How off-piste ski guides are written

Photo courtesy of Matt Gunn, author of the Hinterland Atlas: a comprehensive photographic guide to ski and splitboard terrain in the backcountry of Whistler, one of Canada’s most popular and accessible tourist destinations.

Lou Dawson, the first person in history to descend Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot peaks, published his first cross-country ski guide in 1985 while recovering from an injury sustained in an avalanche. It was called “Colorado High Routes” and covered off-trail skiing in the Vail, Aspen, and Crested Butte areas. It was well received. The guide was the first of its kind, detailing the mountain huts of the 10th Mountain Division extended across the state and was the first guide in Colorado to cover “real” ski mountaineering and “European” style ski touring. “modern, rather than Nordic style skiing at lower altitudes. – sloping ground. But that was only the beginning.

Dawson has never stopped writing guides since his first was published over three decades ago. He’s authored several guides over the years, releasing his latest “Light Tours of Colorado” guide with publisher Beacon Guidebooks earlier this year. He is the so-called godfather of off-piste ski guides.

“It’s important to have your end result in mind and start with something you know,” Dawson told me. The guides are a long ordeal and more like a marathon than a sprint, sometimes taking years to arrive in the library as a carefully polished and published book or brochure. A lot of skiing has to happen. Planning (maps, routes, hazards, works) is essential. According to Dawson, a ridiculous amount of time has to be spent on the terrain you plan to write on before you can even start writing. And don’t forget the pictures.

One thing that sets self-published guidebook author Matt Gunn’s latest guide to BC’s Spearhead Traverse apart is the quality of his photography. It’s the third guide he’s written and it’s extremely visual, filled with high-quality footage taken from the side of a small plane, which Gunn orchestrated by engaging a pilot and swinging out of the side of the plane. ‘airplane. Aerial images with annotated ascent and descent paths paired with notes fill his tactile book.

backcountry guide
“I really try to get great photos,” Gunn told me. Having solid, annotated photos saves readers the process of interpreting written information and applying it to the field at hand. Photo courtesy of

Gunn did it all himself and the project took him over a decade. Writing a guide in addition to work, having a life, having children and skiing always turns out to be a long and time-consuming undertaking. “I really try to get great photos,” he told me. Having solid, annotated photos saves readers the process of interpreting written information and applying it to the field at hand. Readers these days can get a visual picture of how to approach and ski a line with GPS maps on their smartphones, but back in the days when Dawson started creating guides, line-making resources online GPS maps like Gaia, Caltopo and GIS did not. do not exist, which makes the process much longer – years longer – than it takes today. But what separates a guide from a GPS “follow the dots” approach is that a guide will actually help make decisions in avalanche terrain where a map alone is not enough.

The main difference between Dawson’s process and Gunn’s was that Gunn made the entire book himself in PDF format and sent the ready version to a printer, while Dawson worked with publisher Beacon Guidebooks who organized his information. , hired a publisher to modify it, publish it, and then market it. However, Gunn and Dawson had similarities in their guide writing processes that can be summed up in several key points that serve to make a solid guide. In a nutshell, they include:

  1. Know what exactly you want to write – the mountain range, the terrain, the ski runs, etc.
  2. Search the areas and study maps, maps, maps. GIS is a great resource but takes time to learn, according to Gunn.
  3. Getting out and skiing on the slopes, the fun part.
  4. Document the areas with numerous notes and photographs, both of the ground and of the sky.
  5. Organizing notes and photographs in writing – the hardest part.
  6. Thorough fact-checking.
  7. Chatting with other skiers or professionals who know the area you’re writing about and getting feedback (sometimes authors even give samples of their guides to ski tourers, who they know frequent the area, as a form product testing).
  8. Adjust your work accordingly with these comments.
  9. Production of a PDF draft of the guide.
  10. Refine and re-edit all information, as thoroughly as possible, as many times as possible.
  11. More fact-checking.
  12. Send the draft to an editor (or edit it yourself).
  13. Print it.
  14. Sell ​​it.

Unlike Gunn, most guide authors use an editor. Andy Sovick is owner and CEO of Beacon Guidebooks, a Gunnison, Colorado-based publishing company specializing in guidebooks. His company has published guides to popular Colorado and western backcountry recreation areas, such as Buffalo Pass in Colorado, Snoqualmie Pass in Washington, Loveland and Berthoud Passes in the Front Range, and more.

“Organization is the key to freedom,” Sovick told me. His business basically works by getting information from an author, then organizing it into an easy-to-read, accurate guide with topographic maps and lots of photos. He must ensure that all maps provided by the author are up-to-date and accurate, and that their information is true and easily understood. Fact-checking is the most time-consuming part of the whole guide-making process and requires maximum patience, according to Sovick.

Once all the facts are checked and double-checked, and the photos and maps are organized and annotated, it’s time to organize the book into a finished product and print it.. Printing is the most expensive aspect of making a guide. Once Sovick has a finished product, he sends a final PDF to a printer, they print it and send the product back to him, and then Sovick is responsible for putting the book on the shelves and making a profit – the author getting a share of said profit. This is often easier said than done. But most of the guides published by Sovick have garnered positive reactions from stores, libraries, cafes and other small businesses in the mountain towns where they are sold, in addition to the online market. Beacon Guidebooks also makes its products available for sale in a digital PDF format that can be accessed and read through the Rakkup app, which Sovick says is growing in popularity these days.

At the time of this writing, Beacon Guidebooks recently published Colorado Light Towers by Lou Dawson, who offers gentle cross-country routes with minimal avalanche exposure for beginners or those not looking to get “steep and thorny,” as Sovick puts it. He went on to tell me that light circuit guides are the most popular thing in the guiding world right now – much more so than guides dealing with difficult and technical avalanche terrain. Sovick said he was looking to publish a light hiking guide for every ski region in the United States and called on any authors interested in publishing such guides to contact his company.

So it all starts with an idea, a vision. From there, it takes time, skiing and work, a lot. The two main resources you can have when trying to write a backcountry guide are “time and good touring partners,” says Gunn. It also takes skilled photography, analytical thinking, detailed note-taking, discussions with experts, careful fact-checking, attention to detail, patience and, above all, a love for the mountains.

backcountry guide
Light Tours of Colorado, written by Lou Dawson and published by Beacon Guidebooks