a guide to backcountry skiing, for complete beginners

I’d like to advocate for guides written by utter novices. For example, my how-to for driving a manual, that I wrote when I was just barely not bursting into tears every time I tried to maneuver my car somewhere. Don’t you think there’s something to be said, when you’re just starting down a road or trying to learn a completely new skill, for reading something written by someone who was in your same position just breaths or moments before, someone who can still remember or inhabit that space of fear or confusion or bemusement? There’s plenty of guides out there written by experts, people who’ve spent years doing this thing and know all of the ins and outs and psshhh, aren’t we just about done hearing from them? They don’t remember what it’s like! Why don’t we add another voice to the chorus??

This is why I’ve decided to write a little intro to backcountry skiing, or ski touring (I am 85% sure those are synonymous terms.) I have been on precisely one backcountry skiing trip (but it was an overnighter! so does that count as two days?) so I feel completely confident introducing myself as an utter novice and thus qualified to write this guide.

Right off the bat, I need to break in here and say that backcountry skiing is potentially very, very dangerous. Even more dangerous than driving a manual car. (Okay, to be fair, the rate of death by car accident is about 12 deaths per 100,000 people, and the rate of deaths in the U.S. for out-of-bounds skiing is about 0.5 per 100,000 skiers, but I’d imagine that rate is much higher among the people who have zero idea what they’re doing and head out unprepared and among the company of other people who also have zero idea.) 

So please, please do not read this blog entry (as jaunty and wonderful as I’m sure you find it) and zoom off into the mountains. This entry does not equip you with really any of the skills you need. Find someone who knows their shit who will accompany you, or take an avalanche course, or both, and then think about doing so.

Okay. Disclaimer done.

So what exactly is backcountry skiing, or ski touring, or out-of-bounds skiing? As it turns out, there are many mountains in the world, and a very tiny percentage of all of that mountain space is actually accessible via ski lift. There are vast swaths of snow, routes between towering spruces or above treeline entirely, great rounded bowls bellied out with powder, chutes between craggy rocks, ridgelines painted by sunrise, and lines that lead you into an infinite vista.  And amazingly, wonderfully, no one has set up lodges or ski lifts or gondolas on that land (yet, anyway) and if you leave your truck or vehicle at the end of the road, you can set off into all of that potential to find your own lines. (Or try to compete with all of the other backcountry skiers out there for your own lines. Turns out this is really quite a thing with ski bums.)


Over New Year’s, I flew to Colorado (with my fiance, who skis better than I do, c’est la vie) to hang out and celebrate with my fantastically talented brother, who’s a ski patroller, Wilderness EMT, and a general badass. On New Year’s Day (after a great bluegrass concert the night before – thank you, Trout Steak Revival) seven of us (amazing humans, all of them) set off for a backcountry hut.

We skinned in (what is skinning? great question! we’ll get to that) to Francie’s Cabin (which is only like a mile or so in, but it is all up-mountain – the word uphill does not seem sufficient – at like 11,000 feet and we had just come from sea level and also I had just given blood three days previously which was probably a bad idea, so basically what I’m saying is that it was Not Easy, but also, once we got there, felt Not That Bad.) Francie’s Cabin is a 10th Mountain Division Hut just outside of Breckenridge, but the word ‘hut’ is a misnomer – it is a giant, beautiful cabin with two floors that can sleep twenty people. We stayed there overnight, taking two ski tours into the mountains behind the hut both days, and competing with one another on a “beacon problem” (see below), and sitting in the hot sauna and eating venison chili and playing Codenames, and then skied out on January 2nd.

Hut

It was so great. And now I am like, all about this ski touring thing. I think it’s like, chocolate, where if you have never had chocolate you’re like, “What’s the big deal? It’s a square of hard, brown stuff, you do you, but I’m not into that” and then you try some, and you’re like, “Right. I get it. Where do you buy this stuff?” (Except if the analogy were perfect, the chocolate, or more precisely, the gear you would use to eat the chocolate, would then cost $3,000. That’s why more people eat chocolate than go backcountry skiing! See, you’re already learning things from me.)

So here’s some stuff you should know.

Generally, the idea with backcountry skiing is that you are trying to go Up, so that you can then flip your bindings and boots into skiing mode, and then go Down.

Normally, going Up with skis on is a real pain in the ass – once there’s any kind of steepness at all, you have to reverse-pizza your skis or clomp up sideways to keep yourself from sliding backwards down the slope, and it takes forever and it’s awkward and you get stuck on roots and stuff. But there are these thing called skinsCross-country skiers go up hills all the time, the dears, and they typically have fish scales or special wax on the bottoms of their skis that does pretty much the same thing that skins do – goes forward very well, and backwards not at all.

So with skins, you take these long, slender bits of carpet, basically, the same size and shape as each ski, and snug them over each end of each ski and pat them down, so they stick. Now you can slide your skis forward, up a steep hill, gliding nicely, and when gravity tries to slide the ski right back down again, the skin holds it in place on the snow. (Once it gets very steep, even the skins are no match for gravity – you thus have to zigzag or switchback up steeper slopes.) (I also discovered that if a great deal of snow becomes trapped between your ski and the its skin, that also leads to a great loss of effectiveness, and then you usually find yourself face-first in a deep mound of snow on what feels like the absolute center of a mountain. If you’re me, anyway.) Once you’re ready to go down, you pull off the skins, fold them nicely, and tuck them in a pocket and boom, you’re ready for speed.

Our skins, drying by the campstove

Backcountry/touring skis and boots are different from normal downhill skis. You can do all kinds of fancy things with the ski bindings and the clips on your touring boots, so that you’re able to separate your heel from the ski (and skin on flat ground or uphill more easily), loosen or snug-up your boots for skinning vs downhill, and even pop up this little doodad on the back of the binding, under your heel, that keeps your feet roughly level even when you’re going up a very steep slope (risers, I believe they’re called.) Magic.


So you have your fancy skis and bindings and boots and skins. You’re like, “Okay – I’m starting to understand why this is a pretty expensive endeavor.” But here’s the thing – that’s not even all the gear you need! Amazing. Because backcountry skiing typically takes place in mountains, with lots of snow, and steep slopes, under a sky in a world where there is often sun, or snow, or wind, or sudden temperature changes, and all of that means that avalanches happen all the time, and 23% of everyone who died in an avalanche in the last 45 years was an out-of-bounds skier.

So you’ve also got a backpack on and in that backpack you have a small collapsible shovel; a long, slender collapsible probe (very like a long, straight tent pole, with a system to make it easier to almost instantaneously pull together all the segments along their cord); and a beacon, which is turned on and in transmit mode. (And which costs a lot of money, but you absolutely should not skip on your beacon.)

As often happens with wilderness survival stuff, these three things are somehow simultaneously both fun and horrifying.

Brother set up a ‘beacon problem’ for us on our second day, which means that he went outside in the sunshine and buried two packs in the snow, each with a transmitting beacon inside.  The beacons are hefty, brightly colored devices similar in shape and size to a handheld GPS device, and they enable you to partake in what is basically a very terrifying, very high stakes form of geocaching; skiers wear theirs in an internal pocket, close to their core, as they ski, constantly transmitting. Should they happen to be caught in an avalanche and buried in snow, their beacon will keep transmitting a signal, and rescuers can switch their own beacons into rescue, or receiving mode, and find them by following the distances and arrows marked on their beacon’s tiny digital screen. Brother told us that once buried, you have maybe fifteen minutes of breathing time. 

So we practiced by searching for the buried beacons on ground that was just barely not flat – turn on your beacon; ski along awkwardly while watching the numbers on the tiny gray screen; change direction until they start decreasing; eventually fall to the ground and lay your beacon right on top of the snow, moving it in slow, straight lines to each direction, as if you’re searching for lung sounds with your stethoscope on the great, ice-cold expanse of a giant’s back. Finally you’re able to dig an ‘X’ in the snow with a gloved finger, and then you stand, shake out your probe (I felt this part carried great aplomb) into a stiff pole, and jab into the snow perpendicular to the slope, hopinghopinghoping to contact NotSnow. 

This was much easier on basically flat ground than it was on a steep, uneven slope scattered with boulders and pine trees, which Brother and his ski patrol friend had me try a couple days previously. By the time I jabbed my probe into the bag then, due only to some serious assistance, my heart was racing and my armpits were slick with sweat. Flat ground was okay. It took each of us somewhere between 3.5 and 8.5 minutes to find both beacons.


So it was fun, racing each other in the sun outside the hut. And it was horrifying, to think of doing so and knowing a human was under the expanse of snow.

So always have your beacon, and always have it on. A major take-away. And then learn about the snow – because there’s a whole science of understanding snow pack, and the more you know, the less likely you are to ever have to get your money’s worth out of the beacon. 

Right. So backcountry skiing is dangerous. And hella expensive. But damn it, reader of my little guide here, I really, really loved it. I loved it even when we were skinning up through the middle of nowhere forever, and every time I thought we were going to start going down, finally, our fearless three in front would be breaking trail on a new slope. I loved it even when we got stuck in a deep gully and Mel and I had to take our skis and board off and climb on our hands and knees up the gully’s side, laughing at ourselves while snow slid into our pockets and up our sleeves. I loved it through the ache in my knees and my quads and the snot running out of my nose. Because we saw the sun set in the mountains, and there was no one there but us, and we skied down as a team, as a laughing, sputtering, tumbling team, into new snow, past clumps of evergreens and hare tracks, and I felt like an Adventurer. 


 So here’s my advice to you – because, obvs, every guide needs to include advice. 

Go rent or borrow some equipment. (You can buy later. Baby steps.) 

Find a friend or a guide who knows what they’re doing. Honestly, just go with Brother, Niko, Mel, Nancy, Erik, and Will, you can’t do better than them. 

Pack a snack in an easily accessible pocket.

Probably get up early, but honestly, we got started at like noon and it was a wonderful day.

Don’t forget to set your bindings and boots correctly.

Bring whiskey.

You’re gonna love it. 


 

 

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