Friday, December 1, 2017

Backcountry Skiing - How to Start!

The words skiing and fun are essentially synonymous with one another. The art of skiing is one of the most pleasurable pastimes in the world. There is nothing quite like sliding on the snow at a beautifully maintained ski area—

Except – that is – skiing the backcountry

But skiing in the backcountry can be intimidating. Indeed, assuming one has easy black diamond movement skills, there are three elements that might keep a skier from venturing into the backcountry: equipment, avalanche danger, and navigation. Once an individual has been introduced to each of these elements, a journey into the winter backcountry seems far more reasonable.

Equipment:


There are two major types of touring skis, telemark and alpine touring. Telemark skis are designed with a free heel that is never clamped down. This is in direct opposition to alpine touring skis. These skis are designed to have a free heel when moving uphill and a fixed heel for downhill skiing.

Unless you are already a telemark skier, it is not recommended that you venture into the backcountry with a telemark ski. Most resort skiers will have a much better time transitioning to alpine touring skis.

A backcountry skier rips down a clean line on a beautiful slope.

There are dozens upon dozens of touring skis on the market. Each ski is designed with a different thing in mind. Some are designed to be super lightweight, whereas others are heavier, but are designed for better performance skiing downhill. Most of those that are new to backcountry skiing should use heavier skis to start with. While this adds weight for uphill travel, it will make the downhill portion of the day much easier to deal with, especially if the conditions are variable or difficult.

There are two major types of backcountry alpine touring bindings on the market. The first is the standard AT set-up, which allows for a skier to easily step into the binding. And the second is the super lightweight tech binding. The first type of binding (Fritschi Diamir, Marker Duke, Atomic Tracker, etc.) will be easier for the standard resort skier to adapt to, but most people these days ski on the second kind of binding (Dynafit, G3, BD Plum, etc.).

Like the skis, there are dozens of different boot options for AT skiers. The biggest difference between alpine ski boots and AT boots is that AT boots are designed to have both an uphill and a downhill mode. In other words, they flex forward and backward for good uphill movement. Ideally a new AT skier will be able to find a boot that works well for both uphill and downhill movement. Ski shop employees can help you find a model that works well for you.

AT skis are designed to go both uphill and downhill, but they need assistance going uphill. You will need to purchase a good set of climbing skins to place on the bottom of the skis for uphill travel. These will then be removed for downhill action.

A skier skins up a slope.

And finally, you will need to carry four essential pieces of avalanche safety equipment. You will need an avalanche transceiver, an avalanche probe, a shovel and formal avalanche education. Nobody should ever travel in the winter backcountry without these essential items.

Avalanche Danger:

The final equipment items on the list are an avalanche transceiver, an avalanche probe and a shovel. These items are for the worst-case scenario. They are in your kit so that you can rescue your partner after an avalanche. They are not avalanche repellant.

An average of 27 people die in avalanches every year. Avalanches are a real threat and they kill people.

There is really only one way for the new backcountry skier to adequately address avalanche danger. He or she will need to take a full 3-day Level I Avalanche Safety course. The best avalanche safety programs conform to American Avalanche Association standards. Locally, these are identified as American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) compliant programs. The American Alpine Institute provides AIARE Level I courses at Mt. Baker every weekend.

Backcountry Navigation:

Skiers regularly enjoy resort skiing in flat light buried in a fog bank. This marginally dangerous resort activity provides significant additional danger in the backcountry. Obstacles with difficult visibility are only the beginning of the problem. You also need to know where you are and how to get home.

There are four additional tools that the backcountry skier should learn to use. These are a topographical map, a compass, an altimeter and a GPS. These are all tools that you can learn to use by playing with them in the frontcountry; and you can find numerous resources online to help you understand these tools in order to use them effectively.

Historically GPS units have been very expensive. However, today there are a number of apps that can be used on your phone in airplane mode. My personal favorite is Gaia, but there are several others out there as well. These apps are not super intuitive though and will take time and practice to perfect before using them in the field.

Courses:

The fastest way to get dialed into all of this is to take a course. The American Alpine Institute has several courses available. To learn more, check out our list of backcountry skiingsplitboarding, and avalanche safety programs.

Resort skiing is great, but in a straight-up comparison, backcountry skiing is just more fun. There is a lot more that you have to know. Your skiing skill has to be a great deal higher and earning your turns just feels more rewarding. It is well worth any resort skier’s time to step off piste and to explore the world of backcountry skiing.

--Jason D. Martin

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