Skiing without lifts
January 2, 2010
SUMMIT COUNTY – Backcountry skiing and riding can provide unparalleled views, sweet turns, great workouts and a level of peace and quiet not found inside the boundaries of busy ski areas. But for all its rewards, heading into the backcountry requires a good bit of gear, know-how and common sense.
The pursuit of untracked powder can quickly turn disastrous in the face of a broken binding in a remote spot, changing weather – or an injury far from the parking lot. Furthermore, Colorado has the deadliest, most avalanche-prone snowpack in the country. Given all the risks, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to venture into the world of backcountry travel. So where to begin?
Outdoor education instructor Brian Taylor recommends prospective backcountry travelers seek hands-on education in three critical areas: avalanche awareness, backcountry touring skills and wilderness first aid. Taylor directs Colorado Mountain College’s emergency medical education and outdoor studies program. He has also been saving lives and recovering bodies for 10 years with Summit County Rescue Group.
“Be prepared before you go out there,” Taylor said. “Go out with the right gear, have the right people, make sure your friends have the right training, and take a couple classes so you know what you’re getting into.”
Avalanche awareness training is essential in Colorado, since the state has more avalanche fatalities than any other state in the country. As many backcountry veterans will tell you, the snow always looks good. But looks can be deceiving. Travelers need to get up close and personal with the snow: Listen to it, touch it, study it, and read forecasts about it.
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“I think the most important thing people have to have is good knowledge of the snowpack, snow conditions and avalanche danger,” said Joe Ben Slivka, mission coordinator for Summit County Rescue Group. “Before anybody even thinks about venturing into the backcountry, they need to be able to recognize what the snow is telling them.”
To learn to appreciate what the snow is telling you, Slivka recommends taking a level-1 avalanche course “at a minimum.”
When looking for classes, find out whether courses and instructors are certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), recommends Leslie Ross, founder of Babes in the Backcountry, which provides backcountry training and guided travel for women.
“I feel strongly about getting educated. AIARE has an incredible curriculum that makes it very user-friendly,” Ross said.
Taylor recommends getting some orienteering training, including practice with a map and compass.
“People need to know where they’re going and how to get back. If there’s a storm coming, and you can’t see prominent landmarks, it’s easy to get lost out there. Everyone always assumes the other person knows their way around,” Taylor said.
Your education should include hands-on applications of the skills and concepts you’re learning, according to Slivka.
“In any good course, you will be spending all day outside,” he said.
Slivka also encourages people to study up online before taking a class, to become familiar with concepts and vocabulary.
“It’s a good starting point before spending money and time on a course,” he said.
After taking courses, it can be helpful to travel the backcountry with a certified guide. A guided tour can help you apply your knowledge and skills safely.
“There were points in my education when I thought I knew more than I did,” said Dave Dellamora, co-founder of Tour Further backcountry guide service, based in Summit County. “When you have a guide, that person can set a track and keep you out of avalanche territory. Go out with a professional who looks at the snow every day.”
Courses on avalanche awareness, backcountry travel, wilderness survival and wilderness first aid are available from a number of sources, including Colorado Mountain College and Babes in the Backcountry. Both are offering introductory skills classes this month. Colorado Avalanche Information Center has a calendar of classes on its Web site.
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