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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Forget trash bags,
spend a few $ on an emergency
space blanket pod (Like a
sleeping bag liner).
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.
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.
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.
First aid kit:
Donít be too wimpy here. Then go
take a mountaineering first aid
Or at the very least a slope clinometer (measures slope angle).
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
Attend an avalanche class.
The best will have classroom work
and on-the-snow training or drills.
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
Did you buy a probe?
I donít want to preach; donít leave
home without it.
Are the batteries brand new
in your transceiver/beacon? Never
use rechargeable and remember to
replace you alkaline batteries
What is the process for safe travel in the backcountry?
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
Learn about avalanche
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.
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
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.
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