Beginner in the Backcountry

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Like many of you, I’ve been a snow enthusiast for a long time. Skier or boarder, it doesn’t matter when it comes to our love of the white stuff. We scrimp and save for just a weekend on the slopes every season and clamour to be the first on the chairlift, cutting hot laps back to back, from bell to bell. Finding an untracked section of corduroy is gold, finding a powder stash, like winning the lotto. Off-piste means popping off the groomer into the moguls or ducking into the five or six snow gums lining the boundaries. For most of us, we’ve never had to spare a second thought to avalanches. 

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To me, skiing has always been safely tearing up the resort by day, nursing sore muscles on the après scene at night. My definition was never challenged until I was having a conversation with a mountain guide friend who casually said, “I haven’t been on a chairlift in five years.” Puzzled, I just looked at him “Oh, I don’t pay to ski, why would you? Anyway, I only ski powder” “Powder?” I replied reverently. I’d only tasted that dry, fluffy perfection a handful of times. All those powder pictures in the magazine? Didn’t they come from a magical Narnia land? With a little shake of his head, he proceeded to challenge everything I thought I knew about ‘skiing’. He offered up a place where you could have a powder run every run, a place with no crowds, no lift lines, no hole in the back pocket, a place called the backcountry. 

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A couple of weeks later I was out chasing in his tracks. The branches of pine yawning under the pressure of fresh snow, the morning sun trickling through the trees, my backpack sitting comfortably on my shoulders, a familiar friend signalling a day of adventure ahead. My anticipation of those promised powder turns tangible but before we get to those, let me rewind to the weeks previous where I learnt some very basic things about backcountry skiing which I hope will help you venture from the lift lines too.

Firstly, resort skiing and backcountry skiing are like completely different sports and it helps to think of them that way. In the first, you rock up and jump on the lift. If you don’t have gear, you hire it. You go where the trail goes, you have the safety of knowing ski patrol have your back and that the snow pack is stable. In backcountry skiing, also known as ‘touring’ or ‘ATV’ you are 100% responsible for your own safety. It’s critical that you have the right equipment and you need to know how to use it. On top of that, every precious metre of descent has to be earned, but the reward is worth it. Think of it like heli-skiing except that you pay the bill in sweat. 

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Let’s talk about gear. Originally I thought that I could use the same ski gear I already owned in the backcountry, snow is snow right? This lesson I learnt the hard way. A few days after my chat, I decided my first foray into his world would start with a trek up the headwall of the resort mountain. Perfectly logical, totally achievable and safe, so I put my skis over my shoulder and started off.  In three minutes my lungs were heaving as I lopped unsteadily up the hill. Each boot felt like lead, my calves cramped and I slipped over time and time again without any grip on my soles. It was so unspeakably hot, but I was trapped in a sauna suit if ski gear. My burly, heavy alpine skis bit into my shoulder painfully. Exasperated and exhausted I’d probably only gone a few hundred metres before I angrily  aborted my attempt. One untracked turn to one litre of sweat just wasn’t the ratio I was after.

Here are the lessons I learnt that day.

Manage your temperature before it manages you.

– You don’t wear the same clothes as you would resort skiing.  On the resort you might crack a zipper or two on the way down but you are soon stationary on the chairlift and cool down very quickly.  In the backcountry you work hard for long periods of time so dress in layers, use a merino base layer, a mid layer like a light down jacket and a shell.  You want to feel chilly as you start. Take a backpack to stash warmer mid layers. Strip down on the way up, layer up to go down. 

Get the Gear,

– Backcountry specific backpacks are great because you can strap your skis (or splitboard if you are a snowboarder) to the side. Getting them off your shoulder will free up your hands, create balance and allow you to use your poles as support. I love the Black Diamond Avalung pack. It has ski straps, lots of pockets to organise gear for quick location, and an optional ava-lung element (like a snow snorkel should you get caught in an avalanche)

– Alpine boots aren’t designed for touring. They are heavy and every ounce of extra weight matters. Designed to be stiff, they’re great on the downhill but stiff sucks when you are trying to climb up. Also they tend to have no grip. 

My second foray into the backcountry, I decided to go with some more friends up Teton Pass in Jackson Hole Wyoming. A tough one hour hike (called a boot pack) where you literally climb up in Wyoming and descend into Idaho – two States, one ski run! I was more prepared this time and was now the proud owner of some vital safety equipment, namely an avalanche transceiver, (to help you locate a buried person or be located if you are buried) a probe and a lightweight snow shovel.

Cutting a series of steps up the ridgeline, we set off, stepping in one another’s footprints, (this is considered basic etiquette to maintain the structure of the bootpack) It wasn’t long before a 70 year old local Jackonsonite overtook me, smiling, he zipped past me with not even a hint of exertion while I stood aside gasping for air in his wake. Reaching the top was ecstasy, not just for the satisfaction won from a hard climb but knowing that ahead of me lay some of the best snow I’d ever skied.

Cutting our tracks down into the valley was bliss as the knee deep dry powder billowed up around us. While we had a map, we relished in the exhilaration of choosing our own descent, knowing all tributaries led back to the road where we could hitchhike to the trailhead. Ducking through the trees and down into the valley bought skiing to life for me in a whole new way.  A pristine wilderness silent and untouched, with the joy of exploration thick in the air. 

One of the best things about venturing into the backcountry is its limitless potential; whatever you see, you can ski, so long as you can get to it. There are no marked trails, boundary lines or crowds BUT on the flip side of that fairy tale is the fact that it can be risky business. Unlike the ease of carefree resort skiing, one wrong move here can spell death. There is a complex science to the snow and every factor needs to be considered to predict the risk of avalanche. It pays to enrol in a specialised training course called an Avy 1 that can teach you how to predict the risk and rescue someone who may have been caught. 

That evening, feeling very novice, I reflected on some of my learning from my day bootpacking the Teton pass:

There are two ways up and only one way down.

  • Boot packing is good for super steep terrain or narrow passes but you can also ‘skin’ your way up. Skins are big furry strips of fabric that adhere to the base of your ski and allow you to get traction on the snow. In fact they are called ‘skins’ because they resemble sealskin. Picking good skins that are durable is as important as getting them cut to size, you want them marginally smaller than the base of your skis so your edges remain exposed. Never put them on in the dirt – they are essentially gigantic sheets of ferocious sticky tape! With your skins on, drag your toe in sliding steps and slide up the hill in a series of zigzag cutbacks. Skinning is good for wider terrain and conserves energy. It also helps to move over fresh and deeper snow without sinking as it spreads your weight over the ski’s surface.

Back to gear – I really had no idea! 

Alpine skis (the ones you use on the resort) are not the same as backcountry skis. In the backcountry weight is a defining issue. Manufacturers like Black Diamond make specific skis that are incredibly lightweight but strong and pack plenty of performance. Same goes for bindings, touring bindings are more lightweight and have settings to allow your heel to lift so you can walk. When shopping for ATV bindings, stay alert to the fact that some have brakes and some, in order to be light, ditch the brakes and just have tethers, effectively turning your ski into a slippery autonomous rocket that won’t self arrest should you put it down at the wrong angle before you’ve tethered it to your boot. Wave goodbye and enjoy the long walk down my friend

Also, touring bindings, once mounted, aren’t adjustable to the size of your boot. They get drilled and screwed solidly into one place. This was a problem for me because after a few days in the backcountry, I realised my new touring boots were too big but my bindings were already mounted– If you take anything away from this article, may it be this: Go to the best boot maker you can find and work your way through as many demo boots as you can until you land on your perfect match and then mount your bindings to your ski. It’s not the end of the world if you have to change your binding settings, you putty up the screw holes and drill some new ones but it isn’t ideal and can weaken the ski. 

All the gear drama receded as I followed in my friend’s tracks that morning. My heel lifts easily, my new touring boot flexing to allow me to step naturally as I skin quietly through the stunning forest hemmed in by the mighty mountains of Washington State’s Pacific North West. The incline starts to steepen and the sweat fest begins, the trees thin out and we zigzag across the slope. I’m bought into the present moment and the rest of my life fades out of focus, all the emails, deadlines and to do lists disappear, and it’s just me, my friend and our adventure. Life is alive. We reach the top of a nearby peak, and shrug our packs from our shoulders. I quietly layer up, strip my skins from my skis and put them back in my pack. I stomp a niche in the snow so my runaway skis can’t escape and place them down carefully. I tighten my boots, line up my toe cleats and stamp confidently into place. I finally feel like I’ve got this, I turn to my friend and without a word we jet off into the powdery goodness that’s truly ours for the taking. 

At the bottom we admire the two lonely tracks, punctured curves in the snowy canvas and I find myself keenly aware that, right there and then, I was living one of the best days of my life. The combination of earning those turns in such a beautiful place and being at the gateway of a new adventure sport means it could well be 5 years until I jump on a chairlift too. 

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Renowned guide Chris Meder has some advice for us beginners: 

“Skiing in the backcountry can offer rewards in heaps – scenery, solitude, exercise and, of course, fresh powder snow.  It can also be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.  Here are a few tips to get started on a safe and fun backcountry habit.

  1. Educate Yourself – Take an avalanche course from a local guide service. You will learn how to recognize avalanche terrain, what causes avalanches, and begin to understand when and where to go and not go.

  2. Get the Forecast – Check to see if your local mountains have an avalanche forecast centre. Avalanche forecasters put out bulletins describing the current avalanche danger in your area. Getting the avalanche forecast should be your first step in planning a trip into the backcountry, after having completed an avalanche course.

  3. Get the Gear – When travelling in the backcountry, you will need a few specialized pieces of gear. An avalanche transceiver, a collapsible shovel, and an avalanche probe are the basics. For travelling, you will also need a set of skis with ski touring bindings (or a splitboard for snowboarders) and climbing skins.

  4. Make a Plan – Find trusted backcountry travel buddies, choose carefully, and work together to make a plan to get out safely. Developing a Plan A and Plan B with your ski partners gets everyone’s buy-in. Ensure everyone has a say in where to go, when, and whether Plan A or B is appropriate given the conditions you find. Make low-key plans to start and work up from there.

  5. Get Out There – With your new skills, gear, partners and plan, get out into the mountains and enjoy the benefits and joys of the backcountry!

Photos: Chris Meder + Caroline Pemberton

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