Backcountry skiing takes the sport back to its basics

For less than the cost of a ski pass, you can backcountry ski for the rest of your life

Backcountry skiing offers low-budget exercise, relative seclusion, and views worth reaching for.

Backcountry skiing offers low-budget exercise, relative seclusion, and views worth reaching for.

Photo by michael seibert

Backcountry favorites
• Tamarack Peak, near Mount Rose ski resort
• Mt. Tallac, near Spring Creek at Lake Tahoe
• Donner Peak
• Carson Pass
• Mt. Judah near Sugar Bowl ski resort.
• Anyplace along the Highway 395 corridor heading toward Bridgeport

Imagine that ski season has just started. (This shouldn’t be hard, considering it has). 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 she loves the backcountry in the Reno/Tahoe area, and nearby Mt. Tallac is one of her favorite places to go.

Local backcountry guru Pat Mathews, 58, has been skiing off-piste since the ’70s, when he was in college. He started skiing on wood-en 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 Mt. Rose gets skied out in two hours, people find that if they go out to backcountry, they can always find fresh lines.”

Because of these powder hounds, Reno has gained a niche market for the specialty gear. Several local shops carry a full selection of AT products and have been expanding to meet with increasing demand.

“We used to have a small [backcountry] section tucked in the corner, but now we have moved everything up front,” said Stan Mroczkowski of Reno Mountain Sports.

Backcountry skiing is also better for the environment. Local ski resorts have greened up this year, according to their environmental report cards put out by the Ski Area Citizen’s 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.

With no lifts to help, AT skiing is healthier. Many backcountry users also bring along their dogs for some exercise, something they couldn’t do at most resorts.

Getting started
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 adapter for a normal downhill binding. An AT binding has a setting for freeing the heel and then locks in place for going downhill. An adapter attaches to any binding and allows the heel to move freely. Adapters need to be removed and stored before going downhill. Adapters are the less expensive option. At $150, the BCA Alpine Trekker is the standard.

The sport is not limited to skiers. 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. Telemark skiers have long been in the backcountry because their gear is naturally set up with a free heel.

Know the risks
Going into the backcountry is riskier than a resort because the conditions are less controlled. Avalanche forecaster Brandon Schwartz, who posts avalanche 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 email 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.”

“If you do it right and go with a buddy and have transmitters, probes, shovels, then it should be relatively safe,” Mroczkowski said.

Nevada has more than 400 mountain ranges waiting to be explored. Many good backcountry areas aren’t labeled on official maps and go by local names, so talk to other skiers and boarders to learn about destinations.

If you make the switch, ski some powder, skip the crowds and get fit, all with a clear environmental conscience.