By Brian Mohr
Every snow season, we encounter more and more skiers and riders who want to take to the“backcountry” – that world beyond the boundaries of ski areas where untracked snow, solitude and unfamiliar terrain await the adventurous spirit. Appetites for fresh powder can be so serious that the aspiring backcountry-bound can sometimes be found painstakingly post-holing their way up a mountain, with heavy alpine skis and boots strapped to their backs and snow up to their bellies, or, even worse, lost in the woods without the proper equipment and know how to find a safe way out.
Of course, everyone needs to pay their dues, yet perhaps the following will help ease the learning curve for those with a growing appetite for powder snow.
An AT (alpine touring) or telemark set-up with free-heel capability is the only practical way of earning your ski turns in the backcountry. Telemark skis and bindings allow your heels to be free at all times – making it easy to move up, down or across the mountain when you are out exploring. And if your relative inexperience with the telemark turn is keeping you from venturing into the backcountry, don’t be afraid to use the good old, reliable parallel turn. In fact, most experienced backcountry skiers using telemark gear regularly put both the telemark and parallel turn to good use. AT (alpine touring) skis have “climbing” and “downhill” modes. With AT, you free your heel for the climb, and then lock your heel for the downhill.
Snowboarders venture into the backcountry using snowshoes or the latest in “split-board” technology. Split-boards are actually snowboards that split into two short “skis” – the snowboard bindings can be switched into “climbing” mode, and with a pair of climbing skins, you’ll be on your way.
There is no reason for your feet to suffer, and having comfortable, well-supported feet is one of the keys to having a great time in the mountains. Mid-weight boots (in the telemark category for example) like the Garmont Synergy or Kenai, the Black Diamond Seeker or the Scarpa T2 are excellent choices for a good mix of on-piste and backcountry glisse adventures. Go with anything less supportive than these mid-weight boots, and you may find skiing downhill to be more challenging than it needs to be. Heavier weight boots are the choice for skiers who like to ski hard and fast, or simply prefer more support, and don’t mind lugging the extra weight around in the backcountry.
Climbing skins – don’t climb high without them. The more coverage your “skins” provide over your ski base, the less you’ll slip and wear out your shoulders on the way up. Heel lifts help improve heel pressure and traction on the steeper sections of your climb. Keep your skins clean and dry, store them in clean bag, re-glue them as needed, and they may just last forever – or until you buy substantially wider skis. (To make skinny skins work better on wider skis…cut the skins, lengthwise, down the middle, and stick the two long halves of your skins toward the edges of the skis). Adjustable ski poles are also nice to have. Lengthen them for the climb – shorten them for the downhill.
Although we are human and accidents do happen, everyone has a responsibility to make sure they enter and leave the backcountry safely. The last thing you want to be is story below tomorrow’s headline in the New York Times – rescues are costly, don’t always work and require significant people power. There is no substitute for experience, good decision making and preparedness, yet, consider the following checklist before your next backcountry adventure:
Safety Check –Do you have…?
-A friend or relative who knows where you are headed
-First Aid Kit w/ hand and foot warmers
-Extra food and water
-Headlamp/flashlight w/ good batteries
-Map, compass and good knowledge of where you are going
-Extra goggles/eye protection
As far as clothing goes, dress for the coldest weather you might encounter, dress in layers – so you can easily add or shed layers to keep from sweating or shivering – and keep your extra clothes dry with plastic bags.
A good repair kit is another backcountry essential. I am always tweaking and improving my own as the years go by, and am always eager to see what others have figured out. Here’s what thirteen years of backcountry skiing has got me carrying:
Backcountry Repair Kit:
-Small roll of duct tape – of course!
-extra binding cable/parts/screws and necessary tools
-good multi-tool with pliers
-extra binding (for multi-day trips)
-extra ski pole (for multi-day trips)
-extra ski tip
-several long rubber ski straps (if your binding rips off your skis, you can strap your boot to your ski with these and get yourself home)
-heavyweight zip-ties (boot repair, etc..)
-small spool of steel wire (general repair)
-boot buckle replacement/parts (for multi-day trips)
-extra ski pole baskets
When in the backcountry, always try to travel with at least two others – one to go for help if someone gets hurt, and one to stay and help the injured. As an old sign up on Mt. Killington reads, “The mountains will be just as cold and lonely as they were 200 years ago, do not ski alone.” Besides, it’s usually much more fun with your friends along anyhow.