Backcountry basics
Guide puts emphasis on education

Mountain Goat ski guide Michael Barton celebrates atop one of his favorite playgrounds, Peak 13,300, near Ophir Pass. A veteran backcountry enthusiast, Barton’s Silverton-based company is working to open the backcountry to the younger set./Courtesy photo

by Miriam Holloway

In alpine environments, mountain goats are not an uncommon sight. These powerful climbers are known for being sure-footed, nimble and balanced. But those traits don’t just describe the animal; they also can be attributed to Michael Barton, founder and owner of Mountain Goat Ski Guides. Unlike many guide services, Mountain Goat offers educational courses in backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering, and winter camping for the younger set, including high school and college students.

Mountain Goat Ski Guides, based in Silverton, operates in an area of the San Juan Mountains that encompasses 40 square miles and a dozen peaks over 12,000 feet. “It’s terrain that would make a mountain goat happy,” said Barton.

A Colorado-born-and-raised skier and educator, Barton once worked at Silverton Mountain, where he spent seven years guiding, patrolling and doing avalanche control work. His outdoor education experience has included seven summers leading multi-week mountaineering (as well as canyon, river and service learning) trips for high school students for Deer Hill Expeditions, based in Mancos.

Eventually, Barton’s interests in education, working with young people and the outdoors
evolved into backcountry ski guiding. “I got the idea because I saw a need,” he said. “There are kids
who see ski movies and want to ski out of bounds to access the good snow, but they need to know a
few things first. Mountain Goat’s mission is ‘to provide instruction in the art and science of backcountry
skiing and to promote humility, reverence for nature, and responsibility in the mountains.’”

Barton said safety is the top priority. All the lead guides are certified in Wilderness First Response, have completed at least a Level 2 avalanche course, and have a minimum of five years’ professional guiding experience. “What Mountain Goat offers are not quick thrills or extreme adventures,” he said. “These are expeditions of discovery of the wonders of nature and of one’s own strength of character.”

Barton explained that there is practical instruction in much more than avalanche avoidance. Mountain Goat emphasizes good planning, decision-making, judgment, foresight, responsibility, and how to be a good group member. “The mountains in winter become an excellent teacher of important life lessons,” he said.

Mountain Goat ski guide Michael Barton celebrates atop one of his favorite playgrounds, Peak 13,300, near Ophir Pass. A veteran backcountry enthusiast, Barton’s silverton-based company offers backcountry excursions for the younger set, mostly middle and high school sutdents./Courtesy photo

As an example, Barton described a birthday trip with five Durango high school boys for several days in the Red Mountain Pass area. “We went out there fully outfitted for comfort and warmth,” he said. “It was cold and sometimes harsh weather, but the boys gained a sense of self-sufficiency and confidence from being able to stay warm, and by learning that with the right equipment and knowledge they could survive a winter night out in the mountains.”

Barton acknowledged that as young people on this planet, kids have generally been taught that natural resources are finite, and he said that this is experienced on a personal level by Mountain Goat students. “All we have out there is what we can bring with us,” he said. “Our motors are our legs, and our fuel is the food we can carry.” He was pleased that the boys in this group learned to take good care of what they brought, and if something broke, they learned to make do with repairs they could make in the field. “They learned that being a member of a group is like being a member of society. It shows a young person that they are important and that their actions matter,” he said. “They can learn that with the strength of will power, they can accomplish a challenging goal.”

Barton reminisced about what a great time this young group had skiing untracked powder, building jumps, and digging and sleeping in a snow cave. “They got away from Face Book and text messaging,” he said. “They were fully engaged in the mysteries of the winter wonderland; they appreciated the sparkling sunrises and the artistic sculptures made by snow and wind.”

Among other schools having Mountain Goat adventures this winter is Alexander Dawson School, an independent, college-prep school in Boulder, which will bring 12 students down for a trip this March. Classes will include introduction to avalanche equipment, beacon practice, demonstrations of instability testing, preparedness and survival class, and group cooperation and leadership, with each person practicing leading a ski tour. Barton said that some goals of this trip are to build character, confidence and experience.

At the end of the interview, Barton shared some thoughts about his work: “I am thankful for the people who do research and management of our public lands. But I am also especially glad that the mountains simply exist. We get to go out and ‘play’ in them – like a kid at a recess that goes on and on.”

That “play” is a fundamental part of living in these mountains, Barton added.

“When I go out skiing in these mountains, ‘dancing’ on the smooth, snow-covered earth, I find myself full to the brim with love for this life I have been given; and when exploring them, I gain new insights into this mysterious world,” he said.

Barton added that he believes that through this understanding comes a feeling of familiarity with and connection to the natural world, and, ultimately, reverence. “Wild places can fill us with wonder and enthusiasm for learning,” he said in closing. “This ‘mountain goat’ thinks that part of the point of being human is to learn how to enjoy the world with eyes full of wonder and to be responsible in our interactions with the Earth and other people. Our young people need this – they are stewards of the future.” •