How To Get Started with Backcountry Skiing

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You want to backcountry ski, how to get started?

Got the gear, what now?

A number of people have been asking me how to get started with backcountry skiing. Assuming you’ve acquired necessary gear It’s good to get some mentoring and take an avalanche safety class so you learn to recognize safe and unsafe areas (as well as begin to build forecasting skills). Beyond that, you’ve got to network and make backcountry friends so you have a variety of potential partners. But networking partners is hard if you’re new to the sport — a catch 22 that can be frustrating.

Solution: If you have outdoor survival and judgment skills from backpacking, hiking or climbing (as well as knowing how to ski or snowboard safely) a good learning exercise is to simply go out backcountry skiing by yourself during good weather in an avalanche safe zone on a well used route close to civilization, in an area with cell phone coverage in case you get hurt and stranded. Note I said WELL USED ROUTE CLOSE TO CIVILIZATION, safe from avalanches and with cell phone coverage — not some huge mountain in the middle of nowhere, covered with avalanche paths. More, don’t discount the value of simply skinning up a ski resort now and then. By doing so you’ll get fit and learn how your gear works, without backcountry risks.

The following words about just this subject came as an email from Cory Scheffel a few days ago. His ideas work both from the solo perspective or if you’re a beginner out with a group. Seemed like good blog fodder so here goes:

Hey Lou!

Last weekend I decided to see how things were shaping up on Williams Peak, that small timber covered hill near Glenwood Springs, Colorado that’s a popular place for moderate and safe backcountry skiing. It was thin, but in. The snow in the upper meadow was bottomless and a bit feisty. The lower shots were fantastic.

While stumbling to the top I was thinking how much this little peak has taught me. Everyone (if they are serious about pursuing backcountry skiing) should have a “regular” stash like this. I thought it might be nice for newbies to get some pointers on what to look for in their “classroom” and what kinds of lessons they can learn from the wise old mountain. Granted, you need some avalanche education first and should have some outdoor skills (as well as knowing how to ski or ride). The stuff below is intended for those folks who are at the point of “I know a few things, now what?” I tried to hit the main points, but it’s kind of like nailing jello to the wall. I guess my main goal was to give some guidance on how to get out and start experiencing the winter environment, learn something in the process and find out what all the “Loubies” are so excited about. School’s in!

First off, your “classroom” should be close to home and easily accessible. Proximity is important for a couple of reasons. 1) You’re going to be spending quite a bit of time there and don’t want to break the bank putting gas in your car. 2) Weather observations are going to be part of your “homework” and it is much easier (and more accurate) if you can do your observations from home (instead of having to find “reliable” info online or somewhere else). 3) Proximity to civilization will hopefully give you cell phone coverage and perhaps the presence of other backcountry folk, both adding an immense safety buffer if you’re out by yourself.

Second, your classroom should have an avalanche safe route that works no matter what the conditions are. The goal here is to learn, not die. It’s good to talk to someone with (a lot of) experience about where some good beginner spots might be. If you truly are venturing into this world alone, start by doing flat or gently rolling touring. Make sure you aren’t beneath any slopes that could slide (you learned to ID such slopes by taking an avalanche class, right?). Natural avalanches happen and often they end in the nice, happy, gentle valleys below. As you learn more you can take some baby steps and find some gentle slopes where you can start to do some turns. For now, it’s good to just be out and learning.

Unfortunately, not everyone has skiing in their backyard, so you’ll just have to do with what works best. Just be careful you choose at forgiving and safe area — don’t go charging off by yourself up some huge mountain in the middle of nowhere.

If you are checking your weather online, find a site that provides info on temperature, windspeed and direction, snow fall, and cloud cover (some of the avy sites provide good info, but there coverage tends to be a little too generalized). Check your source daily and ask yourself what effect these conditions will have on the snowpack in terms of avalanche danger as well as the quality of skiing.

First day of class. Ok, so you’ve found your spot…now what? This is the time to start your lessons. It’s kind of like an independent study at this point. My personal lessons range from observing what happens to snowpack under a variety of conditions to finding out which energy bar will break a molar when temperatures dip below zero. Below are some lessons that I’ve split into a few different areas:

At the car-
How to park your car so you can leave when your done.
Where to stash the keys.
How to load your pack.
How long you can have your gloves off before you get the screaming barfies.
How long it takes your partner to get ready.
What are the perfect layers to start with.

On the climb-
What your transceiver range is.
What is the most glide you can get with climbing skins at differing slope angles.
How to breathe.
How steep you can climb.
What kind of snow sticks to your skins.
How to deal with your skins when snow is stuck to them.
How to skin over logs and rocks.
How to back up with skins on.
How to efficiently change trail breakers.
How to deal with switch backs.
How to route find.
When to take a break.
What the snow pack is like on different aspects.
What your ski pole can communicate to you about snow pack.
What the wind/sun/new snow is really doing to the snow pack.
What is happening (avy wise) on the surrounding mountains.

At the turn-around-
How to dig a pit/read snow layers/do different shear tests.
How to take your skins off without taking your skis off.
How to package your skins so they’ll still stick to your skis when you need them later.
How fast your body cools down when you stop moving.
How to keep from dropping your glove in the snow.
How to keep from losing stuff in the snow.

On the ski down-
How to use an inclinometer (slope angle measure thingy).
What happens to the same slope week after week under different conditions.
What happens to the same slope after a few minutes/hours (on your second lap).
How to deal with bottomless, slushy, icy, breakable, bullet-proof snow.
How to get out of a treewell.
How to ski as a team.
Photography.

At home-
Reading weather,
Beacon games.
First aid.
Ski tune/equipment repair.

At this point I know I’m just scraping the surface. I’d like to see what other Loubies out there think. Stash suggestions in different parts of the country? Lessons a newbie can look for?

Cory Scheffel

Comments

30 Responses to “How To Get Started with Backcountry Skiing”

  1. Jason Swihart December 5th, 2006 8:44 am

    Great tips. Can anyone recommend a resource for finding backcountry ski spots? There’s http://backcountrymaps.com/, but they don’t necessarily rate difficulty/safety, which, as a total neophyte, I’m interested in.

  2. Derek December 5th, 2006 9:18 am

    Hi Lou,

    I’m working on a vid about the recent Silver Fork Avalanche with 15 minute burial in Utah this year. The burial victim survived, but narrowly no doubt.

    Here is a brief vid clip for your viewers. This vid should be done in a couple weeks, and we hope to use it as a non-profit fundraiser.

    Vid is 45 seconds-2.7mb-windows media
    http://www.pitonproductions.com/SilverForkAvy/SteveAvy.wmv

    Derek

  3. Lou December 5th, 2006 9:29 am

    Derek, could you ask him if he would have had time to insert an Avalung? Sounds like he could have used one…

  4. frank December 5th, 2006 9:40 am

    Lots of good info there for people just getting started.

    One thing, Lou, you mentioned skinning up ski areas. While I think that this is a great idea for someone learning the ropes, many ski areas frown upon this, due to good old liability concerns (snowmobile traffic, snowcats, snowmaking equip., etc).

  5. Derek December 5th, 2006 9:45 am

    He spoke about that. He didn not have one, but said he could have easily got it in his mouth. He got hit while skinning up, and the process of burial was somewhat slow. And it indeed does sound like he could have utilized an avalung.

  6. Rahul Dave December 5th, 2006 11:03 am

    If you are in the east, Tuckermans is a good place to go. There is a USFS cabin at the bottom, the HoJo shelters where you can stay, and the skiing in the ravine is famous, is a bit crowded at times. But, most importantly, there is volunteer ski patrol on weekends, a first-aid cache at the bottom, and avy conditions are monitored on a daily basis specifically for the ravine at http://www.tuckerman.org/avalanche/ by the friendly USFS folks. There is tons of weather info from the USFS, NWS, and the mount washington observatory. There is a lot of terrain around like the gulf of slides, or the east slopes of mount washington which is not monitored, where one can learn the appropriate avalanche skills…Finally ski trails access all this terrain, so the skinning skills can be got down, and if the weather is horrible, as it frequently is, one can ski down them ski trails in the trees.

    All we need now is the snow cover which is non-existent after the indian summer of november…

  7. Cody December 5th, 2006 11:06 am

    Lou,

    Thanks for putting this info on the site. I’m a BC newbie and I recently moved to Glenwood. The double duty of learning BC and finding partners is a bit daunting, but things like this help.

    Cody

  8. Lou December 5th, 2006 11:17 am

    If the ski resort doesn’t let you skin, perhaps do so before or after hours, or perhaps it’s not an option…

    Derek, thanks for the info.

  9. Dhelihiker December 5th, 2006 4:03 pm

    Dear Newbies,
    Backcountry skiing is not all it is cracked up to be. You have to wake up super early climb for hours, just to get a few turns in. Then there are avalanches, getting lost, incimate weather, parking permits, wild animals (wild skiers) and no little signs that say ” danger cliff area”. Not to mention all of the spendy gear that you need to acquire and learn to use. The best skiing is in the resort hands down. I personally recommend Heavenly or Northstar. Im just glad I can help- Da Heli Hiker

  10. Daigan December 5th, 2006 4:41 pm

    It would be great to get a backcountry ski area database going, with difficulty ratings.

  11. Jason December 5th, 2006 4:44 pm

    I always find it interesting that people do not consider guides/courses. Guides are the best way to experience great backcountry skiing with a much higher safety margin. Good guides will be happy to teach during the day. Most guide services across the country have great introductory backcountry ski classes, which are also the best way to meet people to go skiing with afterward. Even experienced backcountry skiers can learn a lot from going with guides or taking more courses.

    It’s very much an American mindset not to hire guides. In Europe even experienced people don’t think twice about hiring professionals.

    And I know most people will cry that guides/courses are too expensive. However, it still is a lot less expensive than area skiing.

    Also, hiring a guide is a lot less expensive than making mistakes that get you in an avalanche or injured. I was skiing in NZ one year just after a search had completed for an American who was travelling solo in Mt Cook National Park. I spoke to someone who pointed out that his family spent thousands of dollars to search for him. If he had just spent a few hundred dollars on a guide, he would not have fallen in the crevasse that all of the local guides knew about.

    Unfortunately, our belief that we should just learn from experience does not work without proper instruction. It follows the same thinking as someone who wants to be a doctor saying, “I’m not going to spend all of that money on med school and then work under other professionals for little money, I’m just going to start operating and learn from experience”?

  12. Steve the imposter December 5th, 2006 5:17 pm

    Excellent class, thanks Cory. Williams is a great place to learn if you’re in the Roaring Fork Valley. If anyone is up in the Bozeman/Big Sky area I recommend Beehive Basin; short approach and pretty good skiing plus cell service and really close to Big Sky.

  13. Mark December 5th, 2006 8:42 pm

    Excellent posting. I second the idea of hiring a guide or taking a course. In some areas, BC trips are combined with avy courses adding to the fun and knowledge. For the Jackson area, check out http://www.skithetetons.com for some great trips, but there is no substitute for the required independent study.
    As all the Loubies out there know, the BC frame of mind is an important element in the mix. Some of my most enjoyable trips did not include amazing downhill shots – just great journeys.

  14. Lennie December 6th, 2006 10:34 am

    I also think a BC route database is a great Idea. Until that is available, any Colorado front range recommendations for entry level (intermediate skier) runs.

  15. Tim Carroll December 6th, 2006 10:35 am

    While I appreciate Jason’s concern for the rest of us (Dec 5 at 4:44pm) I think his attempt to analogize BC skiing to being a medical doctor is fairly far-fetched.

    I would liken it more to some other line of work that may be learned with practice and serious study… like a skilled trade that has some technical features… like the types of metalwork involving brazing or welding of structures for mechanical use — for example, building aircraft frames, race car frames, or bicycle frames.

    I don’t see the remotest analogy between practicing medicine and backcountry skiing.

    But maybe Jason could explain why it is that medical practice and backcountry skiing are the same.

  16. Lou December 6th, 2006 1:52 pm

    I watched a total knee replacement the other evening on or-live.com, while it was more radical than building bicycle frame, it didn’t look like rocket science (grin).

  17. sherry bunch December 6th, 2006 6:23 pm

    I took a Level II avy course last spring over 3 days that incorporated a hut trip. I had the opportunity to spend 3 days digging pits, routefinding both up and down and skiing some great terrain that I would not have ventured into on my own or with my current bc friendsat the level of training I had at that time. The local mountain rescue group led this this trip and I was a sponge. Discussion on every thing we did was encouraged in the field and back at the hut. I found this was an amazing experience made possible by the local community college and I would highly recommend it. Unfortunately, I was the only person in my little group of bc friends who went.

  18. Lou December 6th, 2006 6:44 pm

    Hi Sherry, watch the skill level and safety judgment of the people you ski with. But you already know that (grin).

  19. Cody December 7th, 2006 11:01 pm

    This might be a little off the subject, but my question relates to women in the backcountry. A lot of my friends have wives/girlfriends who backcountry ski with them. I can’t find any women who have the interest or ability (or equipment) to create a lasting backcountry relationship with. Where are all the backcountry girls, and why can I find them?

  20. Lou December 8th, 2006 10:29 am

    Cody, I’m not much of a match maker. Perhaps I can get a guest blogger on to that topic!

    A thing to remember is that while the media makes it look like a ton of gals do things like backcountry skiing, climbing, etc., the reality is sometimes very different. In many places I’ve visited, the number of women doing backcountry skiing is way below the number of men. It’s probably because the women are smarter.

    There might be other sports with better odds.

  21. Dana December 10th, 2006 6:38 pm

    Dear Lou,
    We took your and the folks on this site’s advice today and decided to just get out there and explore. We decided on the old Marble Ski area because it looked pretty mellow and hard to get lost with a lift to look for. We toured quite a bit and look forward to returning in the spring to ski Daly. Only problem is….are we allowed back there? We noticed a significant LACK of other tracks! We read in your book that there is possibly an “easement” to access the ski area and hopefully the areas above….is this in fact the case or did we spend the day poaching private property?

    thanks!

  22. Tim August 13th, 2013 2:44 pm

    Can anyone recommend any guides in New England?

  23. Jack August 13th, 2013 4:48 pm

    I can recommend Mark Synnott’s: Synnott Mountain Guides.
    http://www.newhampshireclimbing.com/

    I attended a avalanche lecture by him and he was experienced and patient. Friends and I hired his guide “Scott” for a entry to backcountry skiing one day and he was funny and just about ideal.

    Peter Richey runs a guide service in NH, also. He is a very respected climber
    and is seen in this film:

    http://www.wildthingsgear.com/wild-things/stories/skii.html#.Ugq2Yo0cePs

    I don’t have a pointer to his guide service, but Google it. I was a classmate of his brother’s in high school and he taught me some elementary rock climbing *many* years ago.

  24. Jack August 15th, 2013 8:18 am

    still awaiting moderation on previous comment?

  25. brian h August 15th, 2013 2:04 pm

    Tim, I’d look into the scene around Jays Peak in Vermont.

  26. rangerjake August 15th, 2013 4:16 pm

    Check our Cloudsplitter Guides in Keene Valley, NY or Petra Cliffs Guides in Burlington, VT

    Those are your best bets for good guides. I would go Cloudsplitter. Jessie Williams is a great guy. Tell em Jake from OGE sent ya.

  27. Lou Dawson August 16th, 2013 6:24 am

    Jack and all, please leave links for guide services, but know that if your comment has more than one link it gets held for moderation due to my spam blocker settings. Apologies for that, unfortunately necessary (Jack’s comment got held up).

    Mark Synnott is a good writer, he should promote his guide service by doing a few guest blogs for us! Mark?

    Lou

  28. Tim August 16th, 2013 7:09 am

    Thanks for the suggestions all.

    The fatal flaw in my plan to ask for recommendations for guides is now I’m ready for a trip and it’s still mid-August!

  29. Lou Dawson August 16th, 2013 7:19 am

    Tim, never too soon to plan ahead!

  30. Jace Mullen December 17th, 2013 10:38 am

    I’m trying to spend this winter getting started AT skiing after spending the majority of my life as either a resort skiier or snowboarder.

    I’m also a poor college kid so will probably be going with Marker Baron Bindings (I want something cheap that will also allow me to ski the resort and have fun!) unless you would recommend something else.

    I’m also having trouble finding boots with a walk mode that will not send me into financial ruin. Do you have any suggestions for models to look for?

    Thanks!

    -Jace “Minor” Mullen

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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