For the legions of backcountry skiers and snowboarders in Colorado, the past few winters have been ones of mixed emotions. The powder has come in waves, but so too has tragedy: Eight skiers and snowboarders died last season in seven avalanches in Colorado—all outside resort boundaries—and one skier has already died early in the 2019–2020 season. They’re grim statistics that speak to both the growing popularity of backcountry skiing (we’ll use the term to include snowboarding) and the risks involved in that pursuit.
While reliable statistics on the number of people participating in backcountry skiing are elusive, retail data shows the dramatic rise in the sport. Sales of backcountry gear rose markedly from 2017 to 2018, according to Eric Henderson, a spokesperson for the trade association Snowsports Industries America (SIA), with sales of alpine touring bindings up 84 percent, boots up 18 percent, and accessories—including avalanche safety devices—up 24 percent. The trend is driven by skiers’ and snowboarders’ quest for untracked snow, along with a desire to test their fitness, learn new skills, and immerse in the mountain environment without the distractions of chairlifts and other infrastructure.
But just because participation in backcountry skiing is spiking doesn’t make it any safer. Unlike at a ski resort, nobody is thoroughly assessing every backcountry pitch for risk or declaring the slopes safe enough to ski on a given day. Sure, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center regularly updates its risk rating for the state, but that’s intended as a guide only. Moreover, an incident that would qualify as minor within resort boundaries, like a sprained knee or a busted binding, can be a huge deal in the backcountry, depending how far you are from help.
The backcountry is not a place for beginners, and in addition to being a strong skier, everyone venturing off piste should have—or should be with someone who has—the knowledge and experience to make prudent decisions on where to ski. If you have the chops to ski just about anything inbounds and need guidance on how to safely approach the backcountry, here’s who you should call, what you should buy, and where you should go first as you leave lift lines and groomers behind.
The Case for Hiring a Guide
If you’re new to the backcountry, you ought to hire a guide who has intimate knowledge of the snowpack and is erring on the side of caution. While novices can take steps to learn about snow science and avalanche-risk by taking avalanche or snow science classes, mastering these disciplines takes years. Even longtime skiers shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking they can safely assess risk based on a weekend-long avalanche or snow science class.
“The most important thing to look for in hiring a guide is their experience skiing/guiding in the terrain/snowpack that you are looking to hire them to take you to,” says Josh Butson, owner of Telluride-based San Juan Outdoor Adventures. “Guides should also have avalanche course training and avalanche rescue experience [and] should hold, at a minimum, a wilderness first responder and a CPR certification. There are other trainings and certifications that are good to have, but I am a firm believer that experience is key in hiring a guide.”
One resource for finding a qualified guide throughout the region is 57hours, which connects clients with local guides, all certified by the American Mountain Guides Association. 57hours vets guides thoroughly and requires that they display their permits and insurance policies in their profiles, says Ally Jarjour, a company spokesperson. The company offers numerous tours in Colorado, starting at $175, including an intro backcountry course in Crested Butte for $200, not including food, lodging, and ski gear.
The Gear You’ll Need
To venture away from the resort crowds you’ll also need to familiarize yourself with the gear you’ll need, even if you aren’t going to race out and buy it. Based on my own 15 years of backcountry skiing experience, skiers should have—at a minimum—the following:
- An avalanche beacon, with working batteries. This vital device will transmit your location and help people find you if you’re buried in a slide, and works in reverse by helping you find others who are buried. Most backcountry guiding operations will provide beacons for those who don’t have their own (and many insist that you use theirs even if you have your own).
- Collapsible shovel, for digging out if someone gets buried
- A probe, which telescopes similar to a tent pole and is used to poke deep into the snow to help find people who are buried
- Skis with alpine-touring (AT) or telemark bindings, which allow the heel to lift so you can walk uphill easier while in your skis. AT bindings re-attach at the heel so you can descend like you would on normal alpine gear. Boarders will want to invest in a splitboard—a snowboard that splits down the middle and has adjustable bindings that allow for climbing.
- Climbing skins, which stick to the bottom of your skis or board and prevent them from backsliding while ascending. Each set of skins must be cut specifically to the dimensions of the ski with which they’ll be used. This can take some time and should be done well in advance of setting out on a tour.
- A small backpack for carrying water, food, extra layers of clothing, a first-aid kit, and other necessities
Many outfitters will rent you all of this gear or include it in the cost of a tour, but it’s always a good idea to check in advance.
The Best Places to Get Started
If you have AT or telemark gear and climbing skins, and you want to determine if you’ll even enjoy earning turns before you commit the time and money to a guided tour, you can try skinning uphill—and descending—in-bounds at the many local resorts that allow it. You can test yourself at Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin, although you need to pick up a free uphill access pass and read their respective policies before starting out. Aspen Snowmass is slightly more liberal (no pass required) but also has rules it asks uphillers to abide. If you show up at the base of the Silver Queen gondola on almost any morning before the lifts open, you can follow the locals up the slopes—although don’t expect to keep up; Aspen boasts some of the fittest uphill skiers in the country.
For perhaps the gentlest introduction to backcountry skiing, consider an organized tour that launches from within a resort. I did this with a guide and two other clients on the Utah Interconnect Tour, which starts at Snowbird ski resort near Salt Lake City and includes 25 miles of in- and out-of-bounds skiing across four resorts, with numerous backcountry descents through untracked powder, a few uphill hikes, and more than a half-dozen chairlift rides to ease the demands on participants’ legs and lungs. Some other resorts around the country, including Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, have similar offerings, although none are offered at Colorado resorts.
Regardless of how you get into backcountry skiing, a world of fun, fitness, and fresh lines awaits, as does a season that can extend into July and even beyond in a banner snow year. But as the tragedies of this season illustrate, mountains come with risk that even the most diligent preparation can’t eliminate. So get out there and explore, but ensure you have the right gear and instruction, and only go with those who know the snow.