Category: Skiing and Snowboarding

No Shortcuts – Ski Training Video

It takes a tremendous amount of dedication to become one of the top big mountain skiers in the world. Pro skier Dane Tudor is at the top of his game. The following video shows what it takes to get there… I think that there’s something to be said abou…

Avalanche Problems Explained

The National Avalanche Center has put together an excellent educational resource on how to read an avalanche forecast. This is a really good video and even if you feel well-versed in avalanche education, it’s worth the five minutes it will take to watc…

Evolution of Dreams – Ski Film

There have been some really good ski films over the past few years. Amature filmmakeing doesn’t feel very amaturish anymore. But even so, it’s pretty uncommon for us to publish a trailer for a ski film that is incomplete. There just seems to be too muc…

Multiple Burial Avalanche Search

Backcountry Access (or BCA) is a leader in avalanche technology. In the following video, BCA’s Bruce Edgerly demonstrates advanced avalanche transceiver search techniques that can be used for  multiple avalanche burials.This is a dense video with …

Backcountry Skiing – How to Start!

The words skiing and fun are essentially synonymous with one another. The art of skiing is one of the most pleasurable pastimes in the world. There is nothing quite like sliding on the snow at a beautifully maintained ski area—

Except – that is – skiing the backcountry

But skiing in the backcountry can be intimidating. Indeed, assuming one has easy black diamond movement skills, there are three elements that might keep a skier from venturing into the backcountry: equipment, avalanche danger, and navigation. Once an individual has been introduced to each of these elements, a journey into the winter backcountry seems far more reasonable.

Equipment:

There are two major types of touring skis, telemark and alpine touring. Telemark skis are designed with a free heel that is never clamped down. This is in direct opposition to alpine touring skis. These skis are designed to have a free heel when moving uphill and a fixed heel for downhill skiing.

Unless you are already a telemark skier, it is not recommended that you venture into the backcountry with a telemark ski. Most resort skiers will have a much better time transitioning to alpine touring skis.

A backcountry skier rips down a clean line on a beautiful slope.

There are dozens upon dozens of touring skis on the market. Each ski is designed with a different thing in mind. Some are designed to be super lightweight, whereas others are heavier, but are designed for better performance skiing downhill. Most of those that are new to backcountry skiing should use heavier skis to start with. While this adds weight for uphill travel, it will make the downhill portion of the day much easier to deal with, especially if the conditions are variable or difficult.
There are two major types of backcountry alpine touring bindings on the market. The first is the standard AT set-up, which allows for a skier to easily step into the binding. And the second is the super lightweight tech binding. The first type of binding (Fritschi Diamir, Marker Duke, Atomic Tracker, etc.) will be easier for the standard resort skier to adapt to, but most people these days ski on the second kind of binding (Dynafit, G3, BD Plum, etc.).
Like the skis, there are dozens of different boot options for AT skiers. The biggest difference between alpine ski boots and AT boots is that AT boots are designed to have both an uphill and a downhill mode. In other words, they flex forward and backward for good uphill movement. Ideally a new AT skier will be able to find a boot that works well for both uphill and downhill movement. Ski shop employees can help you find a model that works well for you.
AT skis are designed to go both uphill and downhill, but they need assistance going uphill. You will need to purchase a good set of climbing skins to place on the bottom of the skis for uphill travel. These will then be removed for downhill action.
A skier skins up a slope.
And finally, you will need to carry four essential pieces of avalanche safety equipment. You will need an avalanche transceiver, an avalanche probe, a shovel and formal avalanche education. Nobody should ever travel in the winter backcountry without these essential items.
Avalanche Danger:
The final equipment items on the list are an avalanche transceiver, an avalanche probe and a shovel. These items are for the worst-case scenario. They are in your kit so that you can rescue your partner after an avalanche. They are not avalanche repellant.
An average of 27 people die in avalanches every year. Avalanches are a real threat and they kill people.
There is really only one way for the new backcountry skier to adequately address avalanche danger. He or she will need to take a full 3-day Level I Avalanche Safety course. The best avalanche safety programs conform to American Avalanche Association standards. Locally, these are identified as American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) compliant programs. The American Alpine Institute provides AIARE Level I courses at Mt. Baker every weekend.
Backcountry Navigation:
Skiers regularly enjoy resort skiing in flat light buried in a fog bank. This marginally dangerous resort activity provides significant additional danger in the backcountry. Obstacles with difficult visibility are only the beginning of the problem. You also need to know where you are and how to get home.
There are four additional tools that the backcountry skier should learn to use. These are a topographical map, a compass, an altimeter and a GPS. These are all tools that you can learn to use by playing with them in the frontcountry; and you can find numerous resources online to help you understand these tools in order to use them effectively.
Historically GPS units have been very expensive. However, today there are a number of apps that can be used on your phone in airplane mode. My personal favorite is Gaia, but there are several others out there as well. These apps are not super intuitive though and will take time and practice to perfect before using them in the field.

Courses:

The fastest way to get dialed into all of this is to take a course. The American Alpine Institute has several courses available. To learn more, check out our list of backcountry skiingsplitboarding, and avalanche safety programs.

Resort skiing is great, but in a straight-up comparison, backcountry skiing is just more fun. There is a lot more that you have to know. Your skiing skill has to be a great deal higher and earning your turns just feels more rewarding. It is well worth any resort skier’s time to step off piste and to explore the world of backcountry skiing.
–Jason D. Martin

Trip Report: Mt. Baker Ski Descent

I love those rare moments when you see an activity that sets your imagination alive and you say to yourself, “I want to do that.” It is the inspiration that drives most of us to start along the path to become climbers, skiers and skilled outdoor participants. 

 In June of 1985, during staff training for the summer climbing season in the Cascades, ten of us ascended the south side of Mt. Baker. Alan Kearney and Kitty Calhoun slept in late and carried skis to the summit. Long after we had left the summit and were plunge stepping down the mountain, they came sweeping by on perfect corn snow, carving interlacing turns down the Easton Glacier below us until they disappeared from view, popping up a few minutes later as two tiny dots next to our campsite. 
 Both jealous at the ease of their descent and intrigued at the possibilities, I told myself that I would someday acquire the skills and equipment to accomplish the feat of skiing 5,000-feet or more off the summit of a Cascade volcano.

Over thirty-years later and with ski descents of most of the volcanoes of the western states and many seasons of backcounty skiing under my belt, ski mountaineering is now a very popular mountain sport. In June on Mt. Baker, the number of skiers ascending to the top nearly equals the number climbing to the summit. It would have been hard to imagine as I watched the rare sight of Alan and Kitty skiing down the mountain, that I would someday have the opportunity to guide parties on ski descents of Mt. Baker.

In May I was fortunate to guide two skiers on a three day Mt. Baker ski mountaineering trip. It was and exceptional experience for the quality of the skiing and the enjoyment I derived from helping two enthusiastic students learn the skills needed to ascend and ski off of a big mountain like Mt. Baker.

My skiers, Jared and Cindy were a couple with a storybook romance. After a solo voyage across the Pacific in his 30-foot sailboat, Jared met Cindy a few hours after making landfall in Hawaii. Cindy was a French woman on a week holiday. The Seattle residents have been married two years and share a love of the mountains, sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter. They were experienced winter campers and skilled skiers and wanted to take those skills into the alpine for new adventures.

20170512_103837.jpg

Jared and Cindy, loaded up and excited for an adventure on the mountain.

20170512_163743.jpg

Leaving the Grouse Creek Drainage and ascending the Coleman to High Camp

We spent day one, completing the pre-trip meeting and packing, driving to the trailhead and on the long climb to our high camp at the Black Buttes. The forecast for the three-day trip was not positive for an ascent of the mountain. Clouds, cold temps and the occasional snow squall backed up the forecast of mixed cloud and occasional snow. Cindy and Jared hunkered down in a pyramid tent while I pitched nearby in my first light and rested easily that night behind our snow walls.

20170512_180658.jpg
 Jared and Cindy at our high camp after the second day attempt to reach the summit.

Day two was spent in a white ascending to Coleman Saddle and back to camp after giving up on an ascent of the mountain without visibility. The conditions gave us the opportunity to work on white out navigation, roped glacier travel and hazard evaluation. The skiing was excellent, 2-5 inches of fresh cold snow. The storm helped to underscore the importance of visibility when descending alpine terrain. Back at camp, we spent the remaining daylight hours practicing crevasse rescue skills.

At four am on our last morning I poked my head out of the tent in the early light to find a cloudless sky. The upper plug of Mt Baker was dark against the morning horizon. The thermometer read 21 degrees F inside my tent. Our feet crunched the cold snow as we packed excitedly for our departure.

With the help of the previous days skin track to the saddle, we took 90 minutes to reach the bottom of the pumice ridge where we shouldered our skis for the long boot pack to the summit. Roping up at the end of the pumice ridge we short roped to the summit slopes with the normal Roman Wall zig zag boot track. I was pleased to find excellent conditions on the upper face, dense wind buff snow with 5-10 inches of light powder. At the top of the Roman Wall the temperature inversion had us shedding winter layers in the warm sunshine without the normal bone chilling wind rolling over the top. We unclipped the skis from our packs and skinned the final few hundred feet to the summit.

20170514_110602.jpg
 Top of the Roman Wall after short roping from the Pumice Ridge.
20170514_112447.jpg

The Broad summit slopes of Mt. Baker.

Clicking into our skis after lunch in the rare warmth of windless Baker summit, we enjoyed the best ski conditions of my long experience with the mountain. Light powder on a wind buff surface on the Roman Wall transitioned to lovely settled powder lower down. A sea of clouds skirted the mountain as we dropped into one of the best ski descents in the Northwest, the long upper face of the Deming Glacier.

20170514_121826.jpg

Fantastic powder skiing in May at the 8,000 foot level


Back at camp we loaded up our kit and continued down the mountain and out the road to the car. The clouds, so spectacular from above, preserved the cold temps and provided us with good snow all the way to the woods at the bottom of Grouse Creek. As with the best ski descents, walking in ski boots was limited to a five minute tramp down the pavement.

Sometimes those “I want to do that” moments provide a lifetime of satisfying experiences.


20170514_145044.jpg
 Back at the car after an enjoyable time out.

Back at camp we loaded up our kit and continued down the mountain and out the road to the car. The clouds, so spectacular from above, preserved the cold temps and provided us with good snow all the way to the woods at the bottom of Grouse Creek. As with the best ski descents, walking in ski boots was limited to a five minute tramp down the pavement.

Sometimes those “I want to do that” moments provide a lifetime of satisfying experiences.

-Gregg Oliveri