Slackcountry to Backcountry
How to step away from the lifts and come back in one pieceby Adam Riser
Letís face it: if you ski enough, youíll eventually reach the point where the resort just wonít satisfy your powder jones anymore. Even on the deepest days, runs get tracked out too fast, and you find yourself venturing into the slackcountry. You duck the rope, traverse for 15 minutes, drop in on the 400 feet of untracked snow that you find, and then traverse back at the bottom. So, what do you do when those few hundred feet of fresh are no longer enough? You leave the lifts and crowds behind and get into the backcountry.
The backcountry is not the resort or even the terrain on the other side of the boundary ropes. No one has tested these slopes or determined if theyíre safe. You need different gear and a different skill set to avoid trouble and move efficiently. This is a quick-and-dirty guide on the basics to get you from the sidecountry to the backcountry without gambling your life on avalanche conditions.
First Things First: Take an Avy 1 Class
The four-hour avalanche awareness talk that you once sat in on is not enough to teach you how to stay safe in the backcountryónot even close. You need to take a legit, multi-day avalanche course. Sure, itís expensive, but itís one of the best investments youíll ever make. An Avy 1 class will teach you smart travel skills, as well as how to test the snow for instabilities, how to evaluate those instabilities, and how to quickly search with a beacon. These are the bare-minimum skills you need for a day of touring.
Donít Go it Alone: Find Touring Partners
Now that you know what youíre doing, you need a couple of partners who also know what theyíre doing. Make sure that they, at the very least, have also taken avalanche classes, know how to identify and avoid hazardous terrain, and know how to search with a beacon and probe. Anything less, and they shouldnít be in the backcountry. Actual skiing ability should be secondary to the ability to stay safe.
Choose a Beacon; Use a Beacon
Buy a good beacon and LEARN HOW TO USE IT. Do not underestimate the value of practice. Test yourself over and over until finding a buried object is second nature. If you ever have to dig for your partner, youíll wish you had practiced more. A couple extra hours of plodding around in the snow and digging up packs could save your friendís life one day.
Carry a Probe
Probes make the pinpoint part of a search much faster and more accurate. A couple of seconds with a probe can shave a ton of time off the digging portion of a rescue, so itís time well spent. When you practice with your beacon, practice probing and shoveling as well. Itís key to practice these skills together so youíll have a fully familiar, fully dialed system ready to go if youíre ever in a real avalanche situation.
Get a Serious Shovel
Get yourself a big shovel with an aluminum blade. Donít even consider messing around with plastic. It may work for building a booter, but youíll snap a plastic blade digging in super-dense avalanche debris. Once you spend some time digging up packs in practice rescues, youíll understand just how much effort it takes to move a relatively little amount of snow, and it will become clear why you want a large shovel.
While you can go into the backcountry with your hiking pack, a legit winter pack has features that make a lot of difference on a long tour. A purpose-designed ski- or board-carry system includes straps that let you easily attach your skis or board to the pack, which is worth its weight in gold if you have to bootpack a steep section of ridgeline. Itís also extremely nice to have a dedicated pocket for your shovel and probe so theyíre easily accessible if the unthinkable happens.
Learn the Joy of Skins
Just say no to snowshoes. Ö One more time, just to let it sink in: do not assume that snowshoes will get you around efficiently in the backcountry. Get a good pair of skins, trim them correctly, and learn how to put them on and take them off quickly and efficiently. Along the same lines, if a friend wants to come along on your tour and shows up with snowshoes, just tell him to go home, unless youíre willing to spend your day slogging at a glacial pace.
Free the Heel with Touring Bindings
Get a pair of backcountry skis and mount dedicated touring bindings on them. You need a releasable heel, whether you go with Fritschi or Marker AT bindings (which are both resilient enough to double as in-bounds alpine bindings), or you go with Dynafits (a more minimalist setup, favored by the ultralight crew). The bottom line is that ďmaking doĒ with alpine trekkers (or snowshoes) just wonít suffice for serious touring.
When you ski at a resort, you just have to dress warm enough to sit on a lift and not get cold. In the backcountry, you have to dress light enough for skinning up and warm enough for skiing down, as well as have extra emergency layers in case something goes wrong and you end up spending more time in the snow than you planned to. Do your research, experiment, and learn how to dress properly.
Final Step: Get After It
The first couple times you go out may feel like complete clusters, but after a few tours, it will all feel like second nature. Once you get all of your systems dialed and get used to skinning, youíll be amazed by how much vert you can get in during a day. In the Wasatch, backcountry skiers routinely get in 3,000 feet before work and well over twice that in a full day. Many skiers regularly break the 10K mark on a long Saturday tour, and Backcountry.comís Pro Athlete Greg Hill once climbed and skied over 50,000 vertical feet in a single day. And remember, in the backcountry, itís all about quality over quantity. Even if your resort-bound friends get more vert, you can be damn sure that you got more powder.
Have advice for the backcountry newbie? Or do you have questions of your own? Go here to comment...