Alpine Touring (aka randonee skiing or splitboarding) is surging in popularity. An estimated 6 million skiers and snowboarders in the U.S. are now exploring the backcountry, according to Snowsports Industries America (SIA). By many estimates Alpine Touring is the fastest growing sport in all of outdoor recreation (for more context on how bc skiing works, read Backcountry 101).
I get the hype. Spending time in the backcountry is incredible. It's quiet, challenging, and offers endless possibilities. If you'rediscovering the freedom and exhilaration of backcountry exploration for the first time - welcome! In our great Pacific Northwest the opportunities to play are seemingly boundless, and, thanks to the 200+ glaciers in Washington State alone, you can get outside all year round.
I just celebrated my 5-year backcountry skiaversary. I'm stoked to live in a place that has given me the privilege of earning my turns for the last 64-consecutive months. I've written about what you need to know to get started in the backcountry, but I still learn with every day spent on the snow in the backcountry.
To help you on your own journey of discovery, here are 5 Things You Didn't Know About Backcountry Skiing:
It'll take you a while to find partners....
When I first started skiing, I was disappointed that the community didn't suddenly open its arms and say, "Hey Kristina! We see you! Come over here and ski with us!" Instead, the process of getting integrated took longer than I thought. I was active in the local forums, attended events hosted by our avalanche center, and tried to ingratiate myself with the many bc ski people I met, but ultimately it took about a year to find my "posse".
My advice is to keep working until you find the right group of people. It's important they share your level of skill, ambition, and risk aversion. For me, this happened when I met my heterosexual-adventure-life partner Theresa at 9,000ft on Mt. Hood. I also had a lot of luck meeting folks using related hashtags on Instagram if you can believe it - Instafriends! Keep in mind that you'll ask a lot of people to ski with you, and they'll probably forget to get back to you. But keep asking. From personal experience, I have a group of 4-5 people I always call to ski. It's not that I don't want to ski with you, it's just that I forget because you aren't part of my normal 'program'. Be persistent and you'll find partners for life.
....and to discover places to call your own.
The outdoors offers endless possibilities for backcountry travel, but knowing where to go - and when - is just as complicated as finding a partner to join you. In Washington, we have a great backcountry routes book and an awesome forum to share routes, and those are great places to start. But resources will only get you so far. To discover the real backcountry gems, you'll need to get a little more uncomfortable.
Once you get more confident, pick a spot on the map and go exploring. This may result in a few frustrating days of little-to-no skiing (slide-alder sufferfests anyone?), but if you're lucky you might just discover the most pristine, untouched pow. Pick who you share it with carefully. If you're lucky. your new adventure buddy will share their secret spot with you too.
Getting your layering program under control is half the battle.
I wrote an entire blog about layering in the backcountry, but I need to say this again: mastering your personal layering comfort is one of the most difficult aspects of backcountry travel. I cannot tell you how many times I've gone from sweating to freezing in under a minute before kicking myself - again! - for not putting a puffy on right when I stopped.
Dial in your layering program by figuring out which combination of layers works best for you. On your low-key tour days, bring extra "untested" layers to figure out how they work. They could be your new favorite item, or you may want to throw them in the trash as soon as you get to the trailhead. Either way you need to know before you go out with ONLY that puffy for your next trip, so figure it out now. Remember to strip layers before you start climbing, even if it means you'll be cold for a minute, then put on layers as soon as you stop moving. Get a good pack (my recommendation) to give you easy access to your layers and use them. It's worth the extra 60-seconds now to preserve your comfort for the rest of the day.
Someone will always be stronger/faster/better when it comes to skinning/transitioning/skiing.Accept that you will not be the best person on the mountain. As someone who has been on skis since the age of 3, I am pretty accustomed to being the fastest...at least when it comes to going down. My first time skinning up was a humbling experience to say the least. I had to stop after a mere 400ft of effort to rip off all of my layers and eat a snack. I'd been moving for like 25 minutes. Not my proudest moment.
Slowly teach your body how to navigate different conditions to get faster at skinning. Learn tricks to be more efficient when it comes to transitioning. You may even become a better skier with many, many days in the backcountry (but probably not, seriously go to a resort). When you accept that other people will have lighter and better gear, that they'll be in better shape, and that they'll be better skiers, you'll be much happier. Learn to be slow but not sorry.
Sometimes not getting out at all is better than going with the wrong person.
When you venture into the backcountry with someone, you are trusting them to make good decisions and be responsible for your rescue should something go wrong. Just like rock climbing, your life is in the hands of the competence of this person. Choosing an appropriate partner - both from a personal compatibility and a risk tolerance standpoint - is probably the most important decision you can make.
Decide on a list of your backcountry deal-breakers. Maybe you don't go out with someone who doesn't have an AIARE certification. Or maybe you only go in groups of 5 or fewer. Whatever your rules, draw a line in the sand and don't cross it. We all get outside to enrich our lives, and it's better to stay in and warm your couch than go out with someone who will push you outside of your comfort zone in a bad way. As Ed Viesturs would say, "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory." Make sure you end every day