GETTING INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY: PART 1 – WHERE TO BEGIN
So here we are. For most of us in the U.S., the 2021 winter season is begrudgingly and slowly arriving in the mountains and after the 2020 season was abruptly cut short, most of us can’t wait to get on the hill. One result of Covid has been uncertainty on so many levels and the ski industry has not been immune. Last spring, after resorts were forced to close, we witnessed a mass exodus to the backcountry, many resort skiers elected to get some gear, maybe a little a training and venture beyond the ropes. All indications are that this trend will only continue into 2021, as people navigate reservation systems and skier caps at resorts, backcountry gear sales have exploded, as has enrollment in avalanche courses of all types. In this three part article, we will look at the following:
- PART 1 – Where to begin, how do you safely make the switch from the resort or take up the sport all together for the first time?
- PART 2 – When, how and why to use a guide service
- PART 3 – What’s in my pack? What to carry and what not to carry to maximize a day in the mountains.
PART 1 – WHERE TO BEGIN–
To the casual observer, most backcountry skiing appears like a whole bunch of effort for not so much reward, and if it’s simply an equation of time/effort involved in the up vs the reward of the down they may be correct. It may take me an hour or more to skin to the top of a ski lift that takes someone else only a few minutes, but the freedom of being out there, away from the crowds and the noise can be exhilarating, in addition to the satisfaction of achievement and quality time in the mountains with people you care about.
While much of the gear and skillset learned in-bounds is useful in the backcountry, it adds a few new elements to the equation that should be seriously considered before you venture out.
GET THE GEAR –
While many people focus on the specific avalanche safety gear (we’ll cover that in a minute) there are some other things that will make a difference between misery and elation. Lets go through the big ones:
Skis– Nearly all resort skis will do fine in the backcountry, the big difference is weight and binding systems. Every ounce you carry can equal pounds at the end of the day and weight matters. The flip side is that a lot of lighter backcountry skis won’t perform up to your expectations in-bounds when conditions firm up. You can absolutely find a happy medium in a one ski quiver, just know you generally sacrifice a little performance on each end of the spectrum. Not sure how to buy? Wagner will handle the details. We can set you up with the perfect backcountry setup.
Bindings – Directly linked to skis above is binding systems, they also run the gamut from superlight tech bindings to rail system bindings with DINs to 16 and beyond. You have to ask yourself the same questions as with skis – what is the goal, and are you looking for a single system to enjoy in resort and in the backcountry, or a separate system for each? I am a huge fan of tech bindings. They are light, allow for the most natural gait, and are mostly pretty low maintenance. The flip side is they require a little learning curve, the nuance of stepping into tech toes and managing the various heel pieces out there takes a day or two to get comfortable with.
Poles – Yep, your regular resort poles are just fine, but if you’re ready to take it up a notch, look for carbon fiber adjustable poles. The ability to adjust pole length as the uphill terrain changes from mellow to steep and back again, can be a massive boost to efficiency. If you’re on a budget, this is an easy place to stick with what you got.
Boots – Walk mode is critical. A number of resort boots now feature walk modes, but boots made for resort skiing tend to be taller and stiffer and can be pretty uncomfortable to where for a big day in the hills. If you’ve chosen tech bindings, they will require boots with tech inserts, many resort boots offer these as an option now as well. If you’re going for a purely AT (alpine touring) boot, you’re head can explode studying options. A few things to keep in mind, lightweight is great for the uphill, but this is a spot where you generally sacrifice comfort, warmth and downhill performance to save a few ounces. I’m not a Skimo racer and have no desire to be. I’m out there to enjoy the downhill as much as the uphill, so I go with a slightly beefier boot that will perform under some duress and still do pretty good inbounds too.
Clothing – I will get into this more in-depth in Part 3, stay tuned.
Pack – For a day in the mountains, I generally use a pack with a capacity of 30-45 liters, there are so many great packs out there, with such a variety of features, you need to look for the ones that meet your preferences and needs. Other than a good fit, I look for a few key features:
- An external pocket that keeps all of my avalanche safety gear in one place.
- Side or back access, nothing worse than needing to take everything out of your pack to get the one thing you need at the bottom.
- A snug fit, a pack that when fully loaded moves with me, not independent of me. Skiing with a pack changes your center of gravity and if it’s bouncing all over the place, can lead to increased injury risk.
Avalanche Safety Gear – If you’re on a budget, this is not the place to skimp. Invest in quality gear and take care of it, it will be dependable for many years to come, and literally could be the difference maker in a life or death situation. Let’s start with the mandatory three, Transceiver, Shovel and Probe. No one should venture into the backcountry without these three pieces of gear and the knowledge to properly use them.
Transceiver – There are a number of quality manufacturers out there. Don’t buy used here, you never know where it’s been or how it’s been treated. You should only consider buying a three antennae, digital transceiver. Beyond that, there are a variety of bells, whistles and features out there and each has a pro and con. Just be aware, sometimes the more features your beacon has, the more complex its operation can be, leading to confusion and frustration.
Shovel – This one is a pet peeve. Too often, I see people carrying the smallest, lightest, flimsiest shovel available, mostly to save a little weight and space. This may be the second most crucial tool in your quiver. Bigger shovel blades move more snow, longer handles provide better leverage, the two things combined maximize your shoveling efficiency. Look for a shovel with a nice 30cm(12 in) blade and extendable handle at a minimum, a bonus can be a hoe mode and snow saw hidden in the shovel. In the event that the stinky stuff hits the spinning thing, you will be grateful for the sacrifice.
Probe – Possibly one of the more overlooked/neglected pieces of gear. At the end of the day, probe twice, shovel once. Probing is easy, shoveling is HARD. You don’t want to waste effort or time, shoveling in the wrong spot. I like probes between 240 and 270 cm, aluminum or carbon fiber is a personal choice, the weight difference is generally negligible.
OPTIONAL GEAR –
Air bag pack – The only piece of gear designed to help prevent burial in event of an avalanche. The early statistics are favorable, but the sample size is relatively small. They are heavy, generally not as spacious and may increase consequences if caught in a slide in consequential terrain. The upside is, you aren’t fully buried, increasing chances of survival.
Avalung - A device included in, or strapped to your pack. It allows you to breathe while buried, if you can get the mouthpiece in. It works, but I prefer avoidance.
GET THE TRAINING –
This is two-fold, primarily this refers to avalanche training. But should also include basic first-aid/CPR, mountain travel skills and even winter camping. In part two, we will discuss specifics about choosing an avalanche education provider, as well as guides to assist in the travel/camping portions. At a MINIMUM, you should seek out a Level 1 Avalanche Course from an American Avalanche Association endorsed provider.
GET THE FORECAST –
Your local avalanche forecast is the place to start your day. It will get you up to speed on current conditions and specific threats, weather forecast and other valuable information to help maximize your days enjoyment and minimize exposure to hazards and help prevent mishaps. Taking a quality level 1 course should provide a solid foundation in how to read, interpret and apply the forecast information.
This is a starting point. The backcountry is a complex and challenging learning environment that is constantly changing and evolving. By starting with the right gear, a little knowledge and direction, you can learn to enjoy the mountains safely.
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Article by Jake Hutchinson
This article was written for the Wagner Journal by Jake Hutchinson. Jake has spent more than 25 years working as an avalanche professional. He is currently a lead instructor for the American Avalanche Institute, an avalanche dog handler and trainer and an avalanche safety consultant to the resort and rescue communities. Off the snow, Hutchinson is a Certified Instructor and former Head of Instructor and Seminar Development for Gym Jones in Salt Lake City. He is currently involved in private personal training with an emphasis on high level functional fitness for mountain and military athletes.