The other day it dawned on me that I have answered the question “how do I get into backcountry skiing” more than any other but had yet to write about the topic. Over the next few posts I’ll go into detail about how to get into the sport/culture, where/how to invest money wisely and how to get on a fast track for becoming a good partner.
Before getting into the steps to start to backcountry skiing there is an extremely important question you should ask yourself, “Why do I want to backcountry ski?”. I know it may seem like a weird question but the answer could save you a lot of time and money depending on the answer. Backcountry skiing has exploded in popularity over the last decade thanks to improved gear, social media and the cultural desire to get outside more. But why YOU want to do it will determine how much you get out of it, how much you should invest into it and if you will even actually enjoy it at all.
First off it is important to know you aren’t looking to get into backcountry skiing based on some of the half truths or outright lies that are out there. For example, if you are getting into backcountry skiing because you want to ski deep, steep perfect powder runs every day then you are going to be extremely disappointed. If you think backcountry skiing is as effortless as resort skiing you will not be happy either. The truth is that backcountry skiing is a lot of work and often you find bad snow when starting out (or whole seasons regardless of experience!). Often when there is good snow the avalanche conditions will not allow you to head into terrain which you would normally ski at the resort. Another myth is that you can take an introduction avalanche course (AST 1, we’ll get into what that is later) and be “good to go”, when in reality you will never stop learning and making mistakes regarding the avalanche problem. To put it into perspective I am likely reaching 2000 days of backcountry skiing, I am often the main decision maker and I am still learning new things every season. The education side needs to be a life long commitment you are willing to take on and doing a course or two isn’t going to cut it. Another myth I hear all the time is once you have a set up backcountry skiing is “free”. Sure, there’s no lift pass, but often backcountry areas take more gas to get to, you’ll never stop buying lighter/new gear, you’ll eat a lot more while skiing and many people end up doing hut or lodge trips, some which require heli bumps that cost more than a season pass at a resort. In the end the truth is backcountry skiing is a lot of work, requires you to commit to ongoing education and is more expensive than resort skiing.
Why Do It Then?
Everyone has their own reasons for backcountry skiing but I have seen some common themes over the years. A big one is that people are sick of skiing at the resort. I’m not going to trash on resort skiing, it’s ok but in the end it lacks a lot due to it’s prepared nature. Often “resort powder days” end up being a few runs and even then you are basically skiing groomers with powder on top (no, sorry resort kids, it’s not the same in the backcountry at all). Freedom is another theme I hear people talk about, even if not attached to resort skiing restrictions. In the modern world there are few opportunities to experience true freedom and backcountry skiing provides that opportunity all the way to making life and death decisions. Backcountry skiing also provides an excellent option for getting outside and staying active in areas of the world which have long winters
Will You Like Backcountry Skiing?
It’s really hard to know until you do it and this will be important to realize before going out and dropping a lot of cash on gear (see PT 2 for how to go about this wisely). There are some questions you can ask yourself to find out if you will probably like it. Do you like hiking? Do you enjoy seeing new places? Are you able to deal with a little suffering to get what you want? Are you able to work within a group to achieve a goal? Are you able to change your goal based on new information? If you answered yes to all of these you will probably like backcountry skiing. Backcountry skiing involves much more than just downhill skiing, in fact you’ll probably spend less than 1% of your time making turns, (and probably why my downhill skiing form looks so bad these days!). A lot of your time will be spent going uphill, taking breaks for food and talking about what to do next with your group. Often when people ask me why I love the sport so much the downhill aspect doesn’t get mentioned until after a lot of these other points. Of course I love when I get to ski untouched chest deep blower but these other elements of the sport are what makes it interesting.
You Can Die
One last topic I wanted to touch on before part 2 are the dangers of backcountry skiing. It is really important to realize that you are about to engage in a sport that you can die doing regardless of experience gained. The backcountry is a wild environment which provides the freedom to make mistakes, it is your responsibility to make decisions and deal with your mistakes. When talking about the dangers of backcountry skiing the big topic that always comes up is avalanches but there are plenty of other situations that can result in serious injury or death. Even a simple injury can compound less serious issues that grow to become life threatening. Luck, good and bad, can also play into situations in ways you might not expect or be prepared for. With all my time out in the mountains I have had enough close calls to know I am lucky to be alive. I have friends who have died and plenty that could have. I am not going to cover this topic in detail as the subject is better suited for a course but I feel it is important to know you are taking part in an activity that can result in such situations.
Still Want To Backcountry Ski?
So you still want to ski in the backcountry? Awesome! It’s an extremely rewarding and enjoyable sport that you’ll end up quitting your career and living in a van for! In part 2 I’ll go over how to buy gear without going (completely) broke.