A beginner’s guide to skiing in the backcountry
What to know before you start your trek
It’s a quiet morning as you glide through the trees of the White River National Forest. You’re locked into your bindings, poles in hand, and you’re so bundled up that you barely notice the bone-chilling cold. You start your trek early in the morning, wanting to get a jump on Summit County’s majestic winter views. As you peek through the trees, slowly ascending to the top of the mountain, you think to yourself, “What could go wrong?”
If you’re not prepared, this serene backcountry ski trip could turn into a dangerous outing. Though the sport is popular, it’s one that takes lots of preparation and thoughtful planning. Here’s what you need before you set off on your quest.
Start in a populated area
First and foremost, newbies should practice their skills in a populated area, such as one of the local ski resorts, said Michael Restivo, office manager for Colorado Adventure Guides.
“Take (your) equipment on the resort (and) do some uphilling on the resort just to figure out if it’s something that you’re really interested in and something you’re ready to invest in, because it’s a whole new setup,” Restivo said. The specialized skis or snowboards often require skins, which are used as a traction device to go uphill.
Restivo pointed out that backcountry skiing is a combination of downhill and cross-country skiing that is similar to hiking. The sport can be physically taxing, so practice at a resort where safety personnel are nearby. Restivo said most resorts will allow uphill skiing in the morning before the lifts operate.
Those who are interested should rent their gear the first couple of times, too. Beginners can do so through Colorado Adventure Guides, which opened a demo center in December that rents backpacks, skis and more.
Once beginner backcountry skiers have practiced a bit, Restivo said he recommends they progress to a guided trip such as the ones Colorado Adventure Guides offers. All of their trips are custom, meaning clients get to choose their routes based off their physical ability and skill level.
“It helps take all the guesswork out of their experience,” Restivo said about the trips. “We take care of the planning. We’re looking at the weather. We’re looking at the route.”
Take a class
If recreationists find that they do enjoy backcountry skiing, then Restivo recommends they take a Level 1 avalanche course. Not only does this provide skiers with need-to-know information, but it also introduces them to other beginners with whom they can recreate in the future.
“It’s a three-day course that is offered through our organization and one that helps build those fundamentals for safety in the backcountry outside the resort boundaries,” Restivo said.
Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said that when preparing for a trip in the backcountry, it’s critical that skiers prepare for worst-case scenarios.
“Anytime you’re traveling into the backcountry, it’s good to be thinking about things that might go wrong,” Lazar said. “Do you have repair kits that allow you to (make) repairs in the event that something breaks in the field? Do you have some warmer clothes in the event that someone gets hurt or gear breaks, and you’re stuck outside in a pretty harsh environment for a long period of time? Do you have enough food and water? Do you have a first-aid kit?”
To check the avalanche forecast, visit Colorado.gov/avalanche.
Grab your gear
Avalanches are just one event that Lazar and Restivo recommend backcountry skiers prepare for before their hike. Lazar said skiers should carry, at a minimum, three basic rescue tools: The first is an avalanche receiver, which helps detect the signal of a buried victim and locate their general area. The next is a collapsible probe, which can be used to specifically identify where the victim is. Lastly, a backcountry shovel is used to dig the victim out.
Other items Restivo recommends backcountry skiers take with them include extra warm clothes, food and at least two liters of water, a first-aid kit that includes a space blanket and moleskin for blisters, extra batteries for a receiver, walkie-talkies that are shared between parties, lip balm, sunscreen and sunglasses.
Section House is one of five huts managed by the Summit Huts Association. It’s located atop Boreas Pass just outside Breckenridge and sits at 11,481 feet. | Summit Huts Association/Courtesy photo
Once you’ve become a pro at backcountry skiing and you’ve notched a few trips in your belt, try an overnight trip by booking a reservation through Summit Huts Association. The nonprofit organization manages and maintains five huts throughout the county that can be reserved online at SummitHuts.org. For more information, call 970-925-5775.
Janet’s Cabin was the first of the five huts to open in 1991. The hut is known for its great ski route and stellar views, but the route to get there is rated as intermediate and, in some spots, advanced. The hut is at 11,610 feet.
Francie’s Cabin is one of the most popular cabins in the state, according to the association. Beginners and families should start out by reserving this cabin, which is named after a former Breckenridge resident. It sits at 11,360 feet.
Ken’s Cabin is one of the oldest structures in the Breckenridge area. The hut sits at 11,481 feet and is one of the smallest, sleeping only two to three people. The hut is nearby Section House, and the two share an outhouse.
Section House was originally built in 1882 to house railroad workers and their families who maintained the section of rail that traveled over Boreas Pass. The hut, at 11,481 feet, requires a longer hike but has an easier slope, still making it accessible.
Sister’s Cabin is the newest addition to the management of the association and was only recently established in 2019. Sitting at 11,445 feet, this hut is only available in the winter season from November to April.
This story originally published in the winter 2021-22 edition of Explore Breckenridge & Summit County magazine.
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