My first backcountry experience

Winter is in full swing in the Sierra, blowing past 200% of average snowfall already. This last weekend closed down the highway over Donner Pass for almost 24 hours because of zero visibility, and avalanche danger is extreme with the high peaks getting over 55” in two days. Although I won’t be heading into the backcountry for some time, last week I got back on skis for the first time since breaking my leg 11 months, 3 weeks and two days ago…but who’s counting. I wasn’t sure i’d be able to muster up the confidence to click back in this year but my surgeon wanted me to “test out” my torn ACL and see how much stability I have, so…what better way than to ski? Afterall, i’m heading back into surgery next Friday so he can fix me up if i do any more damage.

I’ve preferred backcountry for awhile now but sliding down mellow groomers at Sugar Bowl was magical. I ended up feeling better than expected and it only hurt when i pushed into left turns. After 10 runs I headed home with a huge smile. It went really really well and I hope to go back again before I get the hardware removed and any soft tissue issues remedied on Friday. My goal is to get back to skiing in spring and do a tour up to a few Cascades volcanos as a cap to this trying year.

For this post i’m diving back into the past, rehashing my first experience in the backcountry. In hindsight i’ve been very lucky over the years. Luck should never be confused with skill as even the most experienced mountaineers get caught in avalanches. There’s only so much we can decipher of what is going on in the extremely variable world below the surface. (Check out this movie for more on this…)

I grew up skiing but as soon as snowboarding hit the scene in high school most my friends and I jumped on board. Once I started college in Boulder, CO I got a two-in-one ski pass, for $200 if i remember correctly. You can’t buy a single day lift ticket at Vail for that now. Just like with bike racing, i had never heard of backcountry skiing until moving to Colorado, but it wasn’t long before I heard about places where you could do a short hike and ride back down to the road sking powder all day long. Once done it was a quick hitchhike back to the top of the pass.

I’m not sure where I heard of the place, but must have been in a local guidebook of XC ski spots. It named a place up the canyon for getting easy backcountry turns and sounded like the perfect spot to give it a go. This was in 1991, before cell phones and GPS’s so i went off a description of the mileage from the road intersections of where to park and start up the trail. This was also before splitboards were invented so you either bootpacked or used snowshoes with your board on your back. I rented snowshoes at the CU fitness center and drove up to look for the spot. Not being a designated trailhead there wasn’t any signage of where to go but i found a few trucks with Neptune Mountaineering stickers on back parked in a pullout along the snowpacked dirt road and guessed it was the place. At the time it seemed VERY far out there and high in the mountains of Colorado. I strapped my snowboard to my backpack with some water and not much else and started up the trail (Rule break #1). The trail was created by telemark skiers and too narrow for my snowshoes but I had no trouble following their route (Rule break #2)

The trail followed a small creek for a few miles and led up to an open bowl. The north aspect had a lower slope angle with nice wide open trees. The slope got steeper as it opened up to the east aspect. Not knowing where i was going I just continued to follow the ski track up to the top. As i punched my snowshoes atop the skin track I saw the line i wanted to take. The skateboarder in me picked it out – rolling out the ridge and dropping into the steeper section of fresh snow that none of the skiers had touched yet (Rule break #3). I transitioned to the board, strapped the snowshoes to my pack, and rode the ridge out to the east face gaining as much speed as possible as I passed several snugged up S-turns from the telemark skiers. Once at the top of the steepest section i dropped in and carved about 3 turns down the face before stopping at the transition zone where a couple of skiers were starting to head back uphill for another run.

As i looked back up at my line and smiled at my first backcountry experience with untracked powder, one of the skiers approached and started up a conversation. I was pretty young compared to him, and he was very nice in his tone. Had this been a surf spot in Santa Cruz I likely would’ve been punched in the face and chased out of there having poached his line. But this man gave me the benefit of the doubt guessing I was clueless of proper backcountry etiquette. Thankfully, telemark skiers are friendly by nature, perhaps more spiritual beings, closer to nature having freed their heels and therefore their minds?

The man politely asked how i was doing, where i came up from, and then got to the root of the reason he approached me. I don’t remember his exact words but it was something to the effect of, “So you know…in the future…it’s proper backcountry etiquette to hug the other people’s lines on the slope so we can all enjoy as much untracked powder as possible.” I probably smiled and apologized but i’m sure i was thinking “yeah, whatever dude…”

There was no way to worry about powder preservation at a resort so that fact hadn’t even occurred to me! However, fresh snow is a limited resource in both locations but unlike at the resort there was some sort of unwritten code i had carved huge s-turns over, limiting the scope and enjoyment of their future runs. After he was on his way back up the hill, I put my snowshoes back on and followed the track up for another run, this time paralleling the skiers turns but still only making a few turns. I kept going once i hit the flat spot and bombed down back to the truck. It was fun but for an 18 year old it was still a lot of work for only a couple of runs. Looking back, I had no clue of the monster I had just created.

There are so many things I did wrong that day that i don’t even know where to start. For starters, he didn’t say a word about me stomping their nice skin track. Snowshoers should make their own trail off the skintrack since it makes it harder for skis to keep traction on the way up when the skintrack is beat to hell. More importantly I had no idea of the risks of the backcountry. I’m sure one of the classes available at the CU fitness center was “Avalanche Awareness 1” or something similar…but no, i didn’t take that class before venturing out there. Luckily this spot is all under 30 degree slope so although it’s not impossible, it’s unlikely it would have slid. Avalanches weren’t something on my radar when i was 18. I didn’t have any mentors at the time to teach me backcountry skiing. I had the opinion you learned from your mistakes and the only way you make mistakes is by going out there and trying stuff. It amazes me to this day how lucky i got in my decade of backcountry skiing. I didn’t take an avalanche course until 2003, over 10 years later. By then I had started telemark skiing (how ironic) and would only snowboard at the resort. In that 10 year time period, i would hike a certain mountain Pass countless times, and it was there where I distinctly remember my first experience with an avalanche.

My high school friend TK, who i learned to snowboard with in 1987, only lived an hour away so we would meet up and snowboard at resorts and at this backcountry spot on occasion. We would hike up the main trail to the top and board back down to the highway. One day after a storm we strapped into our bindings and dropped into the trees traversing to the left to search out fresh tracks. As we were contouring we entered an open area probably 100 feet in diameter when i felt the snow collapse beneath me. I remember instantly sitting on the snow as the snow slid. Luckily for us it didn’t propagate further than about 20 feet and we were able to ride away as it slowed down. It was more of a large settlement than a slide but either way we got lucky. Not really knowing you could avoid avalanches with any success, or that the smart folks had a beacon/shovel/probe and coursework behind them, we continued hiking and boarding all the spots at that Pass for years, regardless of slope angle – jumping off rocks and doing what we would normally do at a ski resort. Who knew there was a phone number you could call and get an avy report? What would you do with that information anyways? That’s the blind faith of youth, you just don’t think anything bad can happen.

Once i started skiing to access the backcountry I met people that became mentors, including several cyclists that i raced with in summer and fall. They were all better skiers than me, having grown up racing. I hadn’t skied in a long time and was learning to telemark so it was a rough learning curve. My first tele setup was a pair of used 205cm Tua’s with Voile 3 pin bindings and used Scarpa T2’s. I learned instantly why telemark and skiing in general was a lot nicer for touring than bootpacking or snowshoeing. The efficiency of travel with climbing skins was mind blowing and transitioning to ski on rolling terrain was so simple and clean. It was incredibly difficult to make those straight long skis turn in variable snow, but when you did carve a turn…well, i caught the bug and became one of the heel-freeing-knee-dropper clan. Since then I’ve converted to Alpine Touring bindings and locked heels but I’m glad I started out learning to tele.

Seeing how popular the BC is now is a trip. It was getting popular before Covid but now it’s just crazy. I see why people are interested, the resort lines get absurdly long on the weekends, and the price of a day lift ticket is mind-boggling! Traffic in and out of the resorts has gotten really bad, and there’s a time limit for getting fresh tracks when a high speed chairlift is shuttling everyone up. The backcountry appears empty, low stress, it doesn’t open or close at a certain time, it’s always got fresh tracks somewhere if you know where to look and put in the effort, it’s good exercise and is fun going down. It’s unlike any other sport i’ve participated in so i obviously understand the allure. I just hope everyone out there is getting some education and experience with the tools of the trade before venturing out and putting themselves and others at risk. I got really lucky for many years and still am learning each year i get out there. This last year that luck ran out when I broke my leg. I just hope I can stay lucky with my avoidance of avalanches.

Each of these pics was taken around 2006 in the same spot as my first trip into the BC but with friends and much more experience and knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: