Joining the AT revolution
March 13, 2014
Buck Elliott has been guiding visitors and locals alike around the 10th Mountain Huts system that he helped build more than 30 years ago. The owner of Paragon Guides in Edwards is no stranger to getting people out into the local backcountry — what's new is the number of calls he's getting about alpine touring, especially from people who are new to the discipline.
He attributes the interest in backcountry touring to improved equipment that is allowing people to go beyond the confines of the ski resort, and that lure of backcountry adventure is hard to pass up.
"With the advancement of AT gear, people who ski the 5,000 beautiful acres of lift access are now also interested in going off-piste," Elliott said. "We show them access to 2 million acres. There's a lot of country out there to ski in and enjoy. People want a little something more."
The backcountry boom
Paragon guides a number of trips, including summer rock climbing classes and snowshoe tours. However, the cornerstone of its services has been taking participants on multi-day hut trips. Experienced guides lead the trips, but participants are expected to be capable skiers and pitch in on hut duties such as carrying gear, chopping wood and cleaning up after meals.
For years, Paragon's trips were limited to telemark skiers — the free heel aspect allowed people to traverse up as well as down during the hours-long hikes on rolling terrain. About five years ago, improved alpine touring equipment — including lightweight bindings that allow the skier to free the heel as well as lock it completely in — hit the American market. Lighter, more efficient skins allow you to travel uphill with ease, and lighter, shaped skis allow skiers to handle much more difficult terrain.
And skiers have taken notice — according to Elliott, on a national level last year, telemark sales were on a slight decline, alpine sales were flat and alpine touring saw a 43 percent increase.
For guide companies such as Paragon, the sudden interest has created business opportunities. In addition to leading more people on trips, Paragon has also specialized as an alpine-touring retailer. They exclusively sell equipment from Dynafit, a company known for its innovative AT binding design.
In Eagle, the only other store that currently rents or sells AT gear is Alpine Quest Sports, with locations in Edwards and Vail.
"The telemark world has kind of become overshadowed by the AT world with the advancement in gear," Elliott said. "We saw this coming quite a few years ago with more and more people asking us about it. We eventually moved to the point where we sell the gear and are a full-fledged Dynafit test center."
As Elliott points out, alpine touring has been around for years, especially in Europe. Early models of AT bindings were difficult to use and heavy, looking a little more like a squirrel trap than a ski binding. Later models were lighter, but came with their own share of engineering problems. It wasn't until the past decade that Dynafit introduced their low profile, ultra-light, easy-to-use design.
Plus, skis, boots and skins have evolved as well, said Paragon guide Donny Shefchik.
"The lightweight skis, bindings and boots available today are radically different compared to 10 years ago or so," he said. "Back then, a lot of bindings looked kind of like a downhill binding that could convert, but were very clunky. Skins now glide better and are lighter weight. Before it felt like you were skiing on sandpaper. And all that makes backcountry travel more efficient."
The added bonus is that to use AT gear, you only need to know how to ski. In the past, telemarking was the preferred form of travel in the backcountry, but that required knowing how to free-heel ski. Of Paragon's hut trip participants, most are out of town visitors, and some of them have never been on such a trip before.
The equipment evolution has gotten far more enthusiasts out into the backcountry, which of course comes with its own set of risks. Shefchik emphasizes that you need the right skills, and that Paragon works to educate backcountry users. They offer a one-day tour for $99 per person for a guided group outing to local touring routes. The idea is to get out there safely and learn in-the-field skills.
"The AT world has given us a foothold in the alpine market," Elliott said. "In the last three to four years, we've found this niche coming into its own. We've found it really does have its place in the backcountry."
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.