Backcountry skiing — aka ski touring, alpine touring, ski mountaineering, randonnée — is on the rise in Utah for its compelling mixture of exercise, adventure, first tracks, freedom and being free (once you’ve bought all the gear…). Here’s a primer for skiers ready to earn their turns, put some skin(s) in the game, etc. Read more...
WHAT IS BACKCOUNTRY SKIING?
Backcountry skiing is the opposite of frontcountry skiing. Not helpful? Because we just made up the word ‘frontcountry’? Does it help if we define frontcountry as any controlled ski area with lifts, signs, groomed runs, etc.?
Think of backcountry skiing as analog skiing, tackling the mountain in its natural, uncontrolled state. Hiking up hills and finding your own first tracks. Heli-skiing and side country/lift-accessed backcountry skiing count, but backcountry in its purest form is human-powered.
WHO BACKCOUNTRY SKIS?
Who is backcountry skiing right for? People who like trail running and mountain biking in the warmer months. People who love powder enough to climb up a hill for it. The mildly masochistic segment of the ski bum set.
Truth is, anyone can do it. It’s hard work, but it isn’t hard to pick up — especially if you already have some experience with downhill and/or cross-country skiing.
Lots of choices for skis and bindings depending on your focus, ranging from ultra-light rigs that let you race uphill to more substantial models for more fun on the descents. Alpine touring skis are the most popular style, wider and lighter than traditional downhill skis, made of carbon fiber or lighter woods. Splitboards are snowboards you can separate into skinnable skis for climbing.
Touring bindings allow a free heel for climbing that can clip in for descents. Touring boots have an unlockable ankle for freer motion when climbing.
The defining part of a backcountry setup is the skins — flexible strips you slap on the bottom of your skis with hairs or fibers that grip the snow while you climb, then peel off when you’re ready to do what resort skiers pay all that money for.
Lastly, and most essential is the safety gear…
Backcountry skiing is like rock climbing and falling in love: The same thing that makes it fun makes it dangerous. You’re out in it, away from the crowds, away from the ski patrol and avalanche control. Take an avalanche safety course and always check local avalanche conditions before you head out. If you’re just starting, go with someone who knows what they’re doing to learn the ropes.
If you see someone ski touring without a backpack, you can check the IDIOT box on your Backcountry Bingo card. Carry food, a shovel, extra warm clothes, a probe and a beacon at a minimum.
WHERE TO BACKCOUNTRY SKI
The point of backcountry skiing is you can pretty much go anywhere you want (though private property laws still apply…). Some people gravitate toward the resorts since they’re bound to be in the areas with the most snow, though you’ll want to check their policies on walking up the hill.
Utah native and Rad-Older-Brother archetype Layne Caldwell, who contributed anything useful you’ve read above, offers these observations: “The resorts in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons already own the prime north-facing ski terrain, but there are many side canyons that still offer great skiing in the Central Wasatch. I like skiing in Davis County as well. I’ve also skied in the Bear River Range, the Deep Creek Range, and the Uintas.”
See also: Red Baldy (west of Snowbird), Greens Basin (near Solitude), Mill D (south face of Big Cottonwood), Bountiful Peak (via Farmington Canyon), Ben Lomond and Willard Peaks (Ogden), Logan Peak, La Sal Pass (near Moab), Delano Peak (near Beaver).
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