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Backcountry Basics

Backcountry Basics

Travel
posted: 01/17/2001

You've seen the tracks: snaking boot-pack paths winding up the ridgeline above the lift terminus; single-file trails veering off the groomed runs and into the trees.

You're reasonably fit, an advanced skier, and you've long suspected that someone beyond the ski area boundaries is finding far more thrills than you. But something holds you back. Wisdom? Respect for nature? Fear of embarrassment? All good reasons.

But with knowledge and a sensible game plan, there's no reason not to plunge into the winter high country. It's a matter of knowing where and how to begin and how to gain experience while staying within your abilities.

Jeremy Malczyk, a recent University of Vermont graduate, remembers with chagrin his first trip to New Hampshire's Tuckerman Ravine as a teenager. He and his father converted an aluminum-frame baby carrier for their skis, stuffed their boots in a duffel bag and hoofed up Mt. Washington. Dad ended up carrying both packs, and Malczyk isn't sure which was worse when they reached the top: the pain he was in or "the looks we got from the more seasoned people."

Today, with more than 20 Tuckerman trips under his belt, Malczyk is a more experienced adventurer and can appreciate the rewards of backcountry skiing. There are many: the peace of the forest, the beating of your heart; untracked powder, no ropes, no lift tickets, no crowds, the satisfaction of having earned your turns, each one more deeply appreciated for its sweat equity; cardiovascular well-being; and even enhanced self-knowledge, gained of slowing life down and paring it back to the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other and enduring.

There are many forms backcountry adventures can take, from lift-aided forays at the edge of a ski area to mettle-testing treks far into the wilderness. In the East, it can mean an intimate, quiet glide through dense forest; in the West, big-sky, above-treeline mountaineering in thin air. One common denominator is hard work: Accessing the best terrain and snow requires effort. Another, it must be stressed, is risk. Any trip into the backcountry, even just to the other side of your hometown ski hill, takes you away from the immediate aid of ski patrol. Proper preparation, equipment and know-how are essential.

For the greenhorn, then, the trick is biting off a bit of adventure without getting in too deep. We suggest six routes here, three East and three West. Each presents a minimum of risk, yet most offer at least a taste of using your own leg-power to get the goods.

The type of equipment you need depends on the type of terrain you'll cover. At its most basic level (especially in the East) backcountry skiing is strictly a hiking affair-a matter of strapping your alpine gear to your back and slogging up a mountainside. You'll need gaitored hiking boots and a sensible, comfortable method of carrying your equipment. "Whatever you do, don't attempt to carry your skis over your shoulder the way you would in the ski area parking lot," says David Goodman, author of two guidebooks on New England backcountry skiing. "People do it, and it's awful to see. You'll carve new dents in your shoulders."

More advanced backcountry skiing requires a substantial investment in equipment. The primary modes of travel are telemark (full-time free-heel) and randonée (allows free-heeled climbing and locked-heel descents, plus the luxury of a rockered boot sole for easier walking). Telemark gear might be lower-tech, but it's only slightly less expensive than alpine gear. The same is true of randonée equipment. Throw in climbing skins ($80-$120), a pack ($75-$150), avalanche beacon ($200-$300), shovel ($25-$95), and probe ($50-$75), and the price of getting responsibly equipped for backcountry skiing starts to mount.

Fortunately for occasional backcountry visitors who wish to stick with alpine gear, there's a relatively inexpensive alternative. Binding inserts, such as Alpine Trekkers (800-670-8735, www.bcaccesss.com), convert alpine skis into free-heel touring skis. They're not meant for extensive touring: alpine boots are heavy, and their forward lean makes them uncomfortable on flat terrain. But at $180 , they're affordable. "It's a great way for people to experiment with backcountry skiing," says Backcountry Access' Bruce Edgerly, "even if they're not ready to make the commitment to a full alpine touring setup, which can run you more than $1,000."

Getting equipped is the easy part. Gaining knowledge to ensure your safety requires time and effort. Fortunately, there are abundant sources of information: books to read, websites to visit, clinics and guided treks to enroll in.

Marshall Powell of Mountain Gear in Spokane, Wash., says that many customers go into the backcountry without sufficient knowledge. "People come in and buy the stuff, and we know they're gonna go out no matter what we say," Powell says. "But we try to say, 'here's a class that's happening or here's a book you could read.' We try to get them some information, even if they're just doing little backcountry stuff."

Many veterans learned from a friend. But, of course, some friends know more than others (or far less than they think). That's your call, and potentially a very important one. Basic backcountry skills include navigation and route-finding and what Goodman calls "basic mountain smarts: staying warm and dry, assessing the weather, being prepared for when things don't go as you planned. It's stuff you can learn in any decent winter-hiking class." More advanced skills include avalanche safety/rescue, winter camping and cold-weather survival.

Even rudimentary dabbling in the backcountry requires caution. Powell offers advice often heard: Prepare for any trip assuming it will end in disaster. Your binding will break; you'll blow an ACL; you'll become lost and disoriented. Think about how you'll deal with such situations.

Poorly prepared backcountry skiers are easy to spot. Not only are they risking their safety, they can expect derision and scorn from experienced adventurers, none of whom relishes having his or her own adventure turned into a rescue effort when your ill-planned trip goes awry.

Prepare properly, though, and you'll be ready for a whole new world of skiing-one that begins where the "ski area" ends.

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