Powder Prospecting: Early Season Touring in Utah

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When I first learned about backcountry skiing I thought it was inane. However, my disbelief that people would willingly engage in this outdoor pursuit quickly evolved into biting curiosity. I thought, let me get this straight…I will have to purchase an entirely new ski set-up and expensive touring necessities so that I may endure hours of uphill drudgery—all for the grandeur of dropping down one measly slope? That seems most all unsatisfying. And, by the way, skinning doesn’t exactly sound like a pleasant activity. Alas, many of my friends are avid backcountry excursionists, and it pains me to be left out, so of course I caved. I blame it on peer pressure.

The first few times I went touring were indeed suffer fests, but then something remarkable happened. I quit focusing on the burning sensation in my lungs from breathing in so much cold air, the articulate nagging in my hip flexors, the developing bruises on my shins and the non-stop drip from my nasal cavity. Suddenly there was room in my brain to appreciate the truly arresting beauty of uncorrupted snowscapes. Happiness became palpable in the form of a floaty descent from a snowy peak, and it lasted whole minutes.

Touring may be a bit about avoiding the crowds at resorts and some backcountry enthusiasts will scowl at the word inbounds, but it’s not just about that. It’s nice not to wait for the resorts to open for the season, and it’s cool to explore beyond the boundaries of where I would otherwise be able to, but that’s not really the driving force either. For me, the bliss of the turns on the way down is commensurate with the hard work I do while gaining vertical feet. Summiting via my own motive power can be quite an achievement depending on the scale, so earning my turns has become a commanding enticement. I also delight in sharing the experiences and many grins along the way with my amigos.

It’s impossible to know how many skiers and snowboarders venture into Utah’s backcountry prospecting for powder, but when the snow flies, so does a mighty rush for first tracks. You will find a perplexingly full parking lot at Alta by mid-November, even though the resort doesn’t usually open until late November. Even a scant few inches of snow accumulation induces powder-fever and on the “good” (safe) days, Alta is open to uphill traffic pre-season. Finding untracked skiable snow is perhaps not unlike mining for gold. You have to know where to find it, how to get there and how to separate the legit stuff from a fool’s find. You also have to beat everyone else there to get your hands, er feet, on an unclaimed cache—and you have to know how to survive the stakes. Hasty decisions made early season can easily stumble your stoke.

Avalanche Awareness Courses

My friend Kevin skis with dynamite in his backpack. For real. But he does so because he’s a professional ski patroller, and it’s his job to keep resort patrons safe by strategically triggering avalanches. Since there are no teams of Kevins patrolling the backcountry, everyone out there needs to be avy savvy. Knowing how to react so you can save your backcountry buddies—should you ever need to—is not negotiable.

Level I and II Avalanche Courses are offered throughout the season by the American Avalanche Institute, Utah Avalanche Center, Utah Mountain Adventures and White Pine Touring. Visit utahavalanchecenter.org/education for a calendar listing of courses available. In the Level I course, you can expect to learn about safe travel in the backcountry and basic information about snow pack, weather, terrain and other factors that cause avalanches. In the Level II course, participants learn more advanced concepts, such as identification of snow crystal types and other weather factors that determine snow stability. Participants also get to practice a variety of beacon rescues.

Snow Conditions

Snowpack stability is the most critical factor in determining the likelihood of an avalanche. Pay attention to the weather. Significant precipitation, windy weather and rising temperatures are major contributing factors to snow instability and increased avalanche danger. Local weather reports are also helpful in determining where the most snow has fallen. If it’s safe, you’ll know where the powder stashes are located. Early season snowpack sets the tone for the rest of the season.

According to Utah Avalanche Center Director, Bruce Tremper, “The weather patterns in November play an extremely important role in the avalanche conditions for December and January. A thin snowpack combined with clear skies in the early season create persistent weak layers because they continue to produce avalanches for many days or even weeks after they are loaded with the weight of overlying snow. These early season weak layers don’t fall from the sky; they grow in place through temperature gradient metamorphism, which creates weak, sugary snow near the ground called depth hoar. Once persistent weak layers such as depth hoar are loaded with an overlying slab of snow, they can remain dangerous for several weeks. Counter-intuitively, the early season is often the most dangerous time of year in Utah because the snowpack is not only weak and fragile, but people are anxious to get out on the snow and also people don’t think early season snowpack can be dangerous.”

The recent tragic loss of professional skier Jamie Pierre is a sobering reminder that anyone can fall victim to an early season avalanche, regardless of skill level.

GEAR CHECK

Where did I put my snow saw? While you rummage through all your steezy gear to find your sick tall tees and sweet ski socks, which you neatly packed away at the end of last season, take a minute to locate your beacon and replace the batteries. Does your shovel deploy properly? What about your probe? It should go without saying—but I’ll say it anyway, whether you are touring all day long or taking a short sidecountry detour, you need to have your shovel and probe in your pack with your beacon on and beeping. You need to be an expert at using them, and you need to be with other people who know what they’re doing too. The Avalung II, slope meter and snow saw are also wise investments. It would be quite a calamity if you were in a situation where you had to use your tools to save someone’s life and they didn’t work.

Beacon practice sites are located at Snowbird, Canyons, Solitude, Snowbasin, and Nobletts Beacon Basin.

Touring

Photo Credit: Jill Charron

PRECIOUS RESOURCES

In an effort not to be shot at by misanthropic backcountry veterans who prefer to keep the secrets of the Wasatch backcountry just that, I won’t tell you exactly where to find the treasure troves. I can, however, recommend a few resources that will help you on your hunt for powdery goodness.

  • splitboard.com
    A popular site dedicated to snowboarding in the backcountry with educational information as well as trip report forums, photo galleries, deals on gear, splitboard reviews, weather information and many other topics. Like splitboard.com on Facebook for deals on gear and classes.
  • splitboardeducationcompany.com
    Aims to be the leading source of splitboard education and instruction by providing complete and comprehensive splitboard curriculum. Founder Kelly Robbins is so amped about sharing his passion for splitboarding that he may just take you on a guided field trip.
  • unofficialnetworks.com
    Officially responsible for the uber popular must-see ski movie Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Radness (aka GNAR), but there is also a section on the site specifically dedicated to Snowbird that has posts about current conditions and other helpful beta. For updates, you can follow on Twitter @unofficialbird.
  • utahavalanchecenter.org
    One of the best and most used resources for local backcountry skiers and snowboarders. The UAC is a cooperative effort between the Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the non-profit Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center. On their site you’ll find links to advisories for current conditions, avalanche education courses, incident reports, photos, maps and other lifesaving information. You can also call the Avalanche Hotline at 888-999-4019 for daily updates about mountain weather advisories.
  • whitepinetouring.com
    Hosts multi-day avalanche education courses from beginner through expert levels. They offer one of few Level III 5-day courses designed for ski and mountain guides that also covers operational planning and decision making in complex terrain, as well as group management situations. Like White Pine Touring on Facebook for the latest outdoor and gear news.

The early season selection of glories can be a trifle on the thin side, and any dangerously stupid gaper can fetch up a hill to slide down it without as much as a drift in thought about the life-threatening elements involved. So all of this means diddly-squat if you don’t put it to use.

The difference between gold and snow is that gold has the same value even if it’s melted. Oh…and gold doesn’t expel its pursuers down the mountain at 60–80 mph for disturbing its cohesion.

Touring Gear

Photo Credit: Jill Charron

Powder Prospecting Gear

K2 MissDirected Skis

Never has a large waistline been so sexy at 117mm underfoot, K2’s 2012 MissDirected skis have the widest platform of any women’s ski. They are 50% Rocker and 50% Camber. The Powder Rocker makes for a floaty descent while the progressive sidecuts ensure stability down even the most technical lines. $699 k2skis.com

K2 MissDirected Skins

These climbing skins come-precut to seamlessly integrate with the MissDirected skis. They have a unique attachment system and come with glue-preserving mesh storage sheets. $199 k2skis.com

Fritschi Diamir Freeride Pro Bindings

This do-it-all binding has very little competition. It’s efficient. It’s powerful. It’s freeride. Optimized for fat skis, Fritschi’s new gliding technology makes for smooth alpine touring. $499 blackdiamondequipment.com

Dalbello Mantis 12s

These ski boots are made from fine Italian craftsmanship and provide precision and accuracy well beyond your expectations. Made for women with advancing skills, they are lightweight with tri-injection shell architecture and Contour4 fit technology with progressive flex and women’s specific technology. High performance boots for high performance skiers. $499 dalbello.it

Black Diamond Compactor Z-Pole

Black Diamond created an innovative folding Z-Pole that does just as it says—compacts. It’s ideal for backcountry travel and its FlickLock design offers up to 20cm of adjustability. You can take this four-season aluminum pole anywhere at anytime. $119 blackdiamondequipment.com

Rab Women’s Stretch Neo Jacket

The new Rab Women’s Stretch Neo Jacket is a women’s specific, waterproof and highly breathable jacket made especially for backcountry touring. The fabric is a combination of Polartec® and NeoShell® so it has the protection and performance of a hardshell with the comfort of a softshell. Handy zippered front pockets are made specifically for storing skins on your descent. $365 us.rab.uk.com

Mammut Mittellegi Pants

These technical GORE-TEX® 3-layer Mittellegi pants are made from an elastic material for high comfort on high alpine pursuits, offering reliable weather protection, high breathability and excellent durability. They fit well and they have lots of thoughtful features such as a dropseat zip and adjustable hems. $490 www.mammut.ch

Mammut Schneefeld Pullover

This technical hoody fleece pullover is made from a lightweight material. It breathes very well and is perfect for wearing under your shell while ascending because it is lightweight and breathes easy, but keeps you warm. The Polartec® Thermal Pro® material offers a very good insulation-weight ratio. Its great durability helps to prevent the material from ageing. $220 www.mammut.ch

Giro SHEER Helmet

Wearing a helmet is possibly one of the best decisions you could make. Giro’s SHEER helmet has a stack vent to help keep your goggles fog free. Its featherweight construction and plush design make it a smart choice. $160 giro.com

Oakley Polarized Stockholm Goggles

Oakley utilizes a liquid infusion process to achieve molecular level bonding with a polarizing filter. Yeah, it’s a bit technical, but a lot of work goes into making these high performance goggles work extremely well in various conditions. They also fit like a dream. $210 oakley.com

Oakley Elevate Goggles

Finding the right pair of goggles is important because you don’t want to be fidgeting with your goggles while you are trying to ski. Enter Oakley Elevate. They are comfortable and are made for small to medium-sized faces. Polar fleece foam wicks away moisture and the internal skeletal support system minimizes nasal pressure. $150 oakley.com

Helly Hansen Textile Mitten

Built with Helly Tech® protection fabric for water resistance and breathability, it’s insulated with PrimaLoft®. The wristband is adjustable and there´s even a storm leash to keep them from going astray. And let’s be honest, we’re excited about the nose-friendly wiping area provided on the thumb. $50 hellyhansen.com

Helly Hansen Odin Mountain Jacket

Helly Hansen has created a women’s specific Odin line to complement the men’s professional collection for mountain guides, patrollers, alpinists, and explorers. Expedition-grade women’s jackets are very rare, so we’re pretty stoked. The jacket features Helly Tech® Professional waterproof breathable protection, Three-layer laminate, full stretch construction, 3D-welded shoulder reinforcements, and a whole-bunch of other super techy features that make this jacket a very wise choice for any mountain activity. $599 hellyhansen.com

Helly Hansen Odin Isolater Jacket

Pairing nicely with the Odin Mountain Jacket, the Isolater is made from lightweigh 15D Nylon 66 ripstop fabric and laminated PrimaLoft® Sport 100g insulation. It’s warm, durable, and is highly compressible so it works great with any backcountry journey. $300 hellyhansen.com

Helly Hansen Legend Ski Pants

The Legend ski trousers offer the comfort and flexibility of articulated knees, breathable fabric, and venting zips with moderate insulation provided by 60-gram PrimaLoft® Warmcore. The regular feminine fit can be adjusted at the waist. They have vent zips so you can cool off while your hiking up. $175 hellyhansen.com

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About Author

Melissa McGibbon is the Senior Editor of Outdoor Sports Guide Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist and is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, the North American Travel Journalists Association, and the Adventure Travel Trade Association. She is usually in pursuit of adventure, travel, or some daring combination of the two. IG @missmliss // melissamcgibbon.com

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