Our writer tried backcountry skiing for the first time: here's what you need to know | VailDaily.com

Our writer tried backcountry skiing for the first time: here’s what you need to know

By Katie Coakley
Special to the Daily
Strapping skins and special bindings to skis makes skinning uphill enjoyable.
Special to the Daily

It was a gorgeous day for an adventure: the sky was blue and cloudless, there was new snow and I was finally trying out something that had been on my list for a while — backcountry skiing. The lure of earning my turns and avoiding the crowds at the resort was strong, but I didn’t want to go out unprepared. Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby offered the perfect solution: a one-day Intro to Backcountry class.

Backcountry skiing is booming. From uphill enthusiasts hiking before the lifts start turning to skiers and snowboarders taking to the high-mountain passes, more and more outdoor enthusiasts are embracing and exploring areas where you can ski all morning and not see another person. And while A/T skiers and splitboarders still compose only a fraction of the snow sports world in comparison to alpine skiing and snowboarding, according to Snowsports Industries America’s participation report, what was once a niche sport is rapidly gaining in popularity.

However, getting into the backcountry takes more than just a new gear setup. Recreating in the backcountry requires safety gear and the ability to use it correctly, as well as knowledge about snowpack, terrain and more.

“Snow Mountain Ranch started the backcountry program to give skiers another way to get outside,” said Bill Pierce, Nordic Center director at Snow Mountain Ranch. “AT skiing is another option in free-heeled skiing and Snow Mountain Ranch has ideal terrain for backcountry instruction.”

With 2,786 acres of backcountry terrain on the property, Snow Mountain Ranch has plenty of room to explore. The Intro to Backcountry A/T Skiing course is offered six times a year ­– the last class is on March 22 – and includes classroom instruction, rental equipment (skis, boots, poles and skins), safety equipment (including a beacon, shovel and probe) and lunch.

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The morning was spent at Snow Mountain Ranch’s Nordic Center. Elliott Leslie, an avid backcountry skier who spends much of his time on Berthoud Pass, took our group of seven through the basic principles of backcountry.

The element that he stressed the most? Never let your guard down. Backcountry skiing is vastly different than skiing at a resort because the conditions aren’t monitored for you—there’s no avalanche mitigation out there. As a result, the only person responsible for your safety is you.

Safety is always the most important thing when heading into the backcountry – no one else is around mitigating conditions for you.
Special to the Daily

Though this class is just an overview, Leslie did include information on things like how to make good terrain choices, what makes an area of terrain prone to experiencing avalanches, the gear you should have (beacon, shovel and probe are the bare minimum) and basic avalanche safety. He also stressed that having just one person with backcountry training in a group is not enough: Everyone should be comfortable with the safety equipment and the entire group should agree on where you decide to ski.

After lunch, it was time to put our newfound knowledge to the test. We headed to Nine Mile Mountain, which is on Snow Mountain Ranch’s property. We attached the skins to the skis, tested our beacon batteries and double-checked our packs. Then we started up the mountain. With the skins and special AT bindings, going uphill is fun. The skins keep you from sliding backwards and the bindings allow you to keep your heel free for better maneuverability. We quickly shed layers (another important part of backcountry includes dressing properly) and soon we were treated with great views, wide-open spaces and no other humans.

Leslie simulated a beach search and rescue. Yes, the beacons work, but it’s not as easy as just following a beep. Instead, there’s some hunting and poking with the probe and finding the beacon is more challenging than it may appear. Clearly, practice is essential. You can set up your own practice area with friends or keep an eye out for “beacon basin” opportunities where the organizers hide the beacons and allow you to practice your skills.

After the uphill, it was time to enjoy the snow. We found an open area with a safe pitch, removed our skins and switched the bindings to downhill. The snow was almost knee-deep and the thrill of making untracked turns at 2 p.m. with only a few other people was unbeatable. I understand how you can get hooked.

The feeling of pushing untracked lines at 2 p.m. with only a few others around you, Katie Coakley muses, is surely enough to get you hooked on backcountry skiing.
Special to the Daily

Opportunities for safely exploring the backcountry are expanding. For example: Bluebird Backcountry at Peak Ranch is a new venture that provides the comforts of a traditional ski area like gear rentals, ski patrol and a warming hut but doesn’t have any chairlifts. Instead, skiers ascend using marked, uphill skin tracks before descending. Educators and guides are on hand so skiers can learn about their backcountry equipment, avalanche safety and more.

Bluebird is operating on a limited season this year with a reservation system, but it’s another opportunity to learn about the backcountry in a safe environment. Other education options include Paragon Guides, which offers avalanche courses, and Apex Mountain School, which offers backcountry ski trips.

Testing my backcountry skills in a safe, guided environment was definitely the way to go. I realize that I need more education before I head out on my own, but let’s put it this way: There’s a splitboard I have my eye on.

If you go …

What: Snow Mountain Ranch Intro to Backcountry A/T Skiing

When: Sunday, March 22, 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Where: YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch, 1101 County Road 53, Granby

Cost: $149 per person

More information: This course is for ages 13 and older; participants should be comfortable skiing intermediate groomed runs. Visit snowmountainranch.org for more information.

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