When the circuit of freezing on the lift ride up and dodging wobbly Texans on the run down gets dull, it might be time to take a look at the world of backcountry skiing. It offers the lure of the steep and deep with the freedom — and danger — of being alone in the mountains, without rules or ski patrol to save your ass.
Backcountry skiing, also known as ski touring or ski mountaineering, involves hauling yourself into the mountains onto un-maintained, un-patrolled territory. Skiers hike or use skins — fabric attached to the bottom of the ski that allows it to slide up, but not backward — to travel to the top of the slope they want to ski.
“It’s more like exploration or more like a day of hiking,” says Donny Roth, who started backcountry skiing in Colorado in 1993, began guiding in 2004, and now works with the American Mountain Guides Association on their backcountry skiing courses. “The math changes. Rather than sitting in a gondola for 10 minutes and skiing down for 10 minutes, it’s a lot more up than down.”
The process slows, becoming a whole-day affair that rewards the investment of hiking uphill for hours with fresh tracks in powder.
“Generally, what you find is you get something that’s a little bit more satisfying than just doing laps in the ski resort,” Roth says. “If you want to see winter in its true form, there’s not a much better way to do it.”
Like any undertaking in the outdoors, backcountry skiing is dangerous.
Not the danger of accidentally skiing into a tree and letting the ski patrol come toboggan you down to the lift line that accompanies in-bounds skiing. It’s flirting with disaster in the unknown on the scale of a couple tons of snow plowing down over the top of you. Avalanches, Roth says, are the most dramatic of the dangers involved in backcountry skiing.
“It’s a real hazard, certainly, especially in Colorado where avalanche death rates are among the highest in the country and snow conditions can be extremely tender and tricky to read,” Roth says. “It’s manageable. You can go out backcountry skiing often throughout the winter. You just have to know how to select your terrain carefully.”
At a minimum, a backcountry skier needs to carry a beacon, probe and shovel to be used in avalanche rescue. The beacon is used locate an avalanche victim to within a small area, the probe to pinpoint that person’s location when buried in snow, and the shovel to dig the victim out.
First aid training, a first aid kit, and a partner could be added to that list of essentials.
Attending a level one avalanche-training course is also essential and should be completed about the time a skier enters the backcountry for the first time. The course focuses on use of the beacon, probe and shovel.
There are lots of local options for level one avalanche courses, which run about $300 and take roughly two days to complete, but Roth mentioned looking for courses with curriculum approved by the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (ARAIE).
An increasing number of people are embracing the danger and skiing in the backcountry, according to The Ski Industries of America Snow Sports Intelligence Report from 2009, which shows a growing number of sales for alpine touring equipment over the past several years. That means relying on the tested system of mentorship is always an option for first-timers, as is hiring a guide service like Roth’s own Alpine Ambitions, which he founded in 2007.