It’s hard to keep up with recreation in Colorado. You can hike, bike, run, climb, kayak, ski—the list goes on. We are but mere humans trying to conquer 60,000 square miles of playable landscape. Still, you should consider adding backcountry skiing to your cache of ways to explore Colorado. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
You can borrow, bargain, or buy new—whatever combination gets you started!
AIARE – Avalanche Level I Training Course
Besides hard goods, the most important piece of “gear” you need is your avalanche training. The AIARE three-day course teaches you to use rescue equipment, read terrain, plan routes, and assess avalanche risk. Groups traveling in avalanche terrain need multiple people making informed decisions, and you need to be one of these people. For starters, you can take a one-night avalanche awareness class. Click here for more info!
The beacon, shovel and probe make up the survival trio. Never enter avalanche terrain without them, and know how to use them before you go. Your beacon sends and receives electromagnetic radio signals. It communicates with all beacons in the area so that, in case of an avalanche, group members can find buried people. Your probe need only be used in a rescue situation after locating a lost group member.
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The Hard Goods
The big question remains, should you buy one setup that works for both resort and backcountry, or should you keep them separate? The short answer—buy a separate setup. It will save you money and frustration in the long run. While binding technology is advancing fast, resort and backcountry skiing use gear in very different ways, so it makes more sense to have specialized equipment for each sport.
- Boots – Invest in boots that have “walk mode.” Don’t make yourself miserable by skinning in stiff boots. Walk mode allows your ankle to flex so that you can move naturally and lightly.
- Bindings – Buy the lightest bindings possible, but make sure they’re sturdy enough to avoid breaking. Again, don’t make yourself miserable with the heaviest brick on the market. Hoisting skis up a mountain takes a lot of energy. Choosing the right bindings can be really complex, so read up and talk to a gear expert before purchasing.
- Skis – Lighter is better, but mostly, choose a pair that you’re comfortable skiing in variable terrain—powder, crud, crust, and trees.
- Ski pack – You’ll want at least 35 Liters. Packs made specifically for touring are stiff and full of skiing specific features.
- Skins – These allow you to walk uphill on skis. Make sure you get a pair that is wider than the fattest part of your ski. You will custom cut them to fit.
- Hydration system – The key here is having a system that won’t freeze. Buy an insulated cover for your water bottle or bladder hose, and bring hot tea along, too!
- Slope meter – Use this to choose safe routes by analyzing slope angle.
A lot of folks avoid backcountry skiing because of avalanche danger. Like any extreme sport, the danger exists, but it can also be mitigated to keep risk low.
1. Change your mentality
Backcountry and resort skiing require wildly different mindsets. While your ideal day at a resort might be skiing steeps on repeat, your mentality in the backcountry should be about solitude, exploration, team accomplishments, and untouched snow.
2. Analyze the terrain over and over again
Because of the way snow layers form in Colorado, it has the most avalanche prone snowpack in the United States. This means Colorado skiers constantly assess their routes for avalanche hazards. Many choose to ski low angle runs during the winter (less than 30°) to lower their risk of triggering. However, slab avalanches still occur in the 25–30° range. It is considered safe to ski a run below 25° as long as other hazards such as trigger points, traps and surrounding avalanche paths have been carefully assessed. If you really want to ski steeps, wait until late spring when the layers have stabilized from heat.
3. Utilize your resources
Start every day by carefully reading the avalanche forecast. It relays what kind of avalanche danger exists, to what level, and where. Then, analyze your topo map and make a travel plan through safe terrain. Compare route ideas with the group and make a final plan from there.
4. Ski with people who have the same attitude towards risk
Every person has a different threshold for how much risk they are willing to take. Find ski partners who match your risk mentality to keep decision making more cohesive, and in turn, safer.
If you do decide to get into backcountry skiing in Colorado, you’ll experience one of the more magical parts of Colorado winter. You’ll see the Rockies at their most extreme, wander through the silence of a snowy landscape, create unparalleled memories with friends, and build an entire level of strength you never knew you had. Plus, hut trips become way more fun, which is the best news you’ve heard all day. Whatever you choose, stay conscious of your own limits and of the undeniable and unsympathetic power of nature.
- Probe – a three-meter metal rod used to probe through avalanche debris to locate buried persons.
- Skinning – hiking on skis with skins (friction equipment that attaches to the bottom of your skis).
- Touring – exploring the backcountry on skis. It requires both uphill and downhill travel.
- Slab avalanche – a consolidated layer of snow breaks off and slides, causing an avalanche.
- Trigger point – any point on the mountain that causes an avalanche to occur.
- Trap – any area on the mountain that is impossible to ski out of laterally in case of an avalanche, ie. a gully.
Resources for Backcountry Skiing in Colorado
- Colorado Avalanche Information Center – Check the daily avalanche report before deciding to go and before planning your route. http://avalanche.state.co.us/
- CalTopo – It’s a free backcountry mapping program. Use topography, slope angle, and slope aspect features to plan your route. https://caltopo.com/
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