So, we heard Adam Zok was cool, like really cool. So our editor Abby emailed him to inquire and Adam wrote back a novel about his life as a snowboarder, splitboader, guide, and a few things inbetween. It was too good to edit down, so buckle up for a bit of a read, it’s a sick autobiography. Our team at SBC can confirm, rumors are true, Adam Zok – you’re one cool dude.
Enjoy his story.
To properly explain how I found my way into a snowboarding career, I have to start at the beginning – like, the very beginning. I was born in Canada (during the first snowfall of the winter, funny enough), but my parents whisked me away to southern California when I was about the size of a watermelon, maybe 9 or 10 months old. Growing up, snowboarding wasn’t really a thing for me. Inline hockey, skateboarding, and running commanded most of my attention, but I did manage to go snowboard for 5 or 6 days at some shitty mountains in southern/central California with a few buddies towards the end of high school. Mostly just crashed on a whole bunch of tiny park jumps. It was a far cry from world-class riding, but it was obvious to me that this was something I really liked, without even understanding why.
I spent my university years in Berkeley, and promptly joined the Cal Ski and Snowboard Club when I got there. It functioned like the clubs at most schools: cheap season passes, carpools, rented cabins in Tahoe, and one big out of state trip each year. Maybe an incidental keg beer or two along the way. Finally, I was getting a bunch of mileage on my snowboard, and at this point I was obsessed. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would NOT ski bell-to-bell when given the chance – I assumed that anyone going in for apres at 2 pm was either soft, or an idiot. I ended up running that club for a while, lived with some of the other die-hards, and formed a bunch of really close relationships that are still super important to me today. It was an unbelievably good time, but it was a purely resort-based scene.
When I first started dabbling with backcountry riding, I was on snowshoes. I’d go to resorts in the early season before they opened to score a few turns, went on a couple of straightforward missions while studying abroad in New Zealand, and logged a couple of days up in Tahoe. I’d read a bit about avalanche safety, and took my first avalanche class either at the end of college or immediately after.
As it worked out, I finished university in December, and moved up to Tahoe the very next day. I spent the next 2 years there, and started getting out into the backcountry way more frequently. For the first couple months I was still on snowshoes, absolutely redlining to keep up with my friends on touring gear, but somehow it seemed to work. I guess my running background made me kind of enjoy all the huffing and puffing. Eventually, snowshoes started to give me a bit of knee pain, and that was just the excuse I needed to buy an old beater splitboard, complete with Voile adapter plates for my bindings (obviously, I had wanted a splitboard before my knee was hurting, but the $250 I spent felt like a fair bit of money at the time). Even though I still loved resort riding, I was getting out skinning regularly, probably putting in up tracks that were steep as hell. A lot of my resort days started to become sidecountry focused as well – I was almost always down to put in some extra effort to find better snow. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was usually leading my friends around – not in an effort to “guide” them, but because I was super motivated to get out there and just needed some people to come with me. I didn’t feel like a leader at the time, but looking back on it, I was usually the one schemin’ up the plans.
At this point, I’d made a couple of trips out to Jackson Hole, and had scored some absolutely phenomenal riding out there. My girlfriend at the time and I had been talking for years about trying to live there someday, and we finally convinced a few of our friends to move out there with us. I loved it so much that I honestly thought I might never leave, but in the end, I was only there for a couple of years. I’d say that it was my time in Jackson that got me to really start developing as a splitboard mountaineer. My buddy Mike and I taught ourselves what we needed to know on the fly, and luckily I can’t recall us doing anything TOO stupid as we romped around the high peaks together. During my second season, I finally got around to skiing the Grand Teton, in no small part thanks to my friend Drew stepping up to rope gun after we found ourselves a bit off-route. At this point, I was also starting to guide mountaineering and ski trips in the spring/summer back in California on Mt. Shasta. I started to think that guiding in Jackson for either Exum or Jackson Hole Mountain Guides might be my dream job, but figured that I should go ahead and get certified if I was going to go that route.
I also began to slowly realize that if I was going to make guiding my career, Canada would be able to offer more jobs, better pay, more consistent work, and more interesting work than the US. Being lucky enough to already hold a Canadian passport and the ability to work up north, I figured I’d be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t come to at least check it out. I’d been curious about Revelstoke for years, and decided to come up for a winter to see if it was for me. I still wasn’t completely ruling out working in the States – I had a few ideas of what I wanted to do, but no real plan. Strangely enough, I took my first AMGA (basically the American ACMG) course at Sol Mountain Lodge that winter, and knocked out my CAA Level 1 a couple of weeks later. It ended up being a terrible winter with a bunch of really warm storms, but I got out to Rogers Pass whenever the weather broke, and still managed to have some incredible days up in the alpine. The exceptionally bad conditions were obviously a bummer, but I still found the terrain to be really inspiring. I decided to stick with it, and get myself established in the Revelstoke guiding scene.
The next year, I landed my first tail guiding job at Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing, and at this point had my sights firmly set on becoming an ACMG Ski Guide. I was still recreationally touring a ton, exploring my new surroundings and meeting a ton of really awesome people along the way. Hard boots became my only boots. Joey Vosburgh became a good buddy of mine, and as a fellow splitboarder, was definitely one of my more helpful mentors along my quest for certification. For my first few years here, I was still returning to California to guide in the warmer months, but shortly after finishing my Apprentice Ski Guide Exam I decided to make Revelstoke my year-round home.
Now that I was allowed to lead groups in Canada, I started to take on a lot of splitboarding work in addition to heli-skiing. This was mostly through CAPOW, Revelstoke Backcountry Guides, and a handful of private bookings. I was loving it, but I definitely didn’t have as much time to ski recreationally as I was used to. I still made a point of getting out for myself on almost all of my days off, and continued to learn a lot by pushing the terrain in ways that I wouldn’t be comfortable doing with a string of clients in tow. I really didn’t want to lose sight of what I loved about splitboarding and what initially drew me into the guiding world – these personal missions and more notable ticks in the mountains were still really important to me. I shared these days with a lot of great folks, but Andrew McNab and Christina Lusti became my go-to partners, especially for the more adventurous objectives. I have to give those two a bit of credit for helping me to continue challenging myself on my days off, and for keeping my motivation high for incorporating recreational ski mountaineering into my busy guiding schedule.
A couple seasons ago, my final Ski Guide Exam marked the end of the line with my ACMG certification. Since then, my work hasn’t changed all that much, but I’m starting to take more private bookings, running my own hut trips, etc. in addition to my normal program. This year, I doubt there will be much heli-skiing work to go around, but I’ve always really loved touring anyway and am really just not that worried about it. Everyone’s expecting to see a lot of new backcountry users as people shy away from resort skiing to some extent, and I think that a lot of these folks will be hiring guides to help them build good habits early on in their touring careers. I already have a fair bit booked for myself and am expecting to still have a pretty full schedule, which I’m thankful for. However, if I end up with a little more free time than usual and some extra opportunities to go shred with my friends, I won’t be the least bit mad about it.
As far as my recreational touring goes, exploring unfamiliar and seldom visited zones is probably my main motivator these days. Realistically, this often involves a chunk of time researching the zone ahead of time (Google Earth, maps, satellite imagery, photos, etc.), a snowmobile for access, and a bunch of best guesses while out in the field. I really like the adventurous feel that comes from figuring out how to best “work” a new piece of terrain, and the possibility of first descents always makes things doubly enticing.
As for work, I get especially stoked when I’m able to pass some of my knowledge along to stronger, higher level skiers and riders. While the AST system is great, there’s an incredible amount to learn about riding in the backcountry that just isn’t covered in your standard courses. I remember how satisfying it was to watch myself mature as a splitboarder, and to start feeling comfortable making critical decisions in real-deal terrain. Helping other passionate and highly motivated riders undergo the same transition allows me to relive that a little bit – and it’s often super empowering for them. Guiding doesn’t have to just be about dragging a group of guests through the mountains in search of face shots – I also enjoy the challenge of translating complex concepts into plain English that my guests can understand, and showing them real-world examples that help lead to those “a-ha” moments.
I currently do a lot of my guiding for CAPOW, and plan to keep doing so for years and years. I really like their approachable vibe, commitment to fostering continual learning for their guests, and tendency to attract a strong and youthful crowd. I’ve also noticed an increase in demand for clients booking custom trips through me directly, which has me wondering if I might also enjoy running my own guide service someday. It’s not something I’m rushing into, as guiding is definitely more fun than office work…but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out in the years to come.
Don’t mind us, just barging in with questions for you Adam Zok.
Do you have any words of wisdom coming into this backcountry this season?
Unfortunately, if you’re new to the backcountry, splitboarding does have a bit of a barrier to entry knowledge-wise. Take charge of your own avalanche education. Read “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” and take your AST courses early on in your splitboarding career. Education is more important than any piece of gear you’ll be bringing with you into the mountains – if you need to buy used gear in order to afford your courses, do it. Familiarize yourself with the avalanche bulletin, sources of real time snow/weather data, and a few different forecasting tools. Learn how to read a map and navigate while you’re out in the field. Seek mentorship, either from skilled friends or professional guides. Don’t get discouraged if after a while, it still feels like you have a lot to learn – go into it with the expectation that this process will take years, and never really have a definitive conclusion.
Early on, it will be tempting to blindly follow your friends and trust that they’ll be able to keep you out of trouble. However, judging somebody else’s skill at assessing hazard is really tough if you don’t have an understanding of the hazards yourself. You may have a friend who shreds, crushes vert, and is an all-around charismatic and likable person…but that doesn’t necessarily correlate with making good decisions out there. Strive to think for yourself, and contribute to the decision making of the group. At a minimum, make sure you understand the concerns raised by others, or their justification for being able to ski aggressively that day. And lastly, don’t be afraid to start slow – you’ll undoubtedly make some mistakes out there, and it’s obviously better if you can avoid making them in a high consequence setting. Riding simple terrain can still be really fun.
What about you and this season?
With all of the new ski tourers and splitboarders we’re expecting this year, one thing I’m increasingly interested in is helping to educate the broader backcountry community through my partnership with Weston. I’ve been on their guide team in the past, but haven’t played a role in any of their outreach programs until more recently. This season, I’m doing a couple online talks and a handful of blog posts for them. A lot of this will be focused on selecting high quality gear that makes mountain travel both safer and easier. I’ll also do a short talk on planning a trip to BC – basically just highlighting a few of the well known touring areas out here, explaining the Rogers Pass permit system, and recommending a few of my favourite guiding outfits. I’m honestly pretty impressed with how much time and money Weston dedicates to helping backcountry users access the information they need to make good decisions out in the mountains. Of course, they’re stoked to sell as many boards as they can, but they also show a genuine interest in trying to keep the public educated and safe. I dig it.
In a similar vein, I’ll also be giving an online talk about “in the moment” decision making as part of this year’s Canuck Splitfest. This mostly amounts to taking high quality observations, interpreting what you see, describing what you’re seeking and avoiding, making go / no-go decisions, and some tips and tools for creating new plans on the fly. It’s a pretty challenging subject, and requires a set of skills that takes several years of experience to fully develop. Listening to a 30 minute talk is obviously not a substitute for logging a bunch of mileage in the mountains – but even so, I’m excited for the opportunity to drop a few more nuggets of wisdom for public consumption, and hopefully help some intermediate splitboarders accelerate their transition into the expert realm.