Backcountry Skiing 101
We've all seen those fresh tracks laid down in the backcountry on powder days and wish that that could be us. Yes, the scenery is beautiful. Yes, there are no lift lines or waiting. Yes, chances are you'll have the mountain all to yourself.
But backcountry skiing is so much more than just cruising down a mountain. There are safety hazards, extra equipment, avalanches, long hikes and unpredictable wilderness that await on any backcountry trip.
Telluride.com: What exactly constitutes as backcountry skiing?
Mountain Trip: In short, backcountry skiing is any skiing that is done in uncontrolled terrain outside of resort boundaries. Backcountry skiing typically involves walking uphill with the use of specific gear intended for uphill travel, and then "changing over" into ski-mode before skiing back downhill. However, terrain accessed via the resort while wearing your downhill gear is often referred to as "sidecountry" or "slackcountry" and has similar hazards.
Telluride.com: Why do people choose to do it instead of going to the Telluride Ski Resort?
Mountain Trip: There’s a range of reasons, and each backcountry skier might tell you something different about their motivation. Many simply seek the solitude of being out in the wilderness, with the added bonus of untracked snow days and even weeks after a storm. There's a vast amount of freedom of what you ski once you venture into the backcountry: Some skiers are motivated by being able to aspire to ski certain classic descents in this area, like the "Coors Face" of Wilson Peak, visible from Mountain Village. It's a way to push your skiing to the next level and there's a big learning element to it, which is exciting for people. Walking uphill to "earn your turns" is an unparalleled workout and makes the downhill arguably much more rewarding. Plus, you get the chance to enjoy nature with friends and no crowds—and of course no lift lines, scanning passes or mechanical delays.
Telluride.com: What kind of experience level do you need to do it?
Mountain Trip: To successfully make the transition to backcountry skiing, you should have a reasonable level of fitness for the uphill (especially in our steep, high-elevation mountains!) and the downhill skiing or snowboarding ability to ski "black" or expert runs on the resort comfortably. Snow off of the resort, while it can be the best you can imagine, can also occasionally be very challenging to ski as wind, sun and temperature fluctuations can make for variable conditions.
Telluride.com: Are there any prerequisites?
Mountain Trip: It depends on if you're planning to head into the backcountry guided or unguided. Guided, you simply need to possess a good level of fitness and high intermediate to advanced skiing ability. We can help interested skiers learn the necessary skills to start entry-level backcountry skiing on local terrain.
If you are planning on heading out into the backcountry unguided, however, there is a wide variety of skillsets you'll need to master, including but not limited to: route-finding, snowpack and terrain analysis, avalanche awareness and risk mitigation, technical skills for uphill travel, intimate familiarity with your gear, self-maintenance in cold environments, first-aid and rescue techniques, mountain weather analysis and effective communication all play integral roles in backcountry skiing. Eventually, to go for bigger objectives, backcountry skiers may also employ various climbing, mountaineering and winter camping skills. It can become quite involved!
Telluride.com: What kind of equipment do you typically need to backcountry ski?
Mountain Trip: Backcountry skiing is one of the more gear-intensive sports out there.
It doesn't necessarily have to be a different type of ski, although something light with a flat tail is best for uphill movement. Arguably, the most important aspect is boots and bindings. Backcountry ski (or “AT”) bindings enable you to pivot from pins attached to the toe of your boots while in "walk-mode," with skis on your feet, which feels a bit like snowshoeing but with a lot more glide and technique involved. The bindings have risers that can be flipped down when the angle of ascent gets steeper. Snowboarders use split-boards for backcountry travel, which are essentially snowboards that split into two skis for the way up, that fit back together into a snowboard for the way down.
Both systems require you to attach “skins” (so named because they were originally made from seal skins!) to the bases of your skis to provide traction for going uphill in walk-mode. These are "ripped" off and stashed for the downhill. Telescoping poles are best as they can extend a bit more for enhanced travel across flat areas, and collapse entirely to be stowed for the descent in the case of snowboarders.
Other indispensable elements of a backcountry skier’s kit include an avalanche beacon, shovel, probe, multi-purpose rubber ski straps (more useful than you would think!), personal first aid kit, snacks, water, extra layers, and a compact repair kit suited to your gear. Helmets are always recommended, as there are more hidden obstacles and less predictable conditions. A brimmed hat and sunglasses are more suited for the way up as otherwise, you'll overheat and your goggles will fog.
Specialized equipment for expert backcountry skiers or ski mountaineers might also include both ski and boot crampons, a lightweight harness, an ice axe, rope, avalanche pack, GPS, radio, avalanche float pack, etc.
Telluride.com: Where are some good spots around Telluride?
Mountain Trip: That is highly dependent on avalanche conditions, snowpack and overall coverage, and skier ability. If you look around Telluride and think that a steep, open mountain face or aesthetic couloir might be great to ski, someone has almost certainly skied it before. The various valleys to the south of Telluride, as well as those to the east, are frequented by skiers and split-boarders. We can't emphasize enough that we do not recommend inexperienced backcountry users head out into the terrain around Telluride without guidance.
Lizard Head meadows are a great option to try out your touring gear and practice techniques on low-angle terrain, although there are still hidden obstacles and terrain traps that require vigilance. The various huts in the Telluride high country over to Red Mountain Pass, like the OPUS Hut, offer expanses of great terrain for all levels of skiers. Once again, we strongly discourage venturing out into a backcountry area, even if you are familiar with it in the summer, without the proper experience, route-finding and avalanche mitigation skills, and sufficient equipment.
Telluride.com: Does Mountain Trip offer all of the gear needed with your guided trips?
Mountain Trip: Yes! We offer alpine touring-capable skis, skins and boots in a range of sizes, as well as Avalanche Float Packs, all brand new this year. Beacon, shovel and probe are included with all of our backcountry skiing outings. Skiers are also more than welcome to use their own equipment with uphill capability (ie: boots and bindings with walk-mode, as described above). Unfortunately, we do not offer split-boards.
Telluride.com: Why should people try backcountry skiing?
Mountain Trip: Backcountry skiing is an incredibly rewarding challenge that can potentially offer the best turns of your life. Truly a lifelong pursuit, each season brings the chance for progression, learning and new challenges. It's an amazing way to experience the mountains in the winter that can deeply expand what's possible in the realm of what you can ski. There's a huge freedom in not relying on the lifts to get you to the top!