Tips From an Expert: Backcountry Skiing

December 11 2012, 11:05 AM

Donny Roth's life revolves around winter. When the professional skier (pictured, right) isn't searching for the best backcountry spots around the world, he's guiding fellow powder-hounds down breathtaking runs in Chile. It's all part of what Roth calls "sharing the human-powered ski experience." It's an adventurous day job, but Roth is also aware of the inherent dangers of his chosen career. Here, he walks would-be backcountry-ers through how to stay safe—and have fun—while skiing outside the boundaries. 

Be honest about your abilities. An expert skier at the resort may be a beginner skier in the backcountry. "Skiing in a ski resort is an athletic endeavor," Roth says. "The runs are labeled by difficulty, but the hazard on each run is pretty consistent and mitigated by grooming, skier traffic, and ski patrol. All of those things go away in the backcountry. Now the decision-making is on you." Reduce risks by skiing more conservatively, Roth says. "It doesn't take anything away from your skiing ability." 

Educate yourself. Take an AIARE-approved avalanche education course. It doesn't have to be the first step, Roth says, but it should be early in your off-the-beaten path career. He recommends Alpine World Ascents, Silverton Avalanche School, or Aspen Expeditions. Also: Be sure to check avalanche bulletins and the weather before heading out. Avalanche courses will help you learn how to read these sites accurately.

Have the right equipment. Knowing what gear you need—and having high-quality products—will make your experience safer and more enjoyable. Roth's essential gear list includes: an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. "You can't skimp on those things," Roth says. "It's like an iPhone or Droid," he says, "Go to a store and play with them. The one that makes the most sense to you—get that one." Other must–haves: a partner, touring bindings, an avalanche airbag, and skins. Having a method of uphill travel is a requirement, says Roth; once you leave the boundaries, if something happens to a friend above you, you need to be able to get to him or her. 

Understand group dynamics. Skiing with a group of friends can and should be a great time. But group dynamics sometimes lead people to make poor decisions—like agreeing to keep going even though you're exhausted. "In the backcountry, in avalanche terrain, bad decisions can have really terrible consequences," Roth says. "Be willing to recognize when something has deviated from perfect." You don't necessarily have to turn back right away, but training yourself to recognize when things are off will lead you to better decision-making—and that can be the difference between life and death.

Hire a guide. He may be a little biased being a guide himself, but Roth points out the benefits of having an expert among your group: Guides will know the terrain better, they can direct you to hidden gems, and he or she can manage uncertainties, making the day less stressful. 

Challenge yourself. You don't need to be an expert skier to enjoy a day in the backcountry. "Being able to ski ungroomed runs and variable conditions in a ski resort is really helpful," Roth says. Worried about being in good enough shape for a full day of hiking and riding? If you enjoy long hikes in the summer or ride your bike for a few hours at a time, you're "plenty fit enough," says Roth. "Backcountry skiing should be a very moderate pace, a patient movement through the mountains." 

Bring sustenance. "The real key to enjoying a full day of backcountry skiing is food," Roth says. According to him, the average person burns 400–700 calories per hour on the mountain. So for a happy six-hour day, you'll need to carry around 3,000 calories in your backpack. Roth's typical menu: a breakfast burrito or cereal and coffee for breakfast; a backpack full of trail mix, Clif bars, an apple, deli sandwich in a tortilla (it travels better), Fig Newtons, and a small Snickers bar (for the end of the day). To stay hydrated, Roth drinks one liter of water before touring, brings two liters with him, and has one liter in the car for afterward. He also carries something with electrolytes, like Gatorade or Vitamin Water. 

Bonus: Roth picks his favorite backcountry spots.  

1. Berthoud Pass. Tip: Check out areas lower down than the pass itself, which tends to be crowded with groups of mixed abilities. 

2. Rocky Mountain National Park.

3. Near the East portal of the Moffat Tunnel, near Rollinsville.

4. Marble and Red Mountain Pass in the San Juans.

5. The Colorado hut system.

Images courtesy of Donny Roth

Follow assistant editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at @daliahsinger.