With high speed lifts and mega ski-passes the norm, here are four reasons why we ski in the backcountry.
1) The Goods
This is it, the gist of why we put in the skin track, the long hours in ski boots, up before dawn drinking instant coffee on the tailgate… we want the goods! This definition changes throughout the season and from skier to skier or from snowboarder to telemark skier, but they all share the same ideal: it’s what gets us out of bed, out the door, foregoing other obligations and social commitments.
For one guy, it’s an over-the-grill powder stash on a stable 40 degree slope. For another lady it’s a nine hour adventure traversing her local mountain range, ending with perfect corn and beers at the car. No matter what you daydream about, these are the adventures that fuel the days we don’t ski. How do we increase the number of days we ski each year? How do we increase the quality of each of those days? How do we spend more time with the ones we love, doing the things we love? Isn’t that what it’s all about? For all of the times we are mired in responsibility, in obligation, in meeting other people’s expectations, how often can we bring it back to what we love to do?
Standing atop that line that you can see from town, having wondered for years what it would be like to make that first turn. Clear the snow from your topsheets, knock the snow from your pole baskets, adjust your goggles, and drop into linked hop turns. The couloir is just wide enough for your skis, you land one turn after the next, the snow is stable, the sun is shining, a whole winter of fitness uphilling and mornings in the gym are lining up. Sneak through the choke and make those wide turns in the apron then turn back to look up at your line. A quick high-five to your ski partner is icing on the cake. Does it get any better?
Tom getting 'the goods' on a 3,000 foot descent off Buffalo Mountain
As long as humans have been heading into the mountains and the woods, there have been those for whom the escape and the solitude is what matters most. Ski touring combines the best of the outdoor experience with the opportunity to separate yourself from society. Bring your best friends or go it alone, there are few endeavors that offer the chance to be so far from chaos and technology so quickly.
The muted silence of snow-covered evergreens lining the trail heightens the visual splendor of the sunlight reflecting off of fresh powder. With each step your skis sink a few inches, maybe a foot, then support your weight, propelling you forward, upward. Thirty minutes becomes two hours, which turns to three as you stand atop the ridge with views in all directions. Today you left everyone else to their busy work and you went for the open meadow you’ve skied dozens of times. That low-angle powder stash that always delivers. Far below you can see the trailhead and your destination. The only sounds are the ripping of your skins from your skis and the click of your boots into your bindings. Then the wind through your helmet and your skis gliding through powder.
Enter the mountains and escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. (PC: Evan Green)
3) Time with Ski Partners & Friends
Building relationships takes time. Some of us maintain great friendships from childhood, others make lifelong friends year after year. Creating strong ski partner relationships is no different. There’s that guy who you only see at the bar when he’s buying tequila shots. Is that the same type of partner you’ll trust on an exposed ridgeline? Likewise, you know that girl shreds in-bounds because you see her every single powder day, but do you know the decisions she will make when the weather starts to turn on an otherwise sunny spring day?
We are not suggesting that all of your friends don’t have a place in your outdoor recreation life. Far from that, your friends are all awesome! We merely would like to offer the suggestion that not all of them will (or should) be invited along on every ski tour. At the same time, there are ski tours where they can all be invited! The details separating those types of adventures are what we would like you to consider before you compile your partner list for those bigger missions. And especially before you let your group size outgrow what’s prudent on a given day.
The converse to all of those considerations is that those times with our favorite ski partners in the mountains is irreplaceable. There are no number of beers at the local watering hole that can replace the one back at the trailhead with your two favorite ski partners after skiing that highly anticipated line. The research that went into determining the proper approach, the days on neighboring peaks scoping the options with binoculars, compiling the gear list in case the choke doesn’t quite go… These moments are what you’ll remember when you look back on that line!
Those sunny days in April and May when winter finally gives way to spring, when the roads all still hold snow for the approaches, when all of the ridgelines are skinnable, when you pick the windless day for a leisurely lunch on the summit, you’ll be making even more memories. Ski that east aspect first, catch the first turns as the snow begins to warm, then lap back up for that north-facing spine that’s still holding recycled powder, and finish the day group-skiing the corn on the apron back to the road. And don’t forget the obligatory group photo for the album!
Hut trips with friends, it doesn't get any better! (PC: Lauren Danilek)
4) Everyone Loves a Hut Trip
Now imagine skiing with your favorite group then not going home! Instead, you’ll be cooking a meal together, sharing stories around a communal table, sipping on a shared flask of whiskey, then getting up the next morning to do it all over again, minus the long approach. Have we died and gone to heaven? No, we are on a hut trip!
Across the country, there are hundreds (likely thousands) of publicly accessible huts. Many charge a fee per person, per night, while some are available only when you rent all 6-12 beds for your own private group retreat. In Colorado, while some are available year-round, the majority are only for use in the winter, mostly due to the availability of water when there’s no snow to melt in these higher elevation locations.
The premise is an easy one: gather your favorite adventure partners together, split the resources needed to survive a couple of nights in the high alpine, fill your backpack with supplies, and make the often 3-10 mile trek to any one of the more beautiful places in the area. Once you arrive, unpack your bag of food and sleeping gear, then head out for some ski touring in the surrounding zone. The huts are often equipped with foam mattresses and pillows, as well as cookware, a woodstove and plenty of firewood. Your group will bring whatever nutrition you’ll need (both solid and liquid, of course), along with the gear you’ll need for ski touring, and you’ll spend between one and several nights away from it all. Between ski runs near the hut, you’ll be making memories that will last a lifetime. Despite the recent surge in popularity of winter hut trips, you’ll find that availability is still possible throughout the winter and even more in the spring as many skiers transition to other, warmer endeavors.