The past two years I’ve gotten pretty into backcountry skiing and its been really fun and adventurous. I first learned to ski 5 years ago at the Vail resorts but after three years I was ready for something new. The past two years I’ve instead gotten the Rocky Mountain Super Plus Pass – Copper, Winter Park, Steamboat, Crested Butte, and Eldora – but I’ve also started to venture away from resorts entirely.
Backcountry skiing is a type of skiing that requires you to hike up the mountain first, before skiing it (unless you can afford helicopters or snowcat skiing). It is much more strenuous than taking a lift up the mountain and you generally only get a few ‘runs’ down the mountain before you are exhausted or the day is getting late.
The upside to backcountry skiing is you avoid the crowds on the slopes and instead experience fresh powder in a serene, tranquil winter landscape. The backcountry is much more peaceful and majestic. The sense of adventure breaking fresh tracks since the last snow storm is palpable. The plethora of skiable terrain is unending, making every weekend a new location to explore. And of course its free – no expensive ski ticket required.
But there are very real downsides to backcountry skiing – avalanche danger is an ever present prospect. Snow science is complicated and even the biggest experts in the field cannot always predict when a slope or recent snowfall is safe from avalanche. Many tools today now exist to help us predict when conditions are high risk of avalanches, including the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and related phone apps. Training classes put on by organizations like AIARE teach skiers how to reduce avalanche dangers and avoid high risk areas, but still these tools are heuristics for hard to predict forces of nature.
Finally, there are tools that every backcountry skier should always carry with them – pictured below is a beacon, probe, and shovel. In the event you or your friend is buried in an avalanche, the other people in your group take out their electronic beacon which can use radio waves to track down buried people. Once the general location is found, a probe is used to poke deep into the snow and feel for buried bodies. Once a person is located using a probe, the shovel is of course used to unbury the victims. Often times, however, these tools are not fast enough and only find dead bodies after asphyxiation or just plain body trauma has already set in.
New safety tools may reduce risks in the future – recently on the market and rapidly gaining in popularity are airbag backpacks that you deploy once you see an avalanche has been triggered. They form a protective barrier around your head as well as keep you towards the top of the snow fall due to your increased volume but decreased weight ratio.
But enough about the risks – there are low angle slopes and late-season skiing that reduce the risk to be virtually zero. And besides that – the most dangerous part of these days is still probably driving on the road towards the mountains.
Another aspect of backcountry skiing that I love is spending the night in the wilderness. This typically means staying in rustic huts accessible only by hiking through snow – no winter road access. In the next picture we are hiking up to Betty Bear Hut:
Another hut trip brought us to Arestua Hut right beyond Eldora. In the following picture you can see some friends of mine chilling around a wood burning stove in a small shack:
Another option for spending the night is winter camping in Quinzhee Huts, or snow caves. These are built by collecting a large pile of snow then hollowing into the mound a cave. They keep you surprisingly warm (32 degrees F) and are fun survival skills to know:
A night time shot from the outside of a quinzhee hut, looking in: