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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.


Sample Touring Equip.
EQUIPMENT: 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 backcountry.com and REI 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.

45-degree Slope (on Mt. Evans)
THE STEEPS: 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.


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