I’ve always thought of the chairlift as one of mankind’s greatest inventions, right up there with the printing press, the India pale ale, and the taco truck. But my recent foray into backcountry skiing has given me an appreciation for the endless skiable terrain outside the resorts, and an even bigger appreciation for those who choose to hoof it rather than sit on a cushy quad chair with the footrest pulled down.
Skiing has been my biggest passion throughout most of my life—learning to turn on Michigan ice, trips west with friends in high school, racing on my college club team, ski bumming in Colorado in my early twenties. So it’s no surprise that since I moved to Utah four years ago, I’ve found the idea of ski touring intriguing. If seeing other people’s tracks down awe-inspiring backcountry lines while driving to the resort didn’t get me longing for those turns, seeing my buddies’ Instagram photos of face shots on days when I’m just trying to find something not completely tracked out sure did.
But the idea of backcountry skiing also scared the crap out of me. Of course the thought of getting caught in an avalanche inspires fear, but there’s also the possibility of getting horribly lost, or somehow winding up at the top of a chute beyond my abilities, or perhaps worst of all, just the thought of being the slow guy on the skintrack, the one puking from exhaustion while everyone else is just out for a gentle morning tour.
I was happy thinking that maybe I’d try ski touring someday. I even bought a used alpine touring setup—a pair of old Volkl Katanas with Marker Duke bindings. But that’s as far as I got. I always had excuses for not going deeper down the rabbit hole toward touring.
That’s until I got invited to travel to Jackson, Wyoming to attend the first annual Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy, a long weekend of backcountry ski and snowboard clinics ranging from beginner to expert by the legendary Exum Mountain Guides. My excuses stopped there.
I headed up to Jackson with a great group of Backcountry Gearheads and customers, where I spent Thursday night eating, drinking, and reveling in my first experience in this quintessential ski town. Friday morning came early—a little nervous, a slight tinge of hangover, and terrified that I’d forgotten to pack an essential piece of gear. Once the rest of my group headed off to their more advanced clinics, I was left as the lone Backcountry employee in the Intro to Backcountry Skiing clinic.
My new group introduced themselves, some had toured before, others like me hadn’t—about ten of us in all under the direction of two Exum guides. We all made our way up to Grand Teton National Park, thrilled at the prospect of skiing some of our country’s most prized public lands inside the park boundaries. Light cloud cover filtering the sunlight made for beautiful and comfortable conditions.
Our guides, Ben Hoiness and Kai Girard, went over the basics of our equipment and checked our beacons, and then we took off skinning across the frozen Jackson Lake to one of hundreds of peaks in the park that go by only a number. On the long but flat slog across the lake the guides talked a bit about avalanche safety, discussed what they’d be looking for as we approached the peaks on the other side of the lake.
They explained a bit about the day’s avalanche foreceast, which was a “considerable” rating from the Bridger Teton Avalanche Center—the “considerable” rating representing the widest spectrum of conditions and falling between “moderate” and “high.” A persistent weak layer in the snow, explained Ben, contributed to a good recipe for a potential avalanche. Because of this we’d stick to low angle slopes and avoid the most hazardous terrain.
They pointed out that this was only an introduction to touring, and that if any of us wanted to continue with the sport, we’d need more education. Ben suggested taking an Avalanche Level 1 course and receiving the commensurate certification. Kai stressed the importance of education in becoming a good skiing partner, which he views as one of your biggest responsibilities as a backcountry skier.
I want to emphasize here that this is by no means meant to be a how-to article. It is just one person’s perspective of their first time trying the sport. If I learned one thing during the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy, it’s that actively seeking knowledge and constantly observing your surroundings are the most important parts of backcountry skiing.
“You don’t have to learn everything all at the same time,” Kai said when I asked him after the clinic about his advice for beginners. “Keep your objectives appropriate to your skill level. Go out with people who you trust, and endeavor to be a good partner. That simply means keeping a curious eye out and watching to see what is happening around you—weather and snow conditions, gear choices, navigation, and decision-making processes. Revel in the glory and challenge of taking care of yourself in the winter environment.”
image courtesy @zsnavely
Across the lake, my thighs started burning with the first bit of uphill skinning. And after a few switchbacks I was out of breath and starting to drag-ass. The gorgeous surroundings of the Tetons took some of the pain out of it, but my first hour or so of skiing uphill really put into perspective my need for better fitness.
Our guides taught us about proper skinning technique and efficiency, about making the most of the ski’s glide and about taking quick rest moments with each step rather than stopping for long breaks. We learned about making kick turns, paying attention to our surroundings, and choosing the easiest and safest routes.
I dragged along, lungs and legs struggling. Kai told me I’d be better off with a true touring setup rather than alpine boots in walk mode and a heavy freeride ski and alpine touring binding combo. This is all true, I’m sure. But it’s also true that the 30 extra pounds around my middle is a far greater hindrance than the extra pound or two of my ski setup. I faced the stark realization that I need to get into better shape.
“Good gear and good technique can go a long way towards efficiency,” he said. “Not everyone needs the new carbon ultralight everything, but everything you bring should have a purpose, and not just in theory. A heavy load can quickly affect your performance—on the way up as well as skiing down. Little tricks like staying upright and balanced over your skis, small, straight steps, and the good old rest step all contribute to your energy being spent in forward motion.”
After an hour or so of skiing, Ben dug a snow pit to show us the layering throughout the snowpack. He performed an Extended Column Test that showed us how the weak layer, which had been present in the snowpack since December, would fracture with full propagation across the column. This clearly illustrated the day’s most likely cause of an avalanche—a giant solid slab of packed snow sliding off of that weak layer. Higher up the mountain, we saw evidence of past slides, putting into perspective how dangerous the mountains can be.
As we progressed toward the top of Peak 8548 the wind picked up and snow began falling. The weather brought with it a sense of adventure and a second wind in me, and before I knew it, we’d reached the top.
image courtesy @zsnavely
And then came the fun part. This might be obvious, but there’s something so gratifying about looking down at a field of fresh snow and knowing you got there on your own power. We took it one pitch at a time, skiing one at a time in the soft, untracked fluff. The turns were my best of the year, having come from a slow winter in Utah.
A piece of terrain in the resort that’s similar to a piece of terrain in the backcountry becomes so much more gratifying to ski in the latter. Why? It definitely has something to do with the solitude of not having to share with the resort hoards. There’s also the “earn your turns” thing—each individual turn is more satisfying when juxtaposed with the struggle it took to get it. And finally, while you’re certainly more likely to run across more hazards in the backcountry than at the resort, those hazards are going to be natural—you won’t go to slash a powder turn in the backcountry only to slam into the peak to an icy skier-created mogul is just beneath the surface.
But those aren’t the only things. It’s not about the skiing itself as much as it is about the sense of place. Being in the backcountry rather than in the resort makes the resort experience feel a bit fake in comparison, sort of like seeing a bear in the wild versus one in the zoo.
Simply put, backcountry skiing feels real.
“Two great things about ski touring are the terrain you get to explore and the company you get to share,” Kai said. “Regardless of weather or avalanche conditions, there can always be an appropriate place to get out and spend time in the mountains. And when that time is spent with good people skiing untracked powder in the great outdoors—it’s a day well spent.”
image courtesy @zsnavely
The snow didn’t let up through much of Friday night, so the turns on Saturday were even better: six inches of fresh powder atop the already soft snow. Maybe surprisingly, though, Saturday’s skin up was better, too, even though we covered the same amount of vertical. No, I didn’t zoom to the top without breaking a sweat, but I did feel more comfortable on the ascent, perhaps a bit more efficient, a bit more confident, willing, and able to put the pain aside and embrace it as type 2 fun.
Saturday’s tour was with a different group as well, with different guides from Exum—Daniel Sundqvist and Giles Augustine. But this second day in the Intro to Backcountry Skiing clinic was anything but redundant, with these guides offering a different perspective. The fundamentals and the focus were all the same, though. Daniel and Giles emphasized good decision-making, strong communication with your partners, and the avoidance of a group-think ‘maybe this will be OK’ mentality.
They also emphasized the fact that yes, the skiing feels more real in the backcountry. But the danger is more real as well. Avalanche hazards aside, even something relatively minor becomes more consequential in the backcountry. Someone with a torn ACL, for example, at a resort would be at ski patrol within ten minutes. In the backcountry that could take many hours.
Despite the dangers, though, it’s easy to see why people love this sport so much. I feel extremely lucky to have had my first backcountry experience with people as passionate, knowledgeable, and articulate as the Exum Guides.
“Backcountry skiing is a true form of skiing,” Giles said. “It boils down the essence to what skiing really is. No chalets or restaurants or lifts, it’s just you and the mountain. It’s all about the powder turn. The feeling of gliding with the snow and gravity against the mountain, there’s nothing like it. It’s the highest form of being, totally in the moment, completely aware of your surroundings. It’s just a beautiful perfect moment.”
My first experience backcountry skiing has given me the butt kickin’ realization that I need to get into better shape, need to get my ass in gear with some cardio, that skiing the resort and drinking six beers while doing it can’t be my workout for the day. But my fat ass, aside, I am hooked. I see why people talk about this sport with such fervor. I see why it changes lives.
Big thanks to Zach Snavely, an outdoor photographer based in Lander, WY for images used in this article. See more at www.zachsnavely.com