Back to the backcountry: Uphill information event prepares skiers for season
Cripple Creek Backcountry kickoff outlines important mountaineering information and events for all levels of uphill skiers
Considering the energy at the Cripple Creek Backcountry store in Avon on Wednesday night for its Vail Valley Uphill Info Session and Happy Hour, it appears the uphill craze that boomed during the pandemic is continuing to blossom.
Intrigued novices and wily veterans, spandex-wearing athletes and beer-holding group-skinners all learned something valuable at the 2021-2022 kickoff.
Mountain sports forest ranger Carl Orlowski spoke first on the relationship between the National Forest Service and area resorts in regards to backcountry skiing.
“Here in Colorado, a large percentage of ski areas are on National Forest and public lands,” Orlowski explained. While Vail’s base area is on private land, Orlowski noted that one gets into national forest relatively quickly. Most of Beaver Creek, however, is on private land.
“Be respectful of mountain operations; in those areas, you are traveling through private land, and that is something to consider,” he advised.
Orlowski aids resorts in complying with their permits while maintaining a positive relationship with the growing uphill community.
“It’s about keeping people safe and getting them up the mountain,” he said.
Director of Mountain Operations at Beaver Creek Dan Ramker echoed the community sentiment.
“We want everyone to have a good time and maintain a good relationship with the uphill community,” Ramker said.
The moral of the story: Be respectful and kind, and if you see mountain operations at work, choose a different route.
“The ski areas are doing a lot to allow this, and I think they do put a lot of work and time and thought into how it’s managed, but it’s a big operation that they’re trying to control,” Orlowski said. His other piece of advice for all skiers was to “be proactive and call the hotline.”
The trail hotline numbers for both Beaver Creek and Vail inform uphill skiers of usable trails, how to prevent potentially hazardous encounters with winch cats, snowmobiles and snowmaking equipment and other mountain operation traffic. For Beaver Creek, the number is 970-754-5907, and for Vail it is 970-754-1023.
Both resorts permit uphill travel from 30 minutes after the lifts close until 30 minutes before the first chair. At Beaver Creek, designated routes are for ascending and descending traffic. At Vail, skiers must utilize designated uphill routes but are free to access the backcountry via gates strategically placed along the 27-mile-long area boundary closure. “If you do that, though, you’re on your own,” warned Vail ski patrol’s Billy Madison. “As a ski patrol, we’re responsible for the people inside the ski boundary area.”
Madison said his crews’ hands are already full as it is. He estimates addressing around 20-30 wrecks per day, even with the reduced usable acreage to start 2021-2022.
“We are slammed this year. I’ve never seen such a busy start to Vail Mountain,” he said.
The Benchmark gate grants backcountry access to East Vail, while gates near Ptarmigan and Lost Boy allow skiers to go all the way to Minturn. Madison cautioned skiers against making East Vail their first backcountry adventure.
“Probably the deadliest side country in the state of Colorado, if not the country,” he said about the area.
One other backcountry gate is by Blue Sky Basin, where Madison often sees people lapping runs. Skiers can re-enter Vail Resort after an off-piste trip, too.
“Nobody is going to follow you around and make sure you don’t come back in. That’s like an urban myth,” he said to a chuckling crowd.
While low snow totals have prevented both resorts from granting uphill fanatics carte blanche, there is still acreage to be enjoyed. With limited terrain open on the main mountain, Beaver Creek has been pushing traffic to Arrowhead.
“As soon as more terrain opens, we’d like to get you a route on the main mountain,” Ramker promised.
The story is similar for Vail users who normally rely on Riva Ridge and Simba as their uphill routes.
“I think the snowmakers only have a couple days left on Riva,” Madison told the eager group. “Once they pull things out, you’ll be able to use that.”
Currently, Simba is the only available uphill route, he said.
All of the rules and regulations — including no dogs at either place — are meant to ensure safety and enjoyment.
“We don’t want it to get shut down,” Madison said about uphill usage. “We want to encourage it.”
For those with furry friends, the backcountry provides a bit more freedom, and Kelli Rohrig, a local who works for Paragon Guides, was on hand to talk about how emerging technology can help skiers avoid avalanches when venturing out. Having returned from a morning inspection of the Vail Pass area, Rohrig had an update on how she felt the backcountry snow was setting up.
“Every year the backcountry is a little bit like a novel. This year is a little bit like ‘The Hunger Games,’” she said, garnering the first of many laughs to her lively presentation.
Despite her energy, there was an element of gravity to her weather report.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better,” she said.
“When we have erratic temperatures —cold, hot, wind, sun — we’ve had about everything in the last two months, that builds a really weak or complex snowpack,” she explained. “The more complex the snowpack, the more dangerous it is. Right now, we’re trending towards an even more dangerous snowpack.”
The good news is that despite the conditions, all it takes to enjoy a worry-free trip in search of fresh powder is planning and the help of apps like Gaia and Caltopo. By using the “slope-angle shading” feature, Rohrig explained how skiers can plan routes that avoid any terrain with a steepness less than 30-degrees.
“I promise you, you can spend two, four, six hours —14 days — in the backcountry and never be in avalanche terrain, merely by making a really good plan,” she said.
“So, don’t be afraid of the backcountry just because you hear all these stories and you’re hearing about this bad snowpack,” she reassured.
“There are ways around it. Education is one way around it.”
Colorado Mountain College and Apex Mountain School offer classes throughout the winter, as does Paragon. This year, Rohrig said Paragon is planning a series of rescue classes.
“Education is not about telling you ‘don’t go.’” she stated. “It’s about telling you how to go and have fun. We’re not going to scare you, we’re just going to show you the right ways to do things.”
Cripple Creek Backcountry, the hosts of the evening, are another source of education and growth in the sport. Their bi-weekly group skins start next week; people are welcome to come to the store at 5 p.m. for a beer and then head out for a ski, usually at Arrowhead, around 6 p.m. Nathan Boyer-Rechlin, Cripple Creek’s events coordinator shared the vision behind Ski Touring 101, the four-part series of events aimed at targeting all aspects of uphill skiing.
“The goal is that if you know nothing right now, you can go to these four, and you’ll have the awareness to get started in all aspects of the sport,” Boyer-Rechlin said.
“Or, if you’ve been skinning the resort for years and want to tackle a 14er, or dabble in the backcountry, or do a race, you can make that step here.”
Resort Skinning 101 is next Wednesday at the Avon shop at 5 p.m.
“If you just bought your first setup or have a friend who hasn’t quite made the dive, this is for you,” Boyer-Rechlin said. “We’ll go over all the things that it takes to start going uphill.”
Skimo racing 101 is in January and isn’t just for the ultra-competitive, spandex-wearing type. “Skimo racing can be fun for all. Just getting together with the community, having a fun time,” Boyer-Rechlin said.
“You don’t have to be racing for the podium, and we want to make it accessible for everybody.”
Skimo racing makes its Olympic debut at the 2026 Games. Subsequent events are Backcountry 101 in February and Ski mountaineering 101 in March. For more information on the events and group skins, check out Cripple Creek’s Facebook page or website, CrippleCreekBC.com.