Tips for entering the Colorado backcountry
January 31, 2017
It's a beautiful powder day: The sky is bird's egg blue, the snow is perfect, and you're gazing over a pristine, untracked swath of sparkling white. Oh, and it's 11 a.m. Sound impossible? Not at all. For those who venture into the backcountry, away from the crowds at the resort, it's possible to go an entire day without seeing more than a handful of other people.
Backcountry skiing, also known as backcountry touring, has been around since skis were invented. However, the desire to venture into the wide-open spaces and leave the resorts is growing.
The sale of backcountry accessories, including beacons, probes and shovels, has increased 12 percent in units and dollars, according to the Snowsports Industry of America 2015 Fact Sheet. However, getting into the backcountry is not as simple as ducking a rope or hiking into East Vail. You need education about how to be safe, the proper gear and where to go.
Step 1: Know before you go
Perhaps the most important element necessary before going into the backcountry is education, explained Kelli Rohrig, an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 and Level 2 instructor in the Vail Valley.
While the valley is home to good skiers, Rohrig said that the tendency is for people to drag their feet before signing up for any sort of avalanche education, as opposed to people who live on the Front Range and may ski less frequently. However, just because you purchase the gear doesn't mean you know how to use it.
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"Sometimes beacons don't work properly, so you need to know how to use it," Rohrig said. "You don't just turn (a beacon) on and magically know how to work it."
Though it can be pricey, taking a Level 1 avalanche certification course will provide the basics for safely enjoying the backcountry. Skills covered in the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 include developing a plan for travel in avalanche terrain, the ability to identify avalanche terrain, learning how to make decisions about terrain choices while in a group and how to rescue a companion.
Two organizations, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and the American Avalanche Institute, have worked to standardize avalanche education. Rohrig said the objective has changed over the years.
"Back in the day, the idea on taking an avalanche class was the theory that the instructor would scare you and you wouldn't go into the backcountry," Rohrig said. "What we want to get across is that there's a way to be out in the backcountry, even when the avalanche danger is high. It's about knowing how to do that. It's totally possible."
Now, backcountry education such as the Level 1 avalanche certification is about providing tools to not only encourage people to get into the backcountry, but also how to get out safely. It's taking hold, too.
Though Rohrig has been campaigning for avalanche education in schools for years, more and more parents are realizing their kids are venturing out and want to make sure they're safe. Rohrig recently finished a Level 1 avalanche certification class for 14 high school students and will lead a class for 18 Battle Mountain High School students in March.
Step 2: Get the gear
As with any sport, there are levels of gear: the stuff you have to have and the stuff that would be nice to have. For backcountry, in addition to your uphill gear — split board or skis, skins, snowshoes — there is fundamental safety gear: a beacon, a probe and a shovel.
Rohrig said local shops are your best bet for finding the right type of beacons, as there are some made for individuals and some for guide services.
"Fortunately, the shops around here will price match most internet prices, if you go in and ask them; they'll do their best, so that's cool," Rohrig said. "They'll make sure you get the right gear."
The next tier is a backpack that is made specifically for backcountry touring. These packs have a pocket that is dedicated to avalanche gear, which can be extremely important.
"With the older backpacks, you would put everything on the outside," Rohrig said. "The probes will freeze, shovels will freeze, the pack can get hooked on trees and will go away. If you get out of a chairlift and your probe is gone, it's useless."
The next tier is an airbag pack.
"First and foremost, education is the most important, then gear and then your pack," Rohrig said. "Then, if you can afford it, an airbag pack. An airbag pack should not supersede education. There are people who kick down on the (airbag) pack, go for 'holy grail,' instead of not going into a situation where you need it."
Clothing and layering are also important. Your beacon always needs to go under a layer, and from there, it's a matter of your own personal comfort. While the beginning of a hike may be chilly, you'll warm up as you head up.
Rohrig said that she starts with no fewer than five layers, peeling off layers as she climbs then stacking them back on for the descent. Having thin gloves for the ascent and thicker gloves for the descent is also helpful. An important tip: Ascend in a hat and glasses instead of a helmet and goggles.
"If you have a helmet on, you can't hear, and you need to hear snowpack," Rohrig said. "If it's collapsing around, you might miss that."
Of course, there is always additional gear to purchase: BCA, a store that specializes in backcountry gear and education headquartered in Boulder, lists 24 items its guides carry in their packs on an average day of ski touring on its website, BackcountryAccess.com, including a snow saw (for isolating columns in a snowpack test), InReach Satellite Device and crystal card and magnifying loupe to identify snow grains. However, a beacon, probe and shovel are essential.
Step 3: Venture into the backcountry
Finding locations to tour is fairly easy: If you can see snow, you can go. However, finding good backcountry takes a bit more research and effort. For beginners, Meadow Mountain is a good start, as it's mellow and has virtually no avalanche danger.
After conquering Meadow Mountain, Vail Pass has endless options.
"You can spend a week just touring off of Vail Pass and ski something different every day," Rohrig said. "It's so nice because it's got all four aspects, and for the most part, you can see everything from the highway so you get a general idea of what you're getting yourself into."
Other potential locations include Baldy Mountain above Breckenridge and Berthoud Pass. If you hike just a bit farther than the crowds on Berthoud, then you can find great swathes of untouched terrain.
No matter where you go, keep your group size small and manageable and make sure you take along someone who's good with a map and compass and someone who has basic medical training.
Step 4: Slay the pow
The beauty of backcountry is multidimensional. It's not a solo sport: You're encouraged to go out in a group. The education is perpetual: The more you go, the more you know. It's also not just for skiers or snowboarders: Anyone who travels in potential avalanche terrain, such as snowshoers heading to a hut, can benefit from backcountry education.
But backcountry is just as much about the journey as the destination.
"When you're out there, it's just you and Mother Nature," said Eric McCue, a Beaver Creek ski patroller and backcountry enthusiast. "It's up to you to be the 'best you' that you can be. …
"When you begin to hone in on your routine and you start to move efficiently and safely, you feel like you've come to an understanding with the environment and nature. There is no greater satisfaction than achieving that state and unlocking such a thrilling and beautiful experience with your own two feet."
So if the promise of pristine snow and wide-open spaces is attractive, then consider getting into the backcountry. With some avalanche education, the right gear and a plan, you could be enjoying untouched wilderness in almost no time.
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