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Out of Bounds

Skiing the Backcountry

By: Michael F. McGuffin


An unforgettable sky, a flawless sapphire canopy, radiated above my partner, Silas Wild, and I as we mechanically skied up the slope. Stripped down to his long underwear, Silas steamed with sweat as he pushed through the knee-deep powder, patiently etching a hairline furrow in the newborn snow. After an hour of hard labor, we reached the ridge above Union Creek Basin where we stripped off our climbing skins, pulled on our parkas and dove into the tree-lined slope. I fought to keep up as Silas cruised the upper slope, plunged through a gully, ran a clump of trees like slalom gates before thankfully gliding to a halt on the valley floor. Perfect days are rare here in the Cascades, but for the small group of Northwest skiers who venture into the backcountry the memory, or simply the dream, of perfection keeps them pushing uphill, always searching for one more fix.

As the name suggests, backcountry, or as the chic say - off-piste, skiing is touring, climbing and descending terrain accessed only by human power. Backcountry skiers use specialized boots, bindings and, most importantly, climbing skins, strips of fabric or serrated rubber which attach to ski base providing uphill traction, to access remote terrain (some backcountry skiers forgo the added hassle of climbing skins in favor of either waxless touring skis, which have a textured base, or climbing wax to gain uphill traction, however the steep slopes and heavy snow of the Cascades make skins the popular option). Until recently, backcountry skiers primarily used free-heel equipment and descended remote slopes using the distinctive telemark turn. Today however many skiers are opting to use European-style alpine touring (AT), or, as itís known in the Alps, randonnee equipment. AT gear differs from the free heel set up in that the skierís heels are secured to the skis enabling the use of traditional alpine ski techniques, instead of the difficult to learn and strenuous telemark.

Lugged soles and a flexible ankle cuff (the cuff can be locked down for more control on descents) distinguish AT boots from traditional alpine footgear. Lugged soles, like those found on mountaineering boots, provide traction while hiking, skinning or kicking steps, the flexible cuff allows the skier to walk using a normal stride. AT bindings latch at the heel and hinge at the toe. This design feature allows the skier to climb steep grades by pivoting on the forward hinge; securing the heel allows the same descent techniques used and learned at all resort areas. Many ski manufacturers offer lightweight backcountry skis, however many AT skiers forgo the added cost of a specialized ski by simply using a short downhill ski. It is not uncommon to see 170cm and 180cm skis on backcountry slopes.

A more traditional, and some purists would argue the preferred, way to descend backcountry slopes is to use free heel equipment and the graceful telemark turn. Free heel boots allow forward flex and attach to the ski solely at the toe using either three pin or cable bindings enabling the skier to execute the distinctive kneeling telemark. Free heel skiing flexes the skis differently than fixed heel skiing, consequently telemarkers use specially designed boards. The telemark is exhausting and difficult to master, however recent advances in equipment design, namely the introduction of all-plastic telemark boots, has given free heel skiers access to steeper, narrower more aggressive terrain.

Last winter while making a free heel descent from Mt. Rainierís Camp Muir I fought to keep my skis from submerging into the crusty windblown snow. My forty-pound pack wasnít helping matters as I continually plunged face first into the slope. A friend, who was skiing on AT gear. couldnít understand my trouble; he simply hit a few jump turns, glided to a stop and waited as I tumbled downhill. Because it allows the use of common ski techniques AT gear eases the transition from resort to backcountry, however the subtle ecstasy of the telemark makes the struggle to learn it seem trivial.

Regardless of form, backcountry skiing requires a high level of wilderness travel and survival skills. No skier should enter the backcountry without the equipment, knowledge and stamina to survive an emergency situation in a cold, oftentimes hostile environment. Map reading and orienteering skills are a must as there are no trails to follow in the snow-coated backcountry. The most significant hazard to backcountry travelers, however, is also the most overlooked: avalanche.

Every year backcountry travelers are buried alive in avalanches, some survive because their partners, had the equipment and knowledge to quickly locate and rescue them, others are not so fortunate. The importance of avalanche awareness - knowing how to judge the stability of a slope, as well as expertise in locating a buried victim using avalanche probes and transceivers are a must for all backcountry skiers. While there are several books on this subject, I suggest enrolling in an avalanche awareness class, preferably one that includes a field trip, before venturing into the winter wilderness.

To most, the idea of skiing without lifts is akin to living without electricity, they shake their heads saying, you actually walk up the hill, youíre crazy. They may be right, maybe backcountry skiers are a bit touched, but a trackless world where quiet and freedom remain the rule, not the exception, is a glorious asylum.