How To: Backcountry Ski

Posted by on Nov 17, 2010 in How To, Ski | 7 Comments

Cyclocross season is starting to wind down. The mountains are filling with snow. Autumn is giving way to winter. Ski season is staring us all flat in the face, waiting impatiently to dominate our thoughts and free time. Each year more and more people are venturing into the backcountry for their powder fix. And who can blame them? The potential for waist deep powder, iconic lines, and grand adventure is multiplied ten-fold when skiing wild snow. The mountains become accessible in a way that is nearly impossible during the summer months, creating a million acres of white and creamy possibility. My own foray into the backcountry was just 2 seasons ago. I’ve learned a lot since then. And I hope I will continue to learn with each and every tour. Knowledge and experience are paramount while skiing out-of-bounds. The rewards of first tracks come with the risk of avalanches and other untamed aspects of the mountains—tree skiing, hidden boulders and logs, stream crossings, and no ski patrol anywhere in sight. But the risks can be mitigated and managed if one is prepared. Part of being prepared is having the right gear, mindset, and expectations. Below are some of my observations.

This is not meant to be a definitive manifesto. I want it to be a discussion. So feel free to add your own insights or rebuttals in the comments section below.

The Stairway to Heaven

Gear: Basics

Skis: Finding a pair of skis is a little like finding a good bike. They sort of choose you. There are many great options for touring these days. Generally you want something fat (100+ mm) underfoot, and possibly a little longer than you’d normally ride in the resort. But it’s largely a matter of preference and ability. A fatter, longer ski will give you more float in the deep snow, but will be heavier, and probably harder to maneuver on the up-track. So, like everything in life, you will have to compromise a little. I currently ride the Black Diamond Verdict Ski. It’s fat, but not overly so. It’s a solid all-round ski. I’ve enjoyed them, and plan to ski on on them for at least one more season. However, I might try something a little fatter next time. Bottom line: Find a ski that fits your body, your budget, and your riding style. There are many, many great choices.

Skins: Several gear makers sell skins. I have used the very basic Black Diamond Ascension skins for 2+ seasons. They work well, and have been very durable. When you buy a pair of climbing skins, be sure to get some that are wide enough to fit the waist of your skis. Most are shipped plenty wide for most skis, and will actually require trimming. Trim your skins as close to the metal edge of your ski as possible, especially at the waist. Click here for a video tutorial on trimming climbing skins.

Scarpa Spirit 3 Alpine Touring Ski Boot Gray, 27.5Boots: Touring boots are easy, yet difficult to pick out. Easy: Find something that fits comfortably.  Hard: Find something that fits comfortably. Find a good ski shop that carries a large variety of touring boots. The REI in Salt Lake City—and probably your town—is a good place to start. Try on everything. And then try them on again. Touring boots might be the most important piece of equipment (outside of safety gear) you will use. Nothing ruins a great day of skiing like hella sore feet. Trust me. Another reason they are an important choice is that they will last you a long time. You might ski with the same pair of boots for 10 years. You want boots that fit. Once you’ve settled on a pair, have a reputable dealer heat mold them to your feet. It’s well worth the additional cost—many shops will fit you for free. When you’ve got the boots home, wear them around with the socks you plan to ski in. I like ultra-thin ski socks. Your socks won’t help to keep your feet warm. Your boots will do that just fine. Break the boots in. And at night, keep them inside. You want them warmer than colder. I’m not sure if there is any scientific reason for that, but I know that putting on warm boots at 5:30 AM is better than putting on cold boots at 5:30 AM. Oh, and after a tour, pull out the liners and let them air dry. Bottom line: Find a pair of boots that fits.

Poles: Any pair will do. I skied for a long time with a cheap pair of non-adjustable poles. Ho-hum. Toward the end of last season I upgraded to an adjustable set. The difference was remarkable. Being able to telescope your pole-height for different climbing conditions is a nice perk. But really, any old set of poles will do. Especially if you are prone to losing stuff. And poles have a way of being dropped in the backcountry.

Bindings: The market for alpine touring bindings is expanding. Get a pair that is compatible with your boots. Find something durable, and relatively light. I am a fan of the Dynafit TLT Vertical FT Z12 Binding. They are simple, adjustable, super light, easy to use, and have no moving parts. Make sure a reputable shop drills your skis, and mounts the bindings for you. Once you’ve got them on, practice at home getting in and out. You’ll appreciate the experience once you’re on the hill. Bottom line: Lots of choices. Get something durable and compatible with your boots. Simple is better.

Gear: Safety

Beacon: Get a beacon. Your own beacon. Borrowing one is fine once or twice, but get your own. Learn to use it. Practice with it. There are many great beacons on the market. I use the
Backcountry Access Tracker DTS Beacon
. It’s one of the most popular models in the backcountry because it’s affordable and easy to use. There are more expensive beacons that have more features, but only one feature—being able to locate another beacon—will save lives. Your beacon will become a major part of your touring. Most shops will let you demo different models. Try a few out. After you’ve bought yours, head out with a buddy to an open field or beacon park and practice. Bottom line: Practice, practice, practice. You do not want to be fiddling with your beacon when someones life is on the line.

Shovel: Just don’t get a plastic one. Black Diamond, BCA, and others all make lightweight, durable shovels.

Probe: Black Diamond makes a fantastic quick release probe. It assembles quickly, breaks down cleanly, and packs away nice and snug. Length is the primary variable in probes. It’s probably better to have one that’s too long, than one that’s too short. (That’s what she said)

Black Diamond Covert Avalung Winter Pack - 1343-1953cu in Black, S/MPack: There is really no reason not to get an AvaLung Pack. They are inexpensive, they work well, and they are designed to carry your ski gear. Again, Black Diamond makes a wide variety of  AvaLung packs. Find one that fits your needs and style. If you already have a pack that you just don’t want to give up, I suggest buying the AvaLung shoulder sling. Economically speaking however, a pack is the better investment. I think it’s better to get a pack that is a bit larger in volume than you think you’ll need, rather than a smaller one. It’s never a bad thing to have a little extra room in your pack. A good ski pack will have a place for your shovel and probe. It will fit your helmet (yes, wear a helmet), plus other gear—first aid kit, rope, lunch, an extra layer, etc. Bottom Line: A durable pack is like a good pair of boots. You’ll use it for a long time.

Knowledge

Become an avalanche nerd. Seriously. Avalanches are fascinating. They really are. The different causes and reasons for them are many, and sometimes overly complex. Knowing how and why they happen is interesting, but also mandatory. You don’t need to become a snow scientist, just a snow-nerd. Your local USFS office probably has a team of avalanche forecasters. Find out if they have a newsletter. Read it as often as they send it out. The Utah Avalanche Center is an amazing group of dedicated individuals. The daily avalanche reports are the first thing I read each morning, regardless if I am going to ski that day. Reading these kind of reports, coupled with being out in the snow will help you to get to know your snow pack. As you become more familiar with your local snow pack, the weather patterns, and current conditions, you will soon be able to predict fairly accurately what the next forecast will contain. Like Bruce Tremper likes to say, “Know Snow”.

And speaking of Bruce Tremper: Buy his book. Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain is the definitive textbook for avalanche study. It gets technical at times, but nonetheless, it’s a very valuable resource. After you’ve read the book, take an avalanche certification course. They are as valuable as they are fun. Especially if you attend with friends.

Watch videos, read Avy reports, and poke around in the snow while you are out on the slopes. The more you know, the more you know. Talk about what you are seeing with your ski partners. It’s not taboo to talk avalanches while skiing the backcountry. Watch. Observe. See. Or, to steal another Tremper-ism: Wear your avalanche goggles. If you are staying up on the current reports, and paying attention to the how’s and why’s that are causing avalanches, you should never be caught off guard. However, you will be caught off guard. So be smart.

Bottom Line: It’s not nerdy to be an avalanche nerd.

Expectations

Not every day in the backcounty is going to be creamy deep powder. Some days will be icy and lame. Others might be wet and heavy. And others yet, will simply be miserable—cold, windy, lousy. But many, many days will be amazing and unforgettable. Nonetheless, managing your expectations will go a long way in keeping you safe, and sane in wild snow. As good as that line off of Superior might look from where you are standing, it may be out of your league, unstable, or simply too far away for today. It’s easy to get caught up in the white room feeding frenzy. But pushing the limits of daylight, your physical ability, or the stability of the snow will cause trouble. Sometimes it’s all right to ski back to your car, even if you do have a little extra time or energy.

Wild snow is different than resort snow. It’s not built on a base of groomed, packed, cut runs. It’s just… there, on top of whatever was lying in the way when it fell. Over time a nice compacted base will evolve, but there are still tree stumps, boulders, smaller trees, cliff lines, and any number of other obstacles lurking under the snow. Skiing the backcountry will feel differently than a resort. The snow is different. You’ll also nee to to ski through trees from time to time. Be prepared for that.

Have fun. Enjoy the outdoors. A day of mediocre snow is better than a day of no snow. Be happy out there. It’s the mountains!

Bottom line: If you are considering skiing the backcounty there is obviously a lot of homework to do. The initial investment in time and money can be steep. Borrow gear when you can. Ease into everything if you must. Ski with good partners. The guys I ski with are great. I trust my life with them—40 to 50 days a year.

The backcountry has opened up a new appreciation of the Wasatch mountains for me. I can’t look at the peaks and ridglines the same anymore. Touring in the winter will acquaint you with the intimate details of your mountain range. That is perhaps the best return on this investment I’ve had. That, and the fact that no longer are the winters a dark and dreary, bike-less dearth of despair and fidgety, unhinged impatience. instead, I enjoy and look forward to the cold and snow and skiing, nearly as much as I do the summer, and heat and singletrack.

7 Comments

  1. Jason M
    November 17, 2010

    Practicing with your beacon is so important. Being in the moment and with your heart pumping out your chest there is a lot to remember. If you don’t stay calm and someone does not take charge of the situation there is a good chance the skier, boarder, snowmobiler will not survive!

    Practice with the people you ride with and practice some more.

  2. mark
    November 17, 2010

    I have never once adjusted the length of my adjustable length poles for climbing. If they’re too long I choke down. If they’re too short, I put my hands on the tops. If someone I was with stopped to adjust the length of his poles, I would stop too. To laugh at him.

  3. Mom
    November 21, 2010

    So glad to see your advice on being an “avalanche nerd.” Remember you all have mothers and/or wives you happen to love all you nerds. Be careful out there.

  4. Dave hylton
    November 26, 2010

    I agree with the comments about being a nerd, and practicing with your beacon, but that is just the start. Practice needs to include deep burials (locating a beacon that is 4 feet deep is a whole different animal than one that is hidden under 6 inches of snow). Also, you have to practice digging victims out of the snow. Digging down to find a beacon is nothing compared to digging a whole big enough to perform cpr on a six foot victim. In other words, rescue is damned hard, and has to be practiced over and over.

    • mark
      November 30, 2010

      It’s also good to practice digging holes.

  5. ryan
    December 15, 2010

    I do a great deal of offshore fishing as well, so i usually bring my EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and a satellite phone. Unfortunately with the EPIRB, its not possible to practice because it is a $200,000 fine every time you activate it without there being a real emergency because it sends a distress signal to every emergency service. I also have found that a nifty little way to check for avalanches is to put a couple pieces of dry ice in some big gatorade bottles, then when in a questionable area, after digging to check the layers, you can pee in one of the bottles, cap it, then toss it and it acts like a bomb, setting off the avalanche before you get suck in it.

    • Grizzly Adam
      December 16, 2010

      Dry ice avy bombs… brilliant!