It’s not easy dialing in your backcountry ski gear
We were somewhere between Pueblo and Grand Junction. I wish I could be more specific and include the names of the two peaks we skied, but if I did, our new pal, Pete, probably would never invite us again. He’s a little private about his secret stashes, which I can respect, and I am guilty of indulging readers with all the details of a good adventure. Let’s just say this: I think I found a little backcountry ski gem – great snow, not too much wind, reachable peaks, and on this day thousands of feet of (no exaggeration) waist-deep, chin-chilling powder.It was snowing hard, perfectly adverse conditions to test a few new backcountry ski items. You’d think that after all the years of skinning and skiing, I’d have it down, but it’s only been lately, with the help of new technology, that I think I finally have it nailed.Stormy weather means a full pack, but there is nothing worse than carrying too much stuff; it boils down to two mandatory dressing concerns for a snowy day in the backcountry – stay warm and stay dry. I watch friends put on layer after layer after layer, soon bundled in so many clothes they look like R2D2 skinning uphill. And then they have to stuff it all back into the pack, often half of it ending up strapped to the outside because your hands are too cold to get that frozen zipper shut. Here’s my realization. All you really need extra is this: a puffy coat (down or synthetic), and a lightweight Gore-Tex shell.A puffy coat is the one thing most of us mountain people wear around town, but wouldn’t think of bringing into the backcountry, maybe because it seems too hot. This isn’t supposed to be an uphill layer, though; it’s what you throw on at the summit, or for the lunch break or a chilly descent.I remember the first time I brought mine to the top of Quandary – in June. I thought it was a little overkill, but boy, when I put it on and felt the instant warmth, and sat there on the rocks for more than an hour gazing at the beautiful views, I knew this item would always come with me, no matter how balmy it is in town. Stuffing it back into your pack is easy. It fills all those extra spaces and takes up much less room than a fleece; plus, they breathe well.If you do carry a puffy, the warmth issue is covered, and so that heavy Gore-Tex jacket you’ve had for eons is more warmth then you need, as well as annoyingly bulky. Plus, those traditional parkas are too claustrophobic and hot for a snowy uphill. Thanks to Gore-Tex for inventing the PacLite, an incredibly light waterproof fabric which breathes well and isn’t nearly as hot. Perfect for uphill travel in wet weather. My two favorite companies which offer this style shell are Outdoor Research and their Celestial Jacket or the North Face Diad Jacket (check out The North Face Store in Breckenridge). Outdoor Research is more famous for its gloves and gaiters, but it just started a whole new line of technical outdoor apparel, ranking right up there with any top end outdoor clothing companies. Wilderness Sports and Mountain Outfitters offer many OR products.We broke trail in deep snow for close to 5,000 feet that day, numerous hours of moving slowly uphill, even triggered a few sluffs on the plentiful new snow. It doesn’t help that my skis are fatter, heavier and slower, and since I can’t stay off those salami and cheese sandwiches, I had to lose weight somewhere. I decided to demo a superlight alpine touring boot – the Garmont Mega Lite, a three-buckle, softer-flexing boot used mostly by AT racers or for long ski expeditions (also available at Mountain Outfitters.) I’m totally sold. Skinning was so much more pleasant than with my beefy four-buckle boot; even the steepest skin track was comfortable. But of course the real test was descending, and I was amazed to find that this boot did perform as well as a stiff four-buckler.Add to your list a hoody shirt, a mini Thermos and one of those hip visor wool hats, and that might just cover the latest gear available for the backcountry enthusiast. Now all we need is for that wind to stay away and stop ruining our high-alpine snow, or maybe just go meet Pete again over near Pueblo and ski Mt. X.Breckenridge resident Ellen Hollinshead writes a biweekly column on the outdoors. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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