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In Colorado, backcountry skiing is on the rise. Each year, more and more skiers ditch lift lines in favor of an uphill experience—both in-bounds and out. Because of that growth, knowledge of the sport is essential. And while there are many opportunities to learn, none are quite like the experience offered by Monarch Mountain.
The 800-acre lift-served ski and snowboard area 157 miles southwest of Denver is providing essential hands-on schooling for skiers and snowboarders interested in venturing beyond the ski area boundary. Backcountry Day, the fifth-annual January event, features skills clinics, gear demos, and educational talks pinned to backcountry exploration. Despite the backcountry locus, sessions are accessed byway of Monarch’s avalanche-controlled base area. The best part? The event is free of cost and open to all experience levels.
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“It’s a no-frills, fun day in a family-friendly arena for people to try backcountry products without intimidation. You’re not in the Tetons or Silverton. Instead of demoing equipment in the backcountry for your first time, you’re in a safe environment,” says Ben Hilley, Brand Experience Manager for Weston Backcountry, a Colorado-based manufacturer of splitboards, snowboards, and skis that offers gear testing via Backcountry Day’s vendor village each year.
Hilley organizes more than 220 brand events nationwide per winter including 65 demo days at 16 ski resorts across the Centennial State, where folks familiarize themselves with Weston’s goods. Unlike Backcountry Day, other ski area gear demos don’t typically facilitate backcountry lessons. In the past, Weston has proposed backcountry-specific demos at other resorts—meaning there’s a spotlight on testing touring gear and splitboard clinics in-bounds—for which a handful have obliged, such as Winter Park Resort and Loveland Ski Area.
Similar programs include Arapahoe Basin’s annual Beacon Bowl with avalanche dog and beacon demonstrations plus a beacon search competition. Other U.S. ski resorts, such as Kirkwood in California, offer lift-accessed backcountry workshops and guided tours in side-country or resort terrain, but those typically require advance registration and could cost $165 or more. Monarch’s Backcountry Day queues up an extensive list of out-of-bounds programming, making it the first ski resort-initiated event of its kind in Colorado, if not in the country. The program is a stepping stone for uninitiated backcountry-goers or those in need of practice.
Backcountry Day kicks off around 7 a.m. with “Dawn Patrol,” a human-powered ascent on groomed trails using climbing skins, which attach to the bottom of skis and splitboards, followed by an equipment transition and descent. “Know Before You Go,” North America’s official avalanche awareness program, is presented indoors. Outdoor booths are hosted by brands, retailers, and organizations such as Cold Smoke Splitboards, Beacon Guide Books, Harvest Skis, and Salida Mountain Sports. Other presentations cover avalanche dogs, as well as Monarch’s backcountry access points and uphill policy.
New for 2019, the Colorado Mountain College Avalanche Science program (ASP) partnered with Monarch for students to lead Backcountry Day classes on trip planning, avalanche beacon use, snow pit procedures, as well as a short backcountry tour.
“Monarch has embraced the backcountry culture and wants people to be safe, including those accessing backcountry from the ski area,” says Roger Coit, lead faculty for ASP. Coit worked as Monarch Ski Patrol for a decade starting in the ‘90s. Then he became a volunteer paramedic for ski patrol and still periodically teaches avalanche safety to the squad. “The primary goal is to educate people and give them the skills to be prepared with backcountry knowledge and equipment. Also, in general, resort uphilling is good exercise.”
This year’s Backcountry Day will continue to grow its offerings. Hilley, for instance, wants to instruct uphilling sessions in the ski area boundary, as well as side-country tours in partnership with a local professional guide. “Monarch acknowledges they have a different kind of client than other resorts,” he says. “Backcountry is what people are interested in, and they recognize that the resort is where people should be trying backcountry products.”
If you go: Backcountry Day events and uphill passes at Monarch Mountain are free of cost on January 11, 2020. Any participants choosing to ride the chairlift must have a day ticket or season pass. For up-to-date statewide avalanche conditions learn more at Colorado Avalanche Information Center.