Not for the faint-of-heart
While the Rocky Mountains of Colorado boast some of the nation’s premier ski resorts, with their perfectly groomed runs, terrain parks and chairlifts to the peaks, a growing number of skiers and snowboarders are breaking away from the resort routine and heading into the state’s backcountry. There they discover an opportunity to create their own adventure on untamed slopes.
Backcountry skiing is on the verge of abandoning its niche hobby status and entering the mainstream for ski-and-ride enthusiasts in Colorado. For some, it’s easy to see the appeal in ditching the resorts.
This time of year is prime for good backcountry skiing since “there’s no traffic because all the ski resorts are shutting down,” said Jason Harper, owner and head guide of Powder Addiction in Winter Park.
Early spring is typically the height of backcountry season. While ski resorts use artificial snow to thicken the base on the mountain in early winter, the backcountry has to wait for snow to thicken naturally.
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“I know guys who ski into June,” Harper exclaimed. “There’s still plenty of snow (here), and most people are playing golf down in Denver.”
The attraction of backcountry skiing is quite intense for the experienced skier: untracked snow, no crowds, no machinery involved and more chances to see wildlife.
“But most of all you get to go out exploring,” said Eric Bader, a lifelong backcountry skier and manager of Boulder Outdoor Center. “There are just all sorts of things that are attractive.”
Though avoiding lift lines and expensive ski passes is enough for some, there is another variable drawing the adventurous to the backcountry sport: risk.
“I think the public in one way is getting a little desensitized to risk,” said Bader. “They want to take more risk. And backcountry skiing, depending on how you do it, is much riskier than a ski area in general.
“You’ve got to worry about avalanches.”
Welcome to Avalanche Country
The instability of Colorado’s backcountry is well documented as experts point to unfamiliar terrain and getting lost as major concerns.
But the biggest risk facing backcountry skiers and riders is avalanches — Colorado has some of the least stable snowpacks in the world, and is the nation’s deadliest spot in terms of avalanches.
Sixty-three people died in Colorado avalanches between the 2007 and 2016 ski seasons. That’s 25 more than any other state, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. One person was killed in a Colorado avalanche this season.
As owner and head guide of Powder Addiction, which offers customers a ride via snowcat to the backcountry peaks, Harper has become accustomed to the issue.
“Avalanches are a big problem in Colorado,” he said.
The Rockies have what’s called a continental snowpack, which is many buried layers of snow that become very weak due to warming and cooling spells, he explained. “The snow can be very dangerous, and if you don’t know what to look for, you can get yourself in a world of trouble quickly.”
Difference between life and death
National avalanche fatalities have steadily risen since the 1990s as backcountry sports have popularized. Skiing and snowmobiling have the highest incident totals and have resulted in over 175 deaths since the 2007 backcountry season.
Experts stress that knowledge of the backcountry and the proper gear can be the difference between life and death. It is recommended that anyone looking to participate in backcountry skiing take an avalanche and wilderness first-aid class.
“The best thing to do is to take a level-one avalanche class; it’s a three-day class,” said Harper. “It teaches you companion rescue, the tools you need and how to be efficient with them, and route finding.”
Such a class also instructs adventurers on how to look at slopes and decide whether or not it’s going to be safe. “It’s about making educated judgments,” Harper added.
Avalanche classes can be found across the state. But while proper education and knowledge of the terrain you are facing is vital, proper equipment and the ability to use it efficiently is also key to staying safe.
Guides advocate for backcountry skiers to always carry an avalanche beacon, a shovel, a probe and a map or GPS of the area.
Avalanche beacons emit a pulsed radio signal that can help find avalanche victims under the snow. Probes are used to determine the density of snow layers and how deep an avalanche victim may be buried.
“The gear alone is not any guarantee that you’ll be safe, but it might increase your odds of being safe,” Bader indicated. “There are avalanche airbags and backpacks, and if you do get caught it may help you float on top of the avalanche and increase your survival rate.”
But, he said, the knowledge to put that gear to use properly is imperative.
Both Bader and Harper agreed that skiers and snowboarders should fine-tune their abilities at designated ski areas before moving to the backcountry. Backcountry skiers often encounter terrain they weren’t expecting, and need to be competent to handle any type of slope.
“If you go to a slope and you decide that the slope is too dangerous to ski than you need to have an alternative route down,” Harper said. “Sometimes that alternative route could be much more technical skiing, maybe steeper, maybe a lot more rocks that you have to deal with.”
Harper’s advice: don’t attempt backcountry skiing unless you’re an advanced skier or rider or you have the assistance of a guide. A guide would be someone who knows the specific mountain well and is able to determine the safety of different slopes. Also be aware of your own physical fitness as changes in altitude could affect stamina and breathing, he said. That’s true for any kind of backcountry activity, which could become extremely strenuous and requires good fitness and athleticism.
“If you’re willing to hike higher up, the benefit to Colorado is a lot of super high peaks,” he said. “That’s obviously really technical skiing and not for everybody.”
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