The Outsider: Backcountry or sidecountry? |

The Outsider: Backcountry or sidecountry?

SDN sports editor Phil Lindeman.

I hope the headline caught your attention. Those two words caused a stir on our Facebook page last week after a reader asked why Z Griff, our On The Hill host, never brings avalanche gear when he heads out of bounds. The comments were aimed at a video about Ballroom, a little slice of gate-accessed backcountry on Peak 10 at Breckenridge. Z Griff filmed as he and friends found glades filled with mostly untracked snow — the reward for a relatively short hike.

Like a lot of gate-accessed terrain, Ballroom is often referred to as “sidecountry.” It’s a common term that’s used to talk about backcountry (as in unmaintained) terrain folks can easily reach from a chairlift or car. Ballroom fits the mold: The access gate is above the top of Falcon Chair and the run funnels back into Breck territory near the bottom.

But there’s no such thing as sidecountry when it comes to avy safety. After readers told us to “wise up” and stop promoting irresponsible behavior (more on that in a sec), I sent messages to Breck and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. I wanted to let the experts explain why that term exists. Breck patrol couldn’t reply in time so I talked with Scott Toepfer, a Summit County local and senior avalanche forecaster for the CAIC. Here’s what he had to say:

“It can be confusing for the users when you have those terms,” Toepfer told me. “It hints that some terrain is different from the backcountry. From our world — in the eyes of avalanche forecast centers — it’s all backcountry. Whether you exit from the top of a pass or anywhere, you enter the backcountry as soon as you step off of where the plows are.”

In other words, sidecountry is backcountry, and that means Z Griff should always bring avalanche gear — at least a beacon, probe and shovel, with the knowledge to use all three — anytime he enters Ballroom, or rides The Drop on Loveland Pass. His video from there in late December also drew questions about our commitment to avy safety.

Do I personally think Z Griff was blatantly irresponsible in the Ballroom or Loveland videos? No. That said, avalanche season is here and I think it’s important to publish an educated On The Hill video about avy gear. Watch for that one in the coming weeks. Z Griff has the basic gear, including an Avalanche 1 course, and he is more than happy to spread the good word. He takes avalanche safety seriously and so do I, so from now on all backcountry OTH videos will include a clip of the gear Z Griff has in his backpack. I’ll also make sure I don’t publish the word sidecountry again — in the paper, online, anywhere. It’s misinformation and that’s not my job. If you have questions, comments or still think we’re way off base, send me a message at Ranting on Facebook only goes so far, and this way we all learn something.


I enjoyed picking Toepfer’s brain about avalanche safety and why sidecountry is a thing. In his opinion, the term is more common now than ever before because locals (or anyone else who’s familiar with gate-accessed terrain) are posting videos about their epic days in the sidecountry. The Internet makes all of that lingo available snap-quick, but the knowledge to ski or ride backcountry still takes time and effort. It’s one of the big reasons I wanted to talk with Toepfer: OTH is made for the Internet.

“Everyone has access to a video about the amazing day on the south side of Peak One, or whatever,” Toepfer said. “Sometimes people don’t understand that things are different when you enter that gate. I’ve heard it described as the Stone Age: You’re now in Mother Nature’s world and Mother Nature will do what she wants.”

Breck Bucks homestand

The Breckenridge Bucks, our local junior hockey team, are looking fiery after splitting a home series with the league-leading Pikes Peak Miners over New Year’s weekend. They won another two games in Monument against the Colorado Rampage, and now they’re back in town for the rest of January.

The three-week homestand kicked off on Friday and continues today against the Colorado Thunderbirds at Stephen C. West Ice Arena in south Breck. Tickets are $12 to $17 and beers are cheap. Puck drops at 7:50 p.m.

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