A specific set of skills is required to ski in the
backcountry. Ski routes can be steep, dangerous, and difficult. On
many routes, a fall could be fatal. Skiing in the backcountry is much
different than visiting the ski area and the route difficulties should not be
compared directly to ski area standards. A novice backcountry ski route does not mean that
it is as easy as a green trail at the ski area - it means that the route is
recommended for novice backcountry skiers. Novice and Intermediate trails
at the ski area are often groomed and free of most obstacles.
14er and other high peak skiing is difficult. It's usually about taking
one run after a long ascent. There's no warm-up run and you're making a descent with a lot of
gear on questionable terrain. If conditions are good and you picked the
right location, it can be fantastic.
For short trips, many people climb in ski boots and just snap on skis
for the descent. This is ok for short trips but if you're serious about
backcountry travel, it's good
to get the right equipment. Ski touring equipment allows you to ski in,
ascend slopes using skins, and ski down. Telemark equipment is used by
many for backcountry travel and telemark ski descents. Alpine touring (AT)
equipment (also called Randonnee) goes beyond telemark. Like telemark, AT
gear gets you up into the backcountry but descents are made with alpine skiing
technique with your heel locked into a binding. On advanced or extreme
backcountry terrain, alpine technique can be safer and allow you to tackle more
difficult terrain. The AT field is quickly expanding to include new types
of skis, boots, and bindings. Do your homework to get the equipment that
fits your style, ability, and destinations. To go "un-tracked" into the
backcountry, don't use thin cross country skis. Personally, I have found
to be two of the best places
to shop for backcountry skiing and mountaineering gear.
WHERE TO GO:
Colorado has tons of great backcountry skiing. Most of it is accessed only
by expert skiers because of location and difficulty. While many of us have
secret spots that draw few skiers, there is an abundance of terrain that can be
easily accessed by most skiers. Loveland Pass is the perfect example - it
gets a lot of visitors because they can park, hike, ski, and repeat. If
you're an experienced backcountry skier, you will likely look for the solitude
and challenge of a place beyond Loveland Pass. The options are limitless.
Slope angle plays a large part in
the difficulty of a ski route. An advanced slope will often exceed 40
degrees. If a slope is over 45 degrees, it is usually difficult to stop a
fall. A fall on a slope over 50 degrees could result in your demise.
The first time I looked down a long 55 degree slope, my brain had trouble
forcing my skis over the edge. Few ski areas in North America have any
runs that exceed 55 degrees. The new, small Silverton (Colorado) Mountain
ski area has some of North America's steepest ski area terrain - with maximum
angles of 55 degrees. Learn to ski steep runs at the ski area before
heading to a steep backcountry route. It's vital to master the "jump-turn"
technique which is useful on steep, narrow routes. Expect to see ski tracks on terrain that you consider
unsuitable for anyone with a brain. Another person's idea of advanced or
extreme may differ from your own.
TERRAIN + CONDITIONS = LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY:
Steepness is not the only factor when determining the difficulty of a
backcountry ski route. At a minimum, consider the following factors when
planning a descent: Slope angle, snow condition, avalanche danger, sun
hit, cliffs, rocks, ICE or hard snow, route exits, run-out, wind, and
visibility. It's a great idea to climb what you are going to ski. If
you feel it's too steep to climb, then it's probably too steep for you to ski.
During a climb, you will be able to identify the desired path of your descent.
You may also spot that drop-off that you can't see from the top.
It's critical to know when something is beyond your ability before you are in a
tough situation. If you are an expert ski mountaineer, you will
eventually peer down your first "no-fall" route. This is usually a good
time to consider your future in the backcountry. Don't fall.