, pick a few runs that all seem acceptable.  Do this before heading out!  You should be able to state something like ‘If all the ingredients are there and everyone in the group is still feeling great, we should be able to ski X.  But if something is missing, or something more has been added, we may have to ski Y, which will be fine as well.  And if the whole thing turns into a mess, we can always make a lap or two on Z, which isn’t awesome, but it’s better than just turning back to the car.  

As a ski guide and avalanche awareness instructor the most common question I am asked is:  “How do you know it is safe?”  The short version of the answer is that I, as do all professional guides, plan ahead.  We use the bulletin, as well as any other data we can gather, to put together a list of possibilities – all of which are satisfactory for the group.  We very rarely just go out and see what we can whip up.  It is much easier to choose from a few good options than it is to create a great one on the spot.

Getting out there digging in the snow to find all the different layers is helpful and educational; but it’s also like opening the fridge to find out you’ve got some two-month old, moldy rice, a bunch of frozen tater-tots, a huge mix of condiments and a couple pounds of bacon.  WTF do you do with that?  

This winter, think of your experience level in the backcountry like your experience in the kitchen.  When you first got out on your own, even simple meals were incredible because you made them.  As you gained skill and confidence, you may try to put together more complex meals, but you still use a cookbook.  And if you’re smart, you’ll always have a frozen pizza on hand just in case you’re nervous your attempt at Beef Wellington will kill someone.


  • Kevin Combs

    This is awesome, thank you for the advice as I have just left from home (MA) last fall and stepped foot into the Wasatch for the first time. I took a few chances on well stable snow in the back country because im sick of frozen pizza. This winter will definitely be in Level 1 and 2 Avi classes to learn more than the clinics I attended last season. My goal is to make a career on the snow.

    • Donny Roth

      Awesome, Kevin! Have fun in the Wasatch and be safe. Good luck with the career on snow.