03 December 2015

How To Get Started Backcountry Skiing

As “the girl who skis in a tutu,” people regularly ask me how to get started backcountry skiing. I love introducing others to my favorite pastime. The more (safety-oriented, environmentally-conscious) BC skiers we can get out there the better.

I've said before that backcountry skiing is this awesome love-child of snowshoeing and downhill skiing. It offers the quiet, blissful experience of walking through fresh, snowy tracks far from the beaten path with the sheer exhilaration of swift, snowy descents. I love powder. I love going fast. And I love doing these things with people who love doing these things.

That said, I want to voice a note of caution: before venturing into the backcountry, you should be able to ski a black diamond run in any snow conditions. I cannot stress enough the importance of in-bounds proficiency before going into the side or backcountry. You need to be confident on variable terrain and in sub-optimal weather conditions. Spend time off-piste exploring manky-wet snow. Practice making tight turns in the trees. Learn how to navigate on ice. The backcountry won't give you a "warm up run". Trails are not marked on a map to point you toward the easy way down. You won't get a toboggan ride if you break your leg. Not to stifle your enthusiasm, but I'd rather err on the side of caution than hear about another accident out-of-bounds. Be safe and make smart decisions. The first smart decision you can make is to invest in ski lessons to hone your skills.

Always Tutu

Get started in 10 steps*:

Set realistic expectations. This sport is expensive. It takes a while to join the community and meet regular adventure partners. Even if you're an expert skier, you are not going to be an expert backcountry skier right away. Realize your first few times out the people taking you are doing you a favor. You are a liability to them, but we will take you because we were all once a liability. Be honest about your fitness and ski ability levels. The fastest way to oust yourself from the community is to lie about your skills and end up somewhere you have no business going. Backcountry skiing should be fun, but it won’t be fun unless it’s also safe.

Sign up for an avy class. Yes. That’s right. I list this as number two before I even talk about gear. If you are going to go into the backcountry you need to take an AIARE I course. Most of the skiers I know won’t go with you unless you have taken one. Spanning three days of your life and costing around $300, this is the most important step you take in this entire process. You’ll learn the basics of avalanche behavior and how to judge snow angle and aspect. You’ll also practice doing beacon search, which is seriously the most valuable thing you can do. These classes are only offered a few times a year and can fill up quickly. Sign up now – you can find listings here and here and here. This is a great way to meet future adventure buddies.

Get the gear. For an entire list of all of the gear you may need, check out my backcountry basics blog. If you’re starting with nothing, the cost of the soft and hard goods (aka EVERYTHING) will easily run you $3,000-$5,000 (see step #1). If you already have a suitable backpack and ski clothes (and some old skis maybe you could use), you’re looking at about $1,000-$2,000 (for beacon/shovel/probe + boots, skins, and bindings). If you aren’t sure about all of this stuff, go rent the gear. For those of you in the Seattle area stop by Proski Seattle, and tell them I sent you.

Learn the landscape. This means both physical landscape and the cultural landscape in your local community. Near Seattle, we ski in the Cascades, which offer terrain from mellow to extreme. Conditions vary GREATLY depending on temperature, slope angle, aspect, elevation, and weather conditions (you’ll learn many of these things in Avy I). Luckily, we have amazing recourses available in our area to help us understand terrain and make safe decisions. For avy reports, I recommend you bookmark nwac.us (and consider making a donation). To learn about conditions and discover new backcountry routes, read the trip reports on Turns All Year. Forums like this are another great way to meet backcountry ski buddies, and pickup some cheap, used gear. Books are also a good resource – I recommend this ski guide written and published by locals.

Do a dry run. Take all of your new (or new-to-you) gear out in your living room and do a dry run. Load your pack. Practice taking layers in and out of it. Know that layering while skinning is seriously half of the battle and no one is good at it their first time. Put together a food bag – bring twice as much as you think you’ll need. Make a checklist for yourself so you won’t forget anything. No one wants to be the gaper on a powder day.

Create a trip plan. A trip plan lists where you’re going, who is going, what you’re taking in terms of safety gear, and current conditions/concerns you have about terrain. This formal planning process is important when you are new to the backcountry, and assures your emergency contact person has the necessary information in case something goes wrong. Even if you forgo this step, at the very least you need to have someone in town who knows where you’re going, who you’re going with, what car you’re driving, and when you expect to be back in town. If you aren’t back by that time, they need to know how long to wait until contacting authorities, and who to contact when they do.

Go easy. For your first trip, plan something close to the car. Something that will allow you to “yo-yo” a slope (aka go up and down multiple times). This helps you practice transitions and breaks the touring up into smaller chunks. It also gives you a quick bail strategy if something goes wrong. Touring uses different muscles than pretty much anything else. Even if you have the fitness of a Greek God, you will be tired after your first day of touring.

Take yet another class(es). Notice that “education” is a big part of backcountry enjoyment. It takes a long time to learn how to plan a trip (I am far from an expert here). This means matching your slope and aspect and elevation with the existing weather conditions. Take a Navigation course to help with this. And then take a Wilderness First Aid course in case something goes wrong.

Speak up. No one is an expert. We are all learning. Open your mouth when you have questions. Learn as much as you can from as many people as you can. Speak up when you have concerns. Backcountry skiing is a team sport and everyone has a voice.

Have fun! Oh yeah, I almost forgot this because I was too busy nagging you. That’s only because safety is paramount to fun. Backcountry skiing is dangerous and committing. It can be scary. It can also be the most exhilarating activity of your life. Learn the basics and go play. I promise the time and financial investments are worth it.

Happy Skiing.

*By no means are these hard and fast rules. If you just want to give backcountry a try then rent some gear and get a friend to take you to a safe snowfield in the late spring/early summer. That'll give you a taste and let you know if this sport is for you. If it is start ticking off the above items. It'll take a while to get your kit of gear and skills together. As of this writing I have skied 50 consecutive months and have 98 days in the backcountry. I don't consider myself an expert and am actively working on improving my navigation and terrain selection skills. I do surround myself with like-minded backcountry enthusiasts who share my views on safety and acceptable risk. Finding your backcountry people will be the most difficult and rewarding part of your journey.


Kirsten Gardner said...

Soooo, this is awesome. The video post you shared a few months back that had you whooping and laughing with joy down the side of a mountain finally got me stoked enough to give this new (to me) sport a go. I got two days in at Baker last weekend plan to ski in bounds on my AT set up until I take the AIARE Level 1 in January, then hope to do a few very easy lower Rainier days by the end of the season. I'm so excited about this new sport and appreciate the guidance and recommendations!

Danielle said...

Hi kristina. Thanks for posting this! I'm just getting into BC skiing. I've resisted for many years because avalanches scare me :)But I'm arming myself with as much knowledge I can get my hands on, and I'm looking for competent, trustworthy people who would love to share what they know. I'm psyched about getting into the mountains!!

Ed said...

Hello Kristina,
You have a great post there, good advice!
On the gear to carry: I ALWAYS carry a big thick hat plus a tall neck gaiter. The neck gaiter can be used as a light hat when my big hat is too much or as a "gaiter" with the hat for good break time warmth. I use a very light baseball cap for the up, the neck gaiter can be used over the cap for warmth when needed. I also carry Marmot insulated, side zip pants for all but late spring tours when I carry lightweight side zip Gortex shell pants. One or the other of these extra pants (plus the double head gear) would be so welcome if an unexpected overnight should occur. Always keep in mind that possibility in your preparations (All it takes is one person in your group to become de-mobilized and some one else has to stay with until a rescue can be started). I use the extra leg layers a lot just to stay cozy warm on that late day run to the car.
I have been BC skiing for about 50 years now and am amazed and pleased at the influx of new participants. A day spent in the mountains with the combination of aesthetic and physical thrills is hard to beat. I view with considerable dismay, however, the lack of skiing skills some folks bring to the BC! While not entirely true, it is best to figure that you (meaning anyone) will NOT learn to ski better by BC skiing! In fact, many become WORSE skiers by too much challenge too quickly. LEARNING is done with lift access and groomed slopes! I believe a very good measure for ones skills is: Can you plant your poles? Can you plant them and look like 99% of All the skier photos in All the magazines? Arm reaching, basket out in front, timed to initiate the turn, putting your entire body in "the skiers" position type of pole plant. If not, then work on that exclusively (at a ski area) until you can. And limit your BC to REAL easy stuff until you can!
Avalanche knowledge and skills are essential of course. However, many overlook other dangers that lurk in the backcountry and are MORE likely to ruin your day. Tree wells, creek holes, depressions, leg (or life) threatening snow conditions, losing one ski, lack of speed control in tough snow conditions (work on that pole plant!) etc, etc.
Enough from me for now keep up the good work.

Kristina said...

Thanks for the great comment Ed! Congrats on touring for 50 years - you're an inspiration! And we're definitely on the same page when it comes to safety, and layering. I just posted a new layering blog last week in fact!

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john smith said...
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