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The Transition to Backcountry Skiing from Resort Skiing

My Backcountry Ski Story

I don’t know if I’ll ever really become a full-fledged ski-mountaineer, or even an expert backcountry skier. However, I think I’m getting closer because:

  • I am seriously contemplating switching to a Subaru for my vehicle
  • My hair is getting almost long enough to put it in a pony-tail
  • I pretty much only shave on Sunday
  • My favorite jacket is my North Face puffy
  • I plan on skiing as many or more days in the backcountry this year as I do in ski resorts

If you are thinking of getting into  backcountry skiing, or are “somewhere on that curve of becoming a real expert”, then perhaps my experience and recommendations will assist in your endeavors.  (Or it may make you think twice and stay on the lifts).IMG_0701For most of my adult skiing life I put the vast majority of my vertical inside the ski area boundaries and below the lift served terrain.  In fact, for this reason I avoided areas that didn’t have their lift system running all the way to the top.  I had a brief time period in the early to mid 90’s when I got out and did a couple of peaks with some buddies.

But for the most part, I was content with skiing inbounds and getting to places like Jackson Hole and Snowbird for the steep and challenging terrain.  In my 20’s, it was big air and big bumps.  In my 30’s it was running gates and skiing the steeps.  I really started pursuing the powder – the steep and deep in my 40’s.  (The 40’s also brought two blown ACLs).  And now in my 50’s it has become a quest for big peaks and backcountry powder.

Somewhere back around 2008 or 2009, my son and I began to entertain the idea of hitting some terrain just outside of Bogus Basin.  There is a sweet area just north of the ski area and accessible by the boundary gates called Mores Mountain.  I remember one of our first ventures – full alpine gear, no avy equipment and bootpacking to the top.  We skied the east ridge-line to the popular return trail about 1/3 of the way down and got ready to hike out.  There were a couple of guys switching to their skins with full AT and Tele gear.  They didn’t say anything to us, but their looks of disapproval told us everything.  One of the next steps that I took was to start to invest in avalanche safety gear.

We started experimenting with things like snowshoes and we also figured out that we could get about a thousand more vertical feet out of the route if we kept going down to the bottom of the drainage where there is another Forest Service road.  On a little side-note, if you are going to strap snowshoes on your pack, you want to make sure and secure them.  On one trip, Taylor lost his snowshoes somewhere on the descent and so he had to bootpack it out!  That trip also was my first introduction to AT type gear.  I borrowed a set of Backcountry Alpine Trekkers and skins from my brother in-law.  They seem like dinosaurs compared to what I have now, but they were still miles ahead of snowshoeing or bootpacking.  What happened with the lost snowshoes?  We had rented them from Eco Lounge.  After looking for them with no luck we were going to go back again the next day to try to find them.  We talked to the Eco Lounge guys and they said they would wait a day or two to charge us for them.  Well, thanks to an honest fellow backcountry skier, they were returned the next day!  They had found them before we had got back up out of the drainage and that is why we hadn’t found them on the first pass.

cropped-IMG_0364.jpg

Taylor gettin some good stuff on Mores Mountain

At some point I became enamored with the idea of skiing peaks in the Tetons and I zeroed in on Teewinot.  This led me to Exum Mountain Guides – well the truth is my wife said there was no way I was doing ski mountaineering trips in the Tetons without professional guide services.  My first attempt on Teewinot was with Exum guide, Patrick Ormond.

Sitting on the East Face of Teewinot.

Hanging out on the East Face of Teewinot.

We made the climb on June 18th of 2011.  Remember 2011, that was the year of 700+ inches in the Tetons.  Needless to say, June in the Tetons had snow as good as early April in a normal year.  The summit eluded me that day, but it only increased my resolve to continue to ski big peaks.  It also made me realize that if I wanted to be serious about skiing in the backcountry, I needed to upgrade my equipment.  I attempted the Teewinot climb with traditional alpine boots and skis and this was a huge disadvantage that contributed to my inability to hit the summit.

I now knew that I needed to invest in some AT equipment, but I wanted to get started at minimal cost for a few reasons; I had a tight budget, I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted and I wanted to buy some time to make sure this wasn’t just a mid-life crisis that I was in.  So, after selling some of my racing skis and few other items, I found a set of used Dynafit boots from a guy on Craigslist in Fort Collins CO.  I figured scam artists were more likely to be dealing in cars and laptops so I took a small gamble that paid off and had the boots shipped to me.  I then found a set of G3 Onyx bindings that had some pretty good reviews on Wildsnow.com.  These are a low-cost, Dynafit compatible binding system.  I didn’t think I would need to go all out and get specific AT skis, so my plan was to mount the setup on a pair of Rossignol Scratch BC skis that were 185 in length.  These had been my “all-mountain” skis that I had been using for a few seasons.  Next, I bought a pair of Rossignol S6 skis and mounted a set of Dynastar Early Tram bindings on them.  These are one of the Marker Duke type bindings that you can ski with a regular alpine boot.  These now became my all-mountain ski that had “uphill” capability for side-country treks.

I thought the above setup was working pretty good, until last winter on my attempt to summit Mt. Moran in the Tetons.

Exum guide, Aaron Dahill with me as we head for Mt. Moran, (last trip on the Rossi Scratch skis).

Exum guide, Aaron Dahill with me as we head for Mt. Moran, (last trip on the Rossi Scratch skis).

I had used them successfully on a couple of trips on the Middle Teton, including a trip to the dike col at the top of the glacier and also on a successful summit of Buck Mountain.  The problem was, that these climbs didn’t really exercise the uphill skiing techniques because they were spring/summer approaches that didn’t require skinning.  Mt Moran in February was a different story.  This was mid-winter conditions and required lots of skinning in steep conditions.  The twin tip skis and 185 length did not work well in the steep uphill terrain.  Plus, I didn’t have the proper notch/fasteners on the tails and the skins came off and got snow/ice on them.  This caused undue effort and delays that eventually contributed to us having to turn around before we hit the summit.  I immediately went out and bought a pair of Dynafit Manaslu AT skis and put the G3 bindings on them.  The final step came this fall when my son indicated that he was thinking about doing a bit more backcountry stuff this winter.  That was all I needed to hear!  I made him a great deal and gave him my boots and bindings, and told him he could pay me later, or not at all.  I then bought a new pair of Zzero 4 Dynafit boots and the Dynafit TLT Speed bindings from Backcountry.com.

Another big factor in the transition from skiing in the resort, to the backcountry is finding a set of partners to go with.  This can be tricky, if you don’t already know people who are in the sport.  One way is to try to convince family members to join you, and I have had some success with that.  Both my son and my son-in-law like to go and are skilled enough to ski or ride in the terrain that I like.  But, with work schedules, budgets and family obligations, their availability is limited.  The other route is to convince friends to join you, but I didn’t have much success there.  Most of my friends think I’m slightly insane when it comes to these types of things.  The option that has actually proven successful for me has been the use of a couple of select online forums.  The primary one has been the one hosted by Idahosummits.com.  I followed the conversations on this site for several months and I could tell that there wasn’t a lot of egomaniacs, daredevils and snobs.  The posts and TRs were straight forward and beneficial and the comments were intelligent, honest and lacking in pretense.  Basically, they seemed like some straight shooters.  My first climb involving people that I met through the Idahosummits Forum  was with Thomas Cox and Deb Rose on Lost River Peak.  It was a huge success.  We got along great, there was mutual respect, we tagged the summit and I skied the Super Gully.  I’ve also met and, or skied with several more guys through the Forum.

Deb, Cody and Tom on summit of LRP

The “team” on the summit of Lost River Peak.

The other tricky part is making sure that your objectives, risk assessment, skills and training are compatible.  Basically, if you are in the backcountry and you are not with a professional guide, you are depending on each other for life saving skills.  This is why it is tough to bring someone new into this sport.  Although I am far from considering myself an expert, I now consider myself a contributing asset when on these outings.  I don’t think that would have been the case when you look at where I was on some of those initial forays into areas outside the gates at Bogus Basin.

What areas do I still have to improve in?

High on my list has been formal Avalanche training.  I have read and studied “The Avalanche Handbook”, I have done a lot of research on the internet, I have had some great informal training from the Exum guides, but I needed to begin the formal Level I & II training.  I have just recently completed my Level I AIARE course.  The course was taught by Sawtooth Mountain Guides, (Sara Lundy as lead instructor).  SMG put on a great clinic and the instructors were all top-notch.  The decision making framework is probably the most important learning from the Level 1 course – making sure your decisions are grounded in correct principals, knowledge and critical factors.

Secondly, I need more experience and practice on the ascents.  This includes skinning technique and climbing tactics.  And I can always make improvements in my diet and fitness levels.

Most sports and hobbies take a fair amount of work and dedication to become good, and significant effort to really excel.  As a sporting discipline, backcountry skiing raises this to a whole different level.  I don’t make this statement to try to boast, or turn people away, but this is one of those things that you can’t just do casually.  I can be a casual skier in a resort setting, go up a few times a year, ski mainly groomers and have a great time.  People go out and play in recreational softball leagues, basketball leagues and volleyball matches without really having to put in much training time.  So what is the difference you ask?  It really boils down to the level of the entrance bar.  Because backcountry skiing involves life and death decisions on even the seemingly most benign of outings, it requires a higher skill level to even participate.  With that said, here is a set of recommendations that I have found useful to me as I continue to progress in this discipline.

  • Diet and Exercise – Climbing peaks and going on backcountry ski outings is physically demanding and if you aren’t in good shape, it just isn’t as fun.  Being fit also decreases the risk of serious injury.  The two blown knees that I experienced were primarily due to me being overweight.  That was a hard fact to accept at the time, but it was reality.  Here are my keys to losing weight and staying fit:
    • Calories in / Calories out.  I don’t care how you do it, or what program you are on, it all boils down to making sure you don’t eat more calories than you burn each day.
    • If you are watching your calories, you soon realize that if you don’t want to be hungry all the time, you need to eat the “good stuff”.
    • Just being “active” isn’t enough for this sport.  You need to hit the gym and the trails.  I try to follow a strict exercise regime that incorporates endurance, power and speed.  Some of my favorites are trail running in the 6-10 mile range, 15-20 mile mountain bike rides with lots of climbing, weight lifting and planks for the core, uphill wind sprints and hikes in the foothills with a heavily weighted backpack.
Running the Veteran's Trail in Eagle.

Running the Veteran’s Trail in Eagle.

  • Training – As noted earlier in this article, this discipline requires a lot of practice.  There are two basic components of backcountry skiing and ski-mountaineering; the ascent and the descent.  In order to be truly successful, it is important to train and become an expert in both of these components.
    • Unless you have already attained that elusive and rare place where you would be called an expert in both, assess your strengths and determine which component your are weaker in.
    • If it is the descent, then my recommendation is this.  Spend a lot of time at the local ski area.  Stay off the groomers and don’t just go up on the powder days.  Ski everything; powder, crud, wind crust, ice, slush, sunny days, windy days and blizzards.  If you want to be confident on the descent, you will need to put in time at the resort.  This may seem counter intuitive, but think about it.  Even if you are an absolute stud or superstar on the ascent in the backcountry, you may get at most 7-8K vertical in a day.  In a resort setting, you can easily get 20-30K in a day.  Now, I make that statement assuming that you actually have a real job and have to work most days.  If that isn’t the case, then spend all your time in the backcountry and you will eventually get the skiing skills you require.
    • If it is the ascent that is your weakness, then it is obvious that what is needed is to get the skins on and start climbing.  After getting my butt kicked on Mt. Moran, I realized that I’d been approaching the uphill all wrong.  On all of my “training” runs around Bogus Basin, I would figure out the easiest route up, and then be as efficient as possible on the climbs.  Problem is, there aren’t usually any easy ways to the top of the big peaks.  I changed my strategy and would start at the lowest possible point and climb the most direct route right through trees, brush and boulders.  You don’t improve if you don’t train tough.

      Skinning through the boulders on Mores west face.

      Skinning through the boulders on Mores west face.

    • It is a balancing act for training.  You can’t focus exclusively on one to the detriment of the other.  I do have key strategy that I have deployed to help overcome this conundrum for the average weekend warrior.  Most of your local resorts, if you live in the west now have open gate policies and great “side-country” options.  Here is what I do.  I’ll get up early and get in 15K vertical on the lifts, then I’ll bust out the gates and get another 2-5K vertical in the backcountry.
  • Equipment – In the backcountry, it is all about the weight.  Be forewarned however there is a hefty premium for shaving weight.  One trick that I use no matter what type of ski or outdoor equipment is involved; I almost never buy current season stuff.  I look for deals on last season’s or sometimes a couple of season’s earlier.  You may not get the absolute top-of-the-line, lowest weight, highest performance gear with this strategy, but if you have a budget then it is a smart way to go.  And when getting into the sport, buying used, (carefully) can be a good strategy.  And if you are that worried about weight, then see the Diet & Exercise section and just drop a few pounds.  This won’t cost you a dime, (you’ll probably actually save on food), and it will have the biggest impact on getting your butt up the hill more efficiently.
    • Basics; you have to have an avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe, avalanche shovel and a pack to carry that stuff, plus required food, water, layers and emergency kits.
    • Boots; I learned this one the hard way.  Don’t even start without having an AT boot.  The “walk” mode design is essential to allowing you to move uphill for both skinning and boot packing when needed.  I tried with traditional alpine boots and experienced severe muscle shutdown and cramps every time I tried anything more than simple side-country short hikes.  The leading AT boot manufactures are Dynafit, Scarpa and Black Diamond.  Salomon and La Sportiva also have products, and there may be others.  Your choice of boot model and manufacturer will be driven primarily by your foot’s design, so I’m not recommending any one over the other.  Just be sure that it is compatible with the “Dynafit binding system”.
    • Bindings; Tele is a proven alternative here, but I just don’t have any subject matter expertise.  For traditional alpine style skiers you need to go with an AT binding.  If you are looking for a binding that is designed to perform well inbounds and outside the gates, then bindings such as; Marker Duke and Fritschi Freeride are popular mainstays.  New entries into this market include Salomon and Atomic.  However, if you are looking for a true backcountry setup that is lightweight and designed for long tours and the ascent without sacrificing the descent, then Dynafit is the leader in this market.  The G3 Onyx that I had is a viable lower cost option and I had positive experiences with it.  But having used both now, I would not go back.
    • Skis; I originally thought that traditional alpine skis were fine, but now I’d lean heavier to recommending an AT ski.  Weight is the biggest factor here.  Now there is one caveat that applies to both skis and bindings in this category.  If you are into a TGR or Warren Miller style of attack on the descent with lots of big cliff drops and bomber runs, then you may want a beefier setup.  This advice is fairly widespread on other websites and knowledgeable sources.  The only other recommendation that I have is to avoid twin tips and stick to a more traditional tail.  There are two primary reasons for this; If you are skinning in steep terrain, the uplifted tail can impede your ease of turning and cause you to expend additional energy.  Secondly, at times it may be necessary to set an anchor for a belay of a partner.  Twin tips are awkward and difficult to set a proper anchor.
    • Ski style is a matter of preference.  Today, you can get the same basic cuts and cambers as you see in alpine skis.  My recommendation is the same here as with alpine skis.  Know the type of snow and terrain you will be skiing and determine if you will be buying one or multiple pairs of AT skis.  If it is one pair, like me, then my advice is to go after the “one quiver” ski.  The one that I selected is the Dynafit Manaslu.  It is 122 / 95 / 108 mm with an early rise tip.  The brand and model aren’t as important as the dimensions and design.  I would go with a similar ski because it skis well in all conditions; good float in powder and yet it still allows for setting an edge in firm conditions.  One other little hint that has helped me out significantly is that I dialed back the length for my AT skis by 7 cm from my alpine skis.  I dropped from 185 cm to 178 cm.  The reason; weight and agility.  In the backcountry these two characteristics are a premium.  Speed and bombing aggressively are less important.
  • Partners – This the most critical decision you will make.  The right partners will determine if you have a positive experience or not, and they may determine if you live or die.
    • If you have good friends that are already in the sport or want to get involved with you, then you are in luck.
    • I would steer clear of ego maniacs and risk takers, no matter what their skill level is.  The old saying about pilots applies to ski-mountaineers:  There are old ski-mountaineers and bold ski-mountaineers, BUT there are NO old, bold ski-mountaineers.
    • Look for people with good decision making skills and communication skills.
    • Be a good partner yourself.  Before I even started going outside of existing friends and family, I went with guides and studied up on the whole backcountry discipline.  If you haven’t done so already, begin formal avalanche education and training.  Backcountry skiing should be a team sport, and the team is only as strong as the weakest link.

Useful Links

Many of these links are specific to the Idaho / Wyoming areas.  If you have additional ones that apply outside of this core area that I’m familiar with, just contact me and I’ll add them in.

Idaho Outdoors Forum.  As stated on the website, “This forum is intended for discussions about activities in the Idaho Outdoors.”  I highly recommend this forum if you are doing any backcountry or ski mountaineering in and around Idaho.

Wildsnow.com is an excellent source of beta on backcountry skiing.  They have detailed product reviews and comparisons, combined with a very scientific approach to equipment evaluations.  They also have a significant amount of avalanche content that is informative and educational.

Avalanche.org is the definitive go-to site for current avalanche conditions and daily forecasts.

Summitpost.org is focused on climbing, hiking and mountaineering.  In my opinion, this is one of the premier sites for doing research on mountains around the world.  They have both depth and breadth in the content that is presented.  Tons of photos on any mountain and range that you can think of, trip reports, route descriptions and more.

Exum Mountain Guides has a worldwide reputation.  I have climbed done ski mountaineering trips with a couple of their guides, and current President, Nat Partridge.  Every outing as been a huge learning experience and filled with fun times.

Sawtooth Mountain Guides – My initial experiences have confirmed what I had heard about SMG.  They are professional, love what they do and have a lot of fun.  I took my AIARE Level I training from them and it was a well worth my time.

Payette Powder Guides – I’m not personally familiar with this guiding company, and I think they are more local to the McCall area, but they are skilled, and highly recommended.

Backcountry.com has become my “go-to” online vendor for new backcountry gear.

For used stuff, in this discipline, Craigslist in Salt Lake, Denver, Wyoming, Bozeman, Boise and Seattle usually has a ton of good stuff.

Eco Lounge in Boise is my “go-to” local ski shop.  They are small, but very knowledgeable and have a great backcountry focus.

Teton AT.  I never knew Steve Romeo, but he has been an inspiration to me through his website.  Although Steve was tragically killed in an Avalanche with one of his skiing partners, (Chris Onufer), this site lives on and it has a treasure trove of beta for the Teton and Wind River ranges in Wyoming.

Hi-Adventure Ski Mountaineering Playlist

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