Growing backcountry use needs to be embraced
The infamous Teton Pass near Jackson, Wyo., was a busy place at dawn. Already 20-plus cars were lined up along the snowbank. I was impressed; Wyoming backcountry skiers and riders are hard core. It must be the before-work crowd, squeezing in a run off of Mt. Glory – the best grin-to-grunt ratio from the pass, a 45-minute boot pack in return for 1,500 feet of steep, world-class skiing with all aspects available.I, on the other hand, had arrived early because friends had warned me that you might not find a place to park if you got there too late. Times are changing. Nowadays, it seems like everyone is a backcountry aficionado.My Jackson friend reminisced how in the late-’80s, he would set a track down the center of Mt. Glory, a huge avalanche path seen by all who drive the pass, and his artwork would remain solo for a week. Today this same chute sees dozens of tracks a day, and its less dangerous north and south ridgelines see a constant flow of skiers and riders.Edleweiss, on the south side of the pass, is the second most popular destination for the Teton Pass skier and that’s where I was heading. I followed a well-worn skin track up to the summit, surprised to pass not one, but two groups of dawn-patrol skiers and even more surprised to see how young they were. This was a recurring theme in the Jackson backcountry – kids right out of college with as much knowledge and gear as someone twice their age. I suspect they were fortunate to satisfy their lift riding ski fix during their teens, whereas my generation was more likely to start resort skiing in college. Edleweiss’ north-facing steep runs looked enticing, but solitude is almost as important as good snow and so I left it for the throngs of skiers still coming up behind. Instead I dropped into the next drainage over toward Columbia Bowl. No tracks, no people, but lots of powder.Summit County isn’t as renowned for its backcountry terrain like the Tetons or the Wasatch; we’ve always been perceived as more as a crowded ski resort destination, but in the last few years I’ve seen a significant change. It used to be that we’d break a trail through the woods to reach the backside glades of Baldy and never see another soul. Now there are always signs of others. Last week I was shocked to run into five younger folks skinning on a trail that I thought only a few of us knew existed. Once again, their youth was a surprise.More often I notice how the backcountry scene is flourishing in the easier-to-reach places – Loveland Pass is now dealing with parking problems; the backcountry terrain around A-Basin, which used to slide regularly, now sees enough skier and rider pressure to keep it fairly safe. If the wind hasn’t blown up high in the Tenmile Range, you will see tracks on Peaks 10, 9, 6 and 5 within a few days. Nordic skiing also is taking off. Check out the parking lot for the Spruce Creek Trail on the weekends or the daily, constant flow of cars heading up to Sallie Barber for a quick jaunt with the dog.Pick up a copy of Skiing or Powder – two magazines that used to focus entirely on inbounds skiing – and you will find at least half of the publication geared toward the backcountry. The younger generation, whose parents raised them skiing inbounds, are ready sooner for something more exciting, more risky – and backcountry skiing, especially with the popularity of the AT gear, is going nuts. A little adventure, a little exercise, fresh tracks – why not?Statistics continue to tell us that national downhill skiing numbers haven’t risen, but winter non-motorized activity in the White River National Forest is increasing almost three times as much. Folks are finding that they can save the 70 bucks for a lift ticket and still have a great time on snow.Here in Summit County, the higher powers haven’t yet embraced this new trend. The White River National Forest has in the past recognized the need for snowmobile play areas or delineated ski area boundaries, but has not yet addressed the existence of this new breed of recreationalists.Of course Summit County will always be known mostly for the great inbounds resort skiing. But just like we were on the cutting edge when we embraced the new sport of snowboarding, I’d suggest we consider targeting, marketing and coveting the great terrain that makes our county a backcountry Valhalla.Longtime Breckenridge resident Ellen Hollinshead writes a biweekly column on the outdoors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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