A Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry skiing & riding
Since the early 1900s, when people began sliding around on skis for fun instead of transportation, people have come to Utah to find some of the best skiing on Earth. The steep alpine terrain and ample snowfall makes Utah a haven for professional and recreational skiers alike. But with the influx of new skiing residents and the ever-increasing hoards of tourists, the resorts are busting at the seams. During the holiday seasons it’s not uncommon to have a 40-minute wait looking for parking plus ticket and lift lines. Unless you’re an early riser or an insomniac, the likelihood of getting to the mountain before the masses is slim. Though good for the local economy, the hassle can be taxing. Fortunately there’s an excellent alternative available for those willing to work a little bit harder and learn a little bit more, the backcountry!
Just beyond the orange boundry ropes lies a treasure trove of opportunities to explore some of Utah’s most scenic landscapes. Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons have hundreds of named runs between them and most trailheads start directly off the side of the road. These areas offer epic riding conditions and crowds are virtually non-existent, for now. In addition to the lack of people, the serenity and stillness of the virgin terrain is mind-blowing. There’s nothing quite like a flawless blanket of white glistening under a bluebird sky to awaken your soul. Especially when you have it pretty much to yourself.
Although spectacular, the back-country produces a myriad of dangers not present to the inbounds skier. Avalanches, unmarked hazards, sudden blizzards and no ski patrol are just a few to consider. Luckily, Utah has one of the most comprehensive compilations of resources to aid the backcountry rider in their quest for the pow. Whether you’re a weekend warrior or daily rider, there are a variety of options to match your skill level. However, as the old saying states, “Know before you go.”
A good place to start your backcountry learning experience is to hire a guide or go with a competent friend who’s familiar with the terrain and snowpack. A guide is advised because trips are often all-inclusive with the necessary safety equipment provided. Utah Mountain Adventures (utahmountainadventures.com) and White Pine Touring (whitepinetouring.com) are two great organizations that provide expert level guides and top-notch gear. Both services have been operating in the Wasatch for many years and have an intimate knowledge of the backcountry. In addition to these agencies, most local ski areas offer some sort of guided tours beyond the boundaries. Check with your favorite resort’s ski school to find out more.
Let’s say you’ve already been with a guide service and are ready to set out on your own. The first step is to arm yourself with an understanding of the dangers associated with backcountry travel, specifically avalanches. The American Avalanche Institute (americanavalancheinstitute.com) offers local courses throughout the year. Taking an avalanche course greatly increases your level of awareness while traveling out of bounds and gives you the insight to make critical decisions when the time comes. The AAI’s classes usually last about four days depending on which level you choose.
Now that you have the knowledge, it’s time to go apply it. But before you head out, be sure to invest in the necessary equipment to get the job done. Whether you’re a skier or boarder, there are three essential pieces of gear you’ll need. An avalanche beacon, or transmitter, which emits a radio signal that can be picked up by other beacons to aid in locating a buried rider. This is your first line of defense and greatly increases your chances of being found in the event of an avalanche. Next you’ll need a collapsible shovel and probe, which are tools for pinpointing and removing your buried buddy. Without them, your beacon is mostly useless. A shovel is also handy for digging pits to assess weak snow layers. All these items can be found at your local ski shop or favorite gear website and Backcountry.com has a wide selection and great prices. An avalanche course will teach the most effective and efficient way to use these items. For additional practice, there are a few beacon-training parks throughout the Wasatch that will put your skills to the test. The most popular is located right next to Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Besides a good set of safety gear, it’s crucial to have a way to get to the top of the mountain. For skiers and boarders willing to make the investment, there are a few options that will make your climb easier. For skiers, there’s the alpine-touring binding and skin combo. An AT binding locks down the heel for downhill riding but has a latch that allows the binding to pivot on the toe for ascending. Couple that with the skin, a velvet-like piece of fabric that sticks to the bottom of the ski, which works by allowing the skis to slide uphill but not down. If you’re a telemark skier, just grab a set of skins at your local shop.
If you ride one stick instead of two, your options are a little different. You can either pick up a split board or a set of snowshoes. The split board is basically a snowboard that has been cut down the middle from tip to tail and can be pulled apart for skinning uphill. Kits are available to turn your board into a split as well and Voile (voile-usa.com) makes the kits and splitboards. Snowshoes are another affordable alternative for hiking uphill. Get a small, lightweight pair since you’ll have to strap them to your pack on the way down. Collapsible poles also make the uphill slog more manageable. Find a comfortable backpack to store your avalanche gear and snacks as well. For more information on backcountry gear, see our Holiday Gift Guide on page 14.
Now you have the equipment and knowledge you need, but don’t forget to check the conditions before you leave the gates. The Utah Avalanche Center (utahavalanchecenter.org) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa.gov) should be your homepages during the winter. The UAC is an invaluable tool to add to your arsenal because it offers local avalanche forecasts and gives you extra info to make backcountry travel decisions. The easy-to-read format is superb and there are reports for different regions of the state. NOAA is your source for accurate weather forecasts and gives you a seven-day outlook, radar and detailed discussions that will help you plan.
If you’re looking for ideas on where to go, take a look at Backcountry Skiing Utah by Tyson Bradley. It outlines local terrain by difficulty and can make your assessment of places to explore much easier. With that said, it’s time to get out and ride. Grab a buddy and I’ll see ya back there.