Ode to Wilderness Skiing

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | November 16, 2012      

Jed Porter


Annie T. contemplates a passage smack in the center of the Chugach. April 2009

The concept of “wild snow” inherently encompasses a broad spectrum of terrain and activities. From a quick jaunt to the sidecountry to a multi-week traverse of one of countless glaciated ranges, backcountry skiing is a beautifully diverse endeavor.

Our community celebrates a luxury cruise ship in Antarctica, a fifth of whiskey and a storm-bound week in the Yukon, historic structures high in the European Alps, and a ten minute hike just above the lifts in sunny Utah, all united by the fact that we’re equipped slippery-under-foot. That being said, there is a clear emphasis on the “sexier,” more accessible side of glisse-alpinism. The connection is understandable; more time is spent in more accessible environments. Plowed highway passes, huts and lifts, helicopters, and the like “grease the wheels” of the vast majority of backcountry ventures.

While I and probably many of you appreciate Lou’s advocacy for ever increasing access and a reasonable application of the Wilderness Act and ethic, let us also enjoy our wildest snow. With Northern Hemisphere winter approaching, trip reports trickling in, and gear reviews getting more and more hits, give some thought to sneaking in a remote tour this season. You need not charter a plane or slog for days or “skip meadows” to get your fix. The great United States is blessed, unlike many other mountain regions of the world, with paradoxical-sounding yet true-to-form, accessible wilderness. With a heritage of wilderness skiing, remote and rugged terrain in each of our mountain states, and a backpacking culture, this is something we ‘Mericans can be good at. Grab your JetBoil, your Megamid, a 3 lb down bag and head way out there. Or tighten down your TLT5’s, start early and slog out the “approach” to some huge peaks. You will find terrain that seldom sees a track. Access will be more difficult and you will earn far fewer GNAR points. You and your companions will most likely be alone, your photo uploads will have to wait for a return to 3g, and you may be carrying your camp on your back.

What we’re calling “wilderness skiing”, as alluded to above, can encompass big day trips to the obscure, weekend overnights to quiet corners, or multi-week expeditions to the greater ranges. In any case, you will find the heart and soul of the wildest wild snow. Allow this author to stoke the fire and reflect on a handful of photos and many trips into the wild.

With modern, lightweight gear, abundant fitness and fast snow, trips that were once considered multi-day expeditions can be busted out, even in short mid-winter days.


Alex F. a couple passes beyond “The Sherwins.” Convict to Mammoth, High Sierra. February 2012


Ryan T. ridge-running over pass #3 for the day. Rock Creek to McGee, High Sierra. April 2012


The author racing daylight back to the car on a mid-winter slog of Mt. Abbott, High Sierra. 2008

The “classic” overnight experience, the weekend camping trip, is unheralded to say the least. If these overnight trips are defined by camping, then camping is defined by your shelter. Tent, floorless tarp, or dug in, one need not be uncomfortable. On the contrary; do it right and you won’t sleep better than is possible on the ground and in the wild.


Beyond “lake view.” BC basecamp in Tahoe. February 2006


Camp in the High Sierra and morning light on the Ritter Range. May 2012


Skis and Megamid in unorthodox, though quite storm-worthy and efficient, configuration. The “trench” style snow shelter can be fast, secure and comfortable in the gnarliest conditions. Dig a hole, span with skis, seal with tent or tarp, and secure with snow blocks. This is often faster than constructing snow walls around an expedition tent.


Dig in the wind, and wake in the blue: emerging from wind-ready and snow-intimate shelters. High Sierra. 2008

There’s no place like Alaska for your first (or twentieth) ski expedition.


Annie T. exiting the wrong side of the right range. Chugach, AK. April 2009


Steve P. and miles of Alaska freshies. No heli required. May 2011


John B. exiting another “wrong side” of the Chugach, Valdez, AK. May 2011

(WildSnow guest blogger Jed Porter is a full-time, year-round mountain guide in Bishop, California. He wouldn’t say no to a turns-all-year schedule, but he sure enjoys the variety of mountain adventure that life in the High Sierra provides.)


12 Responses to “Ode to Wilderness Skiing”

  1. Cameron November 16th, 2012 9:50 am

    Nicely worded! This speaks to my recent experience in New Zealand, where the snow is most often reached via helicopter or plane. To me, this seems antithetical to the wild experience of skiing. That being said, snow is difficult to reach in NZ, and I am glad to be back in Colorado where access is relatively easy. I’ll remember the mataguori (nasty NZ bush) bashing I did in NZ next time I’m out on a long slog in the Sawatch.

  2. John Young November 16th, 2012 11:17 am

    Great advice. I’ll take it. Thank you!

  3. Dave P. November 16th, 2012 1:14 pm

    Thanks for the great article and photos Jed. Yes, we are fortunate in North America to have accessible wilderness skiing, but much has been lost and constant vigilance is required to protect our remaining quiet areas from the onslaught of snowmachines and helicopters. Some will argue, but I don’t see this view as radical or elitist; quite the opposite actually.

  4. Pieter November 16th, 2012 1:17 pm

    THIS is exactly what I want to do. This is why I want to get geared up and learn to ski the backcountry properly. This is the winter I’m doing it, and I cannot wait.

    I’ve hiked and climbed some of the same Sierra peaks as the author without skis, but to be able to return to something like Abbot on skis the entire way in and out, with a high camp above Mills Lake would be sublime. Or just get out past the crest from the east side and camp. As Jed says, backpacking–just on skis.

    Thanks Jed for an inspiring read. I’ve read some of your other contributions elsewhere online, and it’s always welcome stuff!

  5. Lisa Dawson November 16th, 2012 1:30 pm

    Pieter, I agree!

    I feel so fortunate that my family, friends and I are able to get out in the wilderness. An incredible blessing for sure.

  6. Kathy November 16th, 2012 1:34 pm

    Right on! I can’t wait to get out there. Way out there!

  7. jed November 16th, 2012 8:23 pm

    Thanks all, for the kind words! Let this be a long season of deep snow and remote adventures!

  8. Nick November 16th, 2012 11:28 pm

    So cool to hear from a true Sierra voice, thanks for the write Jed! I know I cant wait to venture into some wild snow.

  9. Christian November 17th, 2012 10:59 pm

    Inspiring. Getting deeper and deeper, to where you won’t even cross an animal track, is so much more fulfilling than side or what is now called backcountry. The true “backcountry” is the salve of the soul.

  10. Richard November 19th, 2012 12:14 pm

    The call of the true wild in Winter. It’s the Magnolia lined drive to a very exclusive club. The initiation fees are high, the dues are a stern test, and the fellow members are a select lot who have been admitted not by birthright but by passion, dedication, fitness, skill, wisdom, and careful planning. Bumblers, posers, and wannabes are weeded out quickly. A tip of the hat to those who have paid their dues and can travel safely, confidently, and comfortably in the wilds when the days are short and the temps are low. An encouraging word to the aspirants. Learn and practice your lessons well, seek knowledge from those more experienced, and move humbly through the mountains as you study and grow.

  11. Nick November 21st, 2012 7:10 am

    Great post, thanks. Nice to break it up from gear talk. I’m jonesing for another trip way ‘out there’

  12. Rob Coppolillo December 1st, 2012 9:02 pm

    Great piece! Love the vibe and psyched for the winter…if it ever comes! Love the post and keep Jed’s writing coming!

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring 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 ski touring news and information here.

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