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WELCOME TO OUR BACKCOUNTRY SKIING SECTION! We are excited about sharing all things backcountry with you and we are stoked to get your thoughts, tips and photos. To share your thoughts on our Backcountry Forum  click here. 

AVALANCHE SAFETY GO>

BACKCOUNTRY SKIING: GETTING STARTED  

If you are new to backcountry skiing stay right here and we will do our best to get you ready for going off-piste (off-the-trail). The idea of being completely responsible for your own well-being gets you focused unlike anything you can experience inbounds. Yes, the backcountry experience brings with it more danger, more excitement, and much more physical effort. But, the quality of the turns is payment enough for the commitment.  

BEFORE YOU GO THE FIRST TIME

          There are a few things to organize and think about before you take that first backcountry journey. Donít even think about going by yourself or with other inexperienced cohorts. This is fun, but serious business and you need to be out there with an experienced and mature backcountry skier(s).

          To get you thinking, here is a list of items for that first trip. It is a long and expensive list, yet you can simplify the process by hiring a guide service that will supply you with most of what you need. You will be able to rent the skis, bindings, avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. Depending on the company, you will be able to rent more or less of the stuff you need. However, most backcountry shops and guide services rent all the basic equipment. Once you know backcountry skiing turns your crank, you can start ticking off the items on this list. This is not a complete list of every item you should take, but itís a start. 

1.      A comfortable backcountry pack: It must be one designed specifically for skiing. If it is really cool there will be a small zip pouch that comes across the front just above the waist belt that is big enough to hold a camera, snack, your skins, or other small items.

2.      A CamelBak or other brand of water reservoir: Designed to go inside your pack (a good pack should come with an internal pouch to hold it). Both the reservoir and the drink tube must be insulated. If you take your biking reservoir it will freeze.

3.   Alpine Touring Skis, boots, poles, and bindings: You can save money by using your downhill boots in the back country. We do it frequently. Just make sure your boots fit snugly around all parts of your foot except your toes. This will enable you to climb with the top buckles unclipped, which nicely simulates the ďwalk modeĒ of AT boots. They also give you a lot more support, when you need it most - during descents. This is especially true if your AT boots are several years old. However, the newer backcountry boots are closer than ever to offering the performance of a high quality alpine boot. The newest AT boots are dual-purpose, working well at the area and in the backcountry. When making decisions about skis and bindings for the backcountry, be sure to choose AT specific equipment. You will be glad you did.

4.   Skins for the bottom of your skis: Make sure these cover every millimeter of your ski base, leaving only the edges exposed. TOTAL COVERAGE! Get skins with the most aggressive nap.

5.    Shovel: Get the biggest one you can comfortably fit on your pack. I have an aluminum grain shovel that Paul Ramer cut down and mounted on a large diameter wood handle, which disconnects with a clevis pin. However, be aware that shovels are actually getting smaller and some research suggests two people using alternate shovel strokes, on the same dig, may actually be faster than one person with a large shovel. For compressed avalanche debris, a smaller shovel can more easily penetrate into it. For me, larger is still better and this is especially true when you  are digging snow caves.

6.   Forget trash bags, spend a few $ on an emergency space blanket pod (Like a sleeping bag liner).

7.   Cut a thinsulite foam pad in half: And stuff one piece in your pack. Sit on it at lunch or you may need it for an emergency bivy.

8.     Purchase a Leatherman tool: And the bigger the better to a point. It will be easier to use with your gloves on. Forget the small Swiss army knife. Donít worry, this item wonít overload your pack.

9.     Tool kit: Assemble it yourself, with all the spare parts needed to fix anything on your poles, skis, and boots. Add duct tape and a hand drill to round out the kit. The hand drill is for drilling completely through your skis to bolt your binding back on right after it rips out of the ski. This is extremely rare, but Iíve drilled two pairs for others and one for myself in the last twenty years. It usually happens on multi-day trips. You can also use the drill to make holes in your ski tips when constructing a litter for an injured skier. Take slit aluminum tubing and two hose clamps to repair poles.

10.    First aid kit: Donít be too wimpy here. Then go take a mountaineering first aid class.

11.    Avalanche test kit: Or at the very least a slope clinometer (measures slope angle).

12.    Head Lamp: Be sure to get the brightest one you can; capable of throwing the most light out in front of you at the greatest distance. Small and inexpensive is cool, but having copious amounts of light is cooler.

13. Avalanche Transceiver: The standard has been analogue, but within the last decade manufacturers have started to offer digital with some advantages. Check with your local BC Shop for all the latest information on transceivers. When digital units first came out they had slow microprocessors which means you had to adapt to the speed of the beacon. Another shortcoming of the earlier digital unit was its inability to be used near a mobile phone. Units have improved, so it is best to buy a new one and avoid used models. Anyway, be sure you get a new one from a specialty BC shop. This is not an area to try and cut corners on cost.

ONCE YOU ARE READY TO GET OUT THERE ON YOUR OWN - HERE IS ANOTHER LIST TO CONSIDER

1.       Attend an avalanche class. The best will have classroom work and on-the-snow training or drills.

2.       Now that you are somewhat Avy Savvy practice around the house and in fields (with or without snow) until finding a well-hidden transmitting beacon is second nature.

3.       Did you buy a probe? I donít want to preach; donít leave home without it.

4.       Are the batteries brand new in your transceiver/beacon? Never use rechargeable and remember to replace you alkaline batteries often.

5.       What is the process for safe travel in the backcountry?

a.       While enjoying your morning coffee call the avalanche hotline in your area. Oh, and be sure to do as they advise. This does not mean to completely rely on their observations. You still need to do testing in the backcountry. You can benefit from calling them everyday whether you are skiing or not. This helps you learn about the morphing process snow pack goes through, as it becomes weaker or stronger over time.

b.  Learn about avalanche terrain. Most avalanches occur on slopes of 30-degrees or steeper, up to a little less than 50-degrees. However, it can happen on slopes less than 30 and more than 50. A densely forested slope may be steep and not slide, but there are no guarantees. People have been wiped out by avalanches while traveling up a shallow valley with dense trees on both sides. How, does this happen? The avalanche comes from far away; from a large open bowl so far above you it canít be seen from your position. Know what is above you and respect it. 

c. Try your best to avoid avalanche terrain on your ascent. This is efficient, as the whole party can move together.

If you must travel in the path of a possible avalanche then you must move through it one person at a time. This is slow. Slow is better than dead. Donít risk crossing it as a group.

d. The lower angle ridge lines are your best bet for ascending peaks you wish to ski. Blasting up the gut is always more dangerous and a lot more physically demanding.

e. Learn to recognize instability. WHOOMPH! If you do not know the significance of whoomph, find out or it may be the last sound you hear. While driving to your ski destination look for avalanches that have already occurred. On what aspect did the event occur? Avoid all slopes with this aspect. Once on your skis look for cracking around your skis and the collapsing of larger areas as you skin over it. This probably means you are in slab avalanche territory with a weak layer below you. If you see a lot of avalanche signs you can do one of two things. Look for a safer aspect with no indications of potential avalanche, or go back to town for a sandwich and big beer at Leftyís.

f. It is easier to travel in small groups of two or three. If five of you want to be together, travel separately. Leave the house, in two groups, about 1 Ĺ hours apart. Really! Then you will not be tempted to travel above each other while traversing up to your descent, just because it is faster. What do we say? Dead is not fast.

g. Hereís a good point. Your partner skis down first and stops right below you, at the bottom of the pitch, to watch you ski. That pretty much guarantees you will both be buried if an avalanche occurs. Get out of any potential avalanche paths leading to you. Usually this means far out in the valley floor or way, way left or right. Short Story Time: I was hiking up a valley that was about a ľ mile wide, when I noticed dead trees 30 yards up the south slope of the valley. Wow, I said, it is unusual that those trees grew there. Around here most south slopes are bare. Wait a minute; something is wrong with this picture. Then it hit me, those trees came from across the valley, riding to their new resting place via one mighty big avalanche. As I looked at the mountain on the north-facing slope of the valley, I saw it. It was a huge open bowl near the top of the peak, about 2500 vertical feet off the valley floor. The avalanche had started there, knocking down trees as it descended, and then it plowed completely across the valley before stopping about 90 feet up the other side. Remember, it was also carrying really big trees this entire distance. How far out of the way is safe? You be the judge.

Lastly, before starting your backcountry ski career make sure you are an expert crud, powder, and hard-pack skier. There are no warm up runs in the backcountry and no slope grooming. Just snow ranging from euphoric powder or corn to the nastiest multi-layered crud you have never seen. To prepare yourself for BC skiing purchase our book, A Weekend Warriorís Guide to Expert Skiing, and enjoy the chapters on how to ski in Crud, Powder, and Steeps.
 
As usual, before you start any new ski activity consult a health professional and a ski professional. We do not claim to be offering you complete information on backcountry skiing, so research it thoroughly before you try it.


Send Us Your Tips and Photos Tips

Think deep, think fast; let your fingers rip on the keyboard and email us a ski tip we can use. If your tip is accepted we will place it on this site in the Skiing Tips section. Make sure you tip is  85 words or less and send it to us via the Contact Us section at this site.

Photos
Click into your go-anywhere midfats and get yourself in a skiing photo that will make us all proud. If itís good enough we will display it in our Photo Gallery. We only accept photos one-at-a-time in an email that does not exceed 3 megabytes. You may submit one photo every thirty days and the maximum size is 550 X 425 pixels. . Submit your photos by email at info@weekendwarriorsguide.com
 


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