Pursuit of ‘sidecountry’ skiing has gained popularity throughout the U.S.
February 8, 2016
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
The well-worn adage tells us to expect the grass to always be greener on the other side of the fence. For an increasing number of skiers and snowboarders, that often translates into the snow appearing to be better, deeper and untracked on the other side of the ropes, outside the ski area boundaries.
Throughout the course of the past five or so winters, the pursuit of sidecountry or slackcountry skiing has gained popularity throughout the United States. Skiers and snowboarders have the ability to ride the lifts in order to access out of bounds terrain from designated points within ski area boundaries, rather than skinning up and into the backcountry in search of their private powder stash.
With many ski areas now providing access gates to the backcountry in an attempt to accommodate these adventurous skiers and boarders, crossing over to the other side in search of untracked powder has become easier. But has it also potentially created more risk?
"Because the backcountry is becoming increasingly more accessible," said Chris Anthony, longtime Vail resident and professional skier, "we are putting a lot more people into an uncontrolled environment. There needs to be more education and we need to take a preemptive approach".
As manufacturers continue to produce better backcountry skis, boots, bindings and boards, more and more people are taking to the sidecountry. They are searching for an experience that rivals the marketing messages used to sell the gear, along with the numerous publications, websites and user-generated video that extoll the experience of the adventure.
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"Once you've experienced the new lighter gear," explained internationally renowned adventure racer Mike Kloser, "it's so much more enjoyable. So much of the industry is getting behind AT now. More people are doing it because more people are becoming better skiers as a result of the equipment."
But just because you ride a ski lift to the top of the mountain and ski out into the great beyond through an open gate, do you need less backcountry knowledge and awareness than if you skinned up from the bottom of the mountain? After all, you're right next to the ski resort.
While the new equipment and access gates are increasing the accessibility of that field of powder, they are also increasing the chances that unprepared would-be sidecountry skiers and snowboarders may find themselves in over their heads, literally.
Some have suggested that even the use of the term sidecountry should be eliminated as it implies something in between the resort and the backcountry, a place where it is more adventurous than skiing inside the resort, but safer than skiing in the truly uncontrolled backcountry.
There has also been a movement afoot to change the name of the access gates to exit gates to reinforce the idea that you are clearly leaving the safety of the ski resort when you pass through that entry point. But, no matter what you call it, sidecountry is backcountry.
"So much of the backcountry access has been there for many years," Kloser said. "It's always going to be a risk. As long as it's there, whether there are gates or not, people are going to venture out there."
If this is the case, then why are resorts opening their boundaries? These out of bounds areas are lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service and available for public use. The Colorado Ski Safety Act, initiated in 1979, clearly defines the responsibilities of both the skier and the resort. The ski area is only responsible for avalanche control inside the resort boundaries. Once you pass through that boundary, you are on your own.
"It's really strange, but people think that if they can access something, someone has already made it safe for them," Anthony added. "They end up with this false sense of security that they don't need to know anything about the backcountry or avalanches because there's an access point off the ski area."
Rescue in the backcountry can be costly and may take several hours, but in some cases, it might not be available at all. Sidecountry skiers and snowboarders need to have a solid understanding of avalanche safety, along with the proper gear, including a beacon, probe, shovel and a partner, as well as knowledge of the area.
"The good thing is that the gates are clearly marked with good signage that outlines the risk of going through them," Kloser added. "The more society continues to push itself, you have to hope that people heed the warnings and learn from others that have been out there and are more experienced."
At the end of the day, safety and enjoyment in the sidecountry ultimately revolves around having the common sense to know what you don't know. By taking the appropriate steps to educate yourself and your friends on backcountry and avalanche safety, you are better ensuring a safer experience for everyone.