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Backcountry Skiing (and Boarding) 101

A primer for heading into—and getting safely out of—untracked powder

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Sometimes its best to play a game of "Follow the Leader" when you're learning how to read the backcountry.

Backcountry is gaining momentum as the apex of the skiing experience. Why? When serendipitous conditions contribute to a day of favorable weather, dynamic terrain and light, stable snow (with good partners) the spoils are sublime: Solitude, sweeping vistas, adventure, a sense of accomplishment—it all climaxes as you’re laying blower turns down an untracked slope. It’s no coincidence that ski towns have a large proportion of single adults who’ve given their lives to a different kind of relationship.

But this relationship has plenty of risks, too. It’s part of the allure. Calculating the risks, and learning to play within the margins of error, is the central consideration when venturing into the mountains. The beauty of it is deciding for yourself when and where you make turns, but there are grave consequences for making bad decisions. Avalanches, no matter how big or small, can injure or kill you. And they aren’t the only objective hazards out there. Near-misses are commonplace in the backcountry, and many of them occur without or knowledge. Throngs of people have gone in search of wild snow and came back with more adventure than they had bargained for. On your first time into the backcountry, it’s easy to overstep your knowledge and bite off more than you can chew. But it shouldn’t be that way.

To fully explore the How To’s of backcountry skiing is beyond the scope of this piece. However, we’ve assembled some fundamental considerations—a brief primer, if you will—before searching for the untracked experience.

• Go with a guide or friend you trust: Mentorship plays a huge role in mountain sports, especially climbing and backcountry skiing. Heading out with more experienced partners is invaluable to learning solid backcountry and mountaineering skills. The allure of untracked has taken countless people the wrong way. Until you've learned to read a slope from an expert, don’t give in to just any naked slope for the taking.

• Start small: Whether you leave a resort through a backcountry gate, or take off from a trailhead, it can’t hurt to take baby steps. Don’t venture too far. Part of your first time is simply getting a feel for the new equipment.

• Take an avalanche class: Now that you’ve got a taste for wild snow, taking an avalanche class is the next obvious move. You’ll learn the basics of the backcountry triangle: weather, terrain and snowpack, as well as route finding skills, basic rescue protocols and the importance of personal responsibility.

• Take the initiative: I’ve had students who’ve shown up at the trailhead with their beacons still in the box. Do yourself and others a favor and take the time to fiddle with your beacon at home or with friends prior to taking a class or heading out the gates. Yes, an avalanche class is a great place to learn how to use an avalanche transceiver, but getting a head start can only help.

• Practice with your avalanche equipment on a regular basis: Beacon, shovel and probe are the holy trinity of backcountry safety equipment. Avalanche Airbags and Avalungs™ have a lot of value as well, but bear in mind, the trinity is the tool combo you’ll most use to save your partner. Also, running around a park to train with your beacon is not the same thing as navigating avalanche terrain. Hide a beacon on the hill at your local resort, then leapfrog down the slopes with your partners a few times, and see what a difference it makes when you manage all your gear in a more realistic scenario.

• Embrace responsibility: Companion rescue is paramount in the backcountry. If someone in your party is swept away in an avalanche, you are the rescuers. Personal responsibility is very real when there’s no ski patrol headed out when your binding breaks, let alone your leg. We owe it to ourselves and others in our party to be versed in basic first aid and some semblance of self-evacuation in the event of broken gear or worse. For the record, backcountry gear (which includes Telemark, split boards and alpine touring) has gotten really dialed in over the last decade, but it’s still not infallible.

Four ski resorts with backcountry access gates:

credit: Tristan Greszko/JHMR
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (WY)
jacksonhole.com

credit: Flickr/SnowDoesntSuck
Brighton Ski Resort (UT)
brightonresort.com


Telluride Resort (CO)
telluride.com

credit: Flickr/orkybash
Crystal Mountain Resort (WA)
crystalmountainresort.com

Good Reading:
• Allen and Mike’s Really Cool Backcountry Ski Book
By Allen O’Bannon, Mike Clelland
Falcon Guides (2007)
falcon.com

• Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering
By Martin Volken, Scott Schell, Margaret Wheeler
The Mountaineers Books (2007)
mountaineersbooks.org

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