Back to basics
Ski for the rest of your life for less than the cost of a lift pass
Ski season has just started. A couple of beginner runs are open at the local resort, and the hill is packed with everyone, including that guy zipping down the hill with a flapping windbreaker and flailing poles. It snowed the day before, but the powder is already hard, thin and skier-packed. Those who have decided to switch to backcountry will avoid the crowds and bad snow, save some green—both money and trees—and get in shape.
Backcountry skiing, also called Alpine Touring (AT) or Randonee, has been growing dramatically as a winter sport. The idea is simple: Climb up through a pristine, powder-covered wonderland, and then ski down. Terrain can range from a gentle meandering slope through the forest to a high-speed line down a 45-degree chute. The choice of terrain opens the sport to all skill levels.
Backcountry skiing started as a necessity for winter travel into hard-to-access areas but has evolved into a major sport, with people like Seth Morrison and Ingrid Backstrom pushing the limits by skiing huge mountains and doing drop-offs while incorporating tricks into it all. Although the pros often use helicopters to reach remote peaks, many still earn their turns by climbing. Discovered at Squaw Valley, Backstrom, who some call the best female big mountain skier in the world, said at Reno’s recent Warren Miller film debut that she loves the backcountry in the Reno/Tahoe area, and nearby Mount Tallac is one of her favorite places to go.
Backcountry guru Pat Mathews, 58, has been skiing off-piste since the 1970s, when he was in college. He said he started skiing on wooden skis with flimsy wire bindings.
“The new boots and bindings are so much better than the gear we used to go out on,” Mathews said. “I think the wider skis and better materials have made powder skiing more accessible to everyone. People are becoming really competent in powder, and when Mount Rose gets skied out in two hours, people find that if they go out to backcountry, they can always find fresh lines.”
It’s also better for the environment. Ski resorts have greened up this year, according to their environmental report cards put out by the Ski Area Citizens Coalition, but they still have a huge impact on the environment with their large facilities and lift operations. The basic idea of a ski run at a resort means cutting a large swath in a forest.
Since no lifts are involved and the chili-cheese dog and beer at the lodge are out of the question, AT skiing is much healthier. Many backcountry users also bring along their dogs for some exercise, something they can’t do at resorts.
Getting into the sport is not cheap, but after the initial gear investment of about $350—less than the cost of a season pass—it’s free for life.
To get started, two basic pieces of gear are needed. Regular skis won’t slide uphill, so a grabby, fur-like material called a skin is attached to the bottom of each ski for traction. Average skins cost about $150. They stick on with a re-useable glue compound and are removed and stored when skiing down.
Also, the heel needs to be free so that movement comes from an efficient glide rather than an uncomfortable waddle.
There are two methods to achieve this: A special binding or an adaptor for a normal downhill binding. An AT binding has a setting for freeing the heel and then locks in place for going downhill. An adaptor attaches to any binding and allows the heel to move freely. Adaptors need to be removed and stored before going downhill but they are the less expensive option. At $150, the BCA Alpine Trekker is the standard. Telemark skiers have long been in the backcountry because their gear is naturally set up with a free heel.
The sport is not limited to skiers, either. Snowboarders have been packing their boards up peaks for years using snowshoes, but a gear innovation called a split board now allows riders to separate the board into a pair of skis for a quick glide up the hill and then attach them, creating a snowboard for the ride down.
The backcountry is riskier than a resort because the conditions are less controlled, so some safety precautions should always be taken. Avalanche forecaster Brandon Schwartz, who posts conditions for the Sierra Avalanche Center’s online advisory, said that good training, judgment and experience are needed for safe backcountry travel.
“Understand that avalanches occur in deep snow packs during storm cycles and in shallow snow pack and days to weeks after storm events,” Schwartz said in an e-mail exchange. “Understand that about the only thing that snow on either side of the ski area boundary has in common is its color. Understand that getting caught in an avalanche is a result of one’s own travel decisions.”
Although it is risky, Stan Mroczkowski of Reno Mountain Sports said that compared to Utah or Colorado, the snow pack in the Sierra is much safer, allowing skiers and boarders to ride powder safely even after storms if precautions are taken and safety equipment is used.
“If you do it right and go with a buddy and have transmitters, probes, shovels, then it should be relatively safe,” Mroczkowski said.
Many good backcountry areas aren’t labeled on official maps and go by local names, so get out there and talk to other skiers and boarders to learn about good destinations.
If you make the switch, ski some powder, skip the crowds and get fit, all with a clear environmental conscience, by next year you might decide to spend that unused season-pass money on a guided backcountry adventure.