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Sticks and Stones


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There is a scene in Reality Bites when Troy (Ethan Hawke, plaid shirt, greasy hair) answers the phone with “Hello, you’ve reached the winter of our discontent.” Sitting high up on Ruby Express Lift at Keystone last week, I thought of this line as I watched the trail beneath my dangling skis: trees, sticks, rocks, dirt. Something else came to mind: “What can brown do for you?”

After reaping roughly five powder turns after a nice hike into the back bowls, I was reminded of—yes, that’s right—another quote as I tried to pick my way back to civilization through extremely sparse coverage in very tight trees: “Sticks and stones may break my bones…”

There are bad snow years, and then there are abysmal snow years. Is this just a No Niña year, or did we get spoiled last season? I find the thought of a full season of ice, groomers and near-death experiences in bounds, well, utterly unthinkable. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that in order to find the best snow, or at least decent snow, I must go higher up, farther into the mountains, and hit what folks out here refer to as the back country. This, and only this, can potentially save the late season.

Hiking, skiing and being alone in the woods with a few good amigos are my all-time favorite things on earth. So I set out to prepare for this backcountry wonderland (sadly, being a good skier and having big cajones are not adequate preparation) and explore what to expect once you get out there. As a beginner backcountry babe myself, I needed some advice, so I got in touch with Mike Soucy of Colorado Mountain School fame for a crash course on backcountry skiing in the spring.

Soucy is an AMGA-certified mountain guide from Boulder. He guides throughout Colorado and in Alaska on skis, rock and ice. In the winter and spring, you’ll find him in his ski boots, either searching for untracked snow or teaching AIARE avalanche courses for the Colorado Mountain School. In less formal terms: Soucy is a legit badass who knows what he’s talking about. He shared some photos with me, which, in addition to fully covering the “why” of backcountry skiing, worked the backcountry drool-floes in my brain into a frenzy.

Who?

Who should be gunning for the backcountry this spring? Everyone.

Ahhh, if only ‘twas that simple. There are different issues to keep in mind when you are unsure if you are “qualified” or “good enough” to get into the backcountry. But the primary issues are ability and preparation. Soucy said ability isn’t just a matter of being able to bomb down groomers at Mach 12 or even shredding the champagne powder on all the steeps at the resorts. What it comes down to is being able to ski in any condition. Any condition means wind, snow, flat light, hard chunky snow and bad coverage. While you can choose not to insert yourself into the densest of spruce forests, some trees, rocks and roots are also inevitable.

Skiing moguls in bounds at the resort is great preparation, Soucy said. “Ability” is more about being competent in variable weather and snow conditions than being super fast or able to rock skis that are 156 underfoot with your eyes closed. Fitness is important as well, but you can take things at your own pace once you get out there. With that said, if you’ve spent one day on skis this year and do not enjoy cardiovascular exercise, this might not be the activity for you.

Most importantly, pay attention. This is essential and nonnegotiable. If you do not take, at bare minimum, a one-hour avalanche safety prep course, you are not someone who should be in the backcountry. Ever. Period. Nature is stronger than you. Nature will kick your butt and quite possibly kill you.

Taking a prep course will teach you how to read the snow and determine whether it is safe to ski, or whether you are likely to find yourself trying to out-ski a tsunami of snow the size of a skyscraper (maybe not that big, but you get the point). Avalanche courses come in varied levels, so everyone should take the one-hour prep course (that is also free, so no excuses); however, there are longer and more intense courses available. You can never be too safe when you’re going into the forest on skis, and the more you know about this stuff, the more impressed your friends will be.

What?

What do you need? For one thing, you should probably get some skis. And boots, the lighter the better. Alpine Touring bindings are very helpful, as they allow you to free up your heel and “skin” to basically cross-country ski uphill. If you don’t want to shell out the dough, a backpack with a ski/snowboard carry feature will allow you to put your skis/board on your back and literally hike up.

You also might want some poles. Snowboards work too. Skins are a good idea if you don’t want to trash your skis. If you’re a snowboarder and can’t afford a split board, you better be ready for some straight
up hiking.

While these things are fun, they are not required. Soucy said the essentials are a beacon, a probe, a shovel, a first-aid kit and a field-communication system, which can be as simple as a cell phone with reception or a spot locator. Soucy recommends bringing a slope meter/inclinometer, a device that will measure the angle of what you want to ski and allow you to determine whether it is steep enough to slide. All this stuff is expensive, hard to pronounce and seems “hardcore,” but natural acts are unpredictable, so be prepared.

When and Where?

Spring backcountry skiing is generally best March through May depending on the snowpack. Soucy cautioned that even in March the high peaks are still wrought with winter’s hazards. What we are looking for in spring is a combo of warm days and cold nights to make corn snow. Indian Peaks and Berthoud Pass are good destinations; Berthoud Pass requires minimal I-70 time, and the Indian Peaks are accessible from Nederland, which requires zero I-70 time but a little bit of
canyon-driving savvy.

Why?

This is infinite. Here is how I can encompass it: I went to Vail with my dear friend the day after a big storm, which happened to be a Thursday. The snow was amazing, the mountain was not crowded. At 1 pm, we found ourselves on a long, beautiful run, open trail bordered by perfectly spaced trees stashed full of good snow. No one else in sight. As we darted into the trees, I felt the euphoria every skier craves. When you are in the backcountry, you have a shot at attainting this feeling, of being with whom you choose and of being alone in the woods, free to play in the snow. It’s the purest feeling I have ever experienced: quiet broken only by the swishing of the snow as your skis cut through it. You simply cannot get this at resorts, unless you are as lucky as we were that day. You can also find infinitely more challenging terrain than most of the resorts offer, which for experts is a
huge draw.

Backcountry skiing is a wonderful way to combine different sorts of fitness activities and challenges, which, if you are into being in great shape, should be right up your alley. Get prepped and get out there, but I want to leave you with this last piece of advice: Never go alone. And no, sadly, your dog does not count as a valid companion for safety purposes. Unless, of course, your dog is Lassie.

[glossary]

Groomers: Groomed trails at resorts, usually on the front side of the mountain, where the surface is even, smooth and more packed down than looser snow in the back bowls at the resort or the back country.
Skins: Material you attach to the bottom of your skis that provide traction and protect skis from elements you may encounter while touring.

[gear]

A very light setup: Scarpa Gea (ladies) or Maelstom (mens) AT Boot + Dynafit Binding…use Google to locate retailers or order online, but a few shops to try in town: Boulder Ski Deals, Outdoor Divas, Christy Sports.
A lighter on the wallet setup: Marker F-Tour Bindings…can be used with an Alpine or AT boot and are resort-friendly.
Soucy can’t live without: A stainless steel thermos for hot drinks. Available everywhere.

[tips]

For information on avalanche safety courses, go to totalclimbing.com for Colorado Mountain School, or avtraining.org. For safety gear, visit
backcountryaccess.com.

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