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Tracks Less Travelled; First Steps to Backcountry Skiing

back country skiers follow a skin track

Winter wonderland, skiing in mellow backcountry terrain

Walking on skis through snow-covered woods is my favorite winter exercise.

As much as I love carving up a sleeping powder bowl with perfect turns, skiing in avalanche terrain requires more preparation, planning, and partners.

Backcountry skiing is as much about skiing the steep and deep as it is about getting into the peace and quiet of the winter wonderland. It’s about leaving behind the shouts and bustle of the ice park, the constant whir and clink of running lifts.

In the backcountry, I find space to rejuvenate, to reflect, and to breathe deeply.

If you’re just getting started, you should know that there is plenty of mellow backcountry terrain. There are many places where you can avoid avalanche terrain altogether and just learn about walking through snow-covered woods.

Get the Gear

A lightweight set-up is key for enjoying tracks away from the crowds. Good enough is perfect, but err on the side of light.

SKIS:

Lighter is better, and in the 90-105 mm range underfoot.

BOOTS:

Comfortable is better, with a wide range for walking.

BINDINGS:

I recommend tech bindings, which allow free heels for climbing and locked heels for the way back down.

SKINS:

They should fit so that the metal edge of your ski is exposed on both sides, nothing more, nothing less.

SHOVEL, BEACON, & PROBE:

You MUST have rescue gear whether you are in avalanche terrain or not. A shovel, beacon and probe come with me on ALL my ski adventures.

Start Small and Simple

Getting used to your gear will take a little time. But that’s ok because it’s fun!

Choose a groomed cross country ski trail or a snow-packed, low-angle backroad to make your first tracks. Without leaving civilization too far behind, you can focus on learning key movements:

EFFICIENT STRIDE:

Let your skins glide over the snow.

SKIN TO SKI TRANSITION:

Practice going from skin mode, to ski mode, and back again. It’s much harder to make this transition in deep snow, steep terrain and wind. Run through the process a few times in the parking lot, or in your living room!

GET TO KNOW YOUR BINDINGS:

Make sure you understand features like heel risers.

Where is it Safe? Make a Plan

Things look different in winter. Even very familiar summer hiking areas can become confusing when covered in snow. Remember that summer trails are made for summer travel i.e. when there’s no avalanche hazard.

GET THE LAY OF THE LAND:

  • Before you leave the trailhead look for major landmarks to orient yourself.
  • Use a GPS app on your smart phone to help figure out the terrain.
  • Always bring a paper map along for backup.

STICK TO FLAT AREAS:

Chart a course that is well separated from any steep slopes. Small, rolling hills with trees, or the foothills, are a good place to start.

GET INFORMATION:

  • Inquire at the local backcountry store for places to go.
  • Purchase and read a guidebook.

Partners?!

I don’t always remember the ski runs I did, but I always remember my partners—friends who skied with me.

A partner is a great backup if you’re just figuring everything out. Even better is an experienced friend willing to mentor you.

Going alone is ok, too. I do it all the time. But be sure to give yourself even bigger margins for error:

  • Don’t even get close to avalanche terrain.
  • Tell someone where you’re going.
  • Stick to well-travelled paths that will easily lead you back to your car.

Bonus Tip:

Rent gear from a local Backcountry ski store. This way you can try out the equipment and narrow down the endless choices.

Buying Online?

I have bought boots online, but, in general, it’s best to try them on.

You can find Rescue Gear as a set online for the best deals.

Bonus Video:

Ski Mountaineering is “The Goods!”

 

Angela Hawse ski mountaineering in Antarctica

Angela Hawse ski mountaineering in Antarctica

There’s an illicit and secret connotation in the expression, “The Goods.” It’s as if anything that is really good must somehow be too good to be true, in other words, wrong.

Winter has finally arrived and my backyard, Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, is ripe for getting “The Goods.” There’s nothing better, nothing more complete, and nothing more right, than ski mountaineering.

I learned how to ski when I was 17, straight off the YMCA bus, schooled in hard knocks and anything goes.

Free-heeling was the rage; and for years I got more face shots from falling on my face than I got from powder turns.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid 40’s and serious about guide certification that I finally fixed my heel, thus fixed my face-plant problem, and found my calling.

I love climbing mountains but non-technical descents are not very enjoyable.

I’ve found with skiing, I can dance with gravity on the descent, linking turns with the wind in my face. And, cut the time down in less than half!

Ski mountaineering makes what was already fun, more fun, and in large part adds a degree of safety. I’m more nimble. I can move through terrain faster and more efficiently. This broadens my scope of possibility and minimizes my exposure to hazards.

But what I love most about skiing is that that it requires digging deeply. From just getting started, all the way to ski mountaineering, backcountry skiing encompasses big picture stuff like weather, avalanche hazard, communication, and technical skill. It requires homework. You don’t just show up when you go skiing.

Which is why I couldn’t be more stoked that Chicks has rounded out its mountain sports collective with backcountry ski basics, avalanche courses and ski mountaineering for a full line up the mountain and more fun on the way back down.

 See ya on the slopes!

 

Angela Hawse, Co-owner Chicks Climbing and Skiing, IFMGA Mountain Guide

Skiing the Andes

It’s early September and I’m heading to Chile in South America to ski the Andes, direct from rock climbing in New Hampshire and I couldn’t be more stoked.  I arrive a few hours after my guests, who are waiting at our lodge at the head of the Maipo Valley for 6 days of big mountain skiing. 

Within an hour of my taxi ride out of the Santiago airport, I come across an accident on the road that looks bad. I see someone laying prone, vehicles stopped and lots of people standing around.  I jump out to see if I can help.  An elderly lady, Señora Rosa, is on her back not moving with blood oozing out of her forehead. There’s easily a half a liter already pooled on the pavement.  I fire through my duffel to find a first aid kit and apply heavy dressings and direct pressure to stop the bleeding.  Although I get by in Spanish generally, the entire scene was chaos.  I asked someone to call 911, hold pressure on the bleed and I checked out Señora Rosa from head to toe but hesitated to move her until the ambulance showed up 30 minutes later.  By that time she was still coherent but deteriorating and I realized I probably saved this woman’s life by stopping her bleed and being a trained first responder. Training matters. After helping lift her into the gurney, I left the scene in a daze, jet-lagged and sad that I’d probably never know the outcome of Señora Rosa. I think of her often. What a crazy start to the trip! Continuing up the Maipo Valley was sobering but my mood changed significantly when I took in the stunning scenery of huge snow-covered peaks rising to the sky and a raging river full of whitewater enthusiasts enjoying themselves.  A lone condor circled low and I knew this was going to be an amazing trip.

I arrive at our world-class lodge at the head of the Maipo Valley and enjoy a hearty welcome for my first visit. This trip has been on my bucket list for years and I’ve got four of my favorite people who have adventured the world with me for a week of heli-skiing in the Andes.  Powder South Heliski Guides is owned by a long time friend and guide who has been trying to get me down here for years. I can hardly wait to get out and experience their terrain and wonder what the heck I was waiting for.  It looks much like the San Juan Mountains on steroids, times three.

After moving into my spacious room I meet the other guide from France, the Operations Director from Mexico and our pilot from Santiago.  I’m the first woman guide they’ve ever had at Powder South and am greeted with nothing but respect, professionalism and very little ego. We talk, laugh at our language hiccups and I sense it’s going to be a fun week working with these guys.  Communication is a crucial aspect of heli-skiing. Prior concerns I had about language challenges were immediately put to ease.

My guests are thrilled with the luxury accommodations and hospitality of the lodge.  I’ve got two gals from my hometown of Ridgway in tow and a lovely couple from Jackson that I’ve skied within Antarctica over the past 3 seasons.  At a 4:1 ratio, it’s pretty unusual to only have one dude along with 4 women, especially for heli-skiing!  It’s a semi-private week with only one other group, composed more typically of all men.  They’re pretty stoked to see how much fun we are about to have as my group doesn’t hold back at all in that regard.

We are treated to an incredible week of seemingly endless vertical feet of skiing down open bowls and stunning couloirs.  Day one we muster over 25,000 feet of turns for our first day of the season.  Legs quivering and cheeks numb from smiling all day, we revel in one of the most spectacular places any of us have ever skied.  The terrain is too big for pictures to capture with most runs ranging from 4000 to 6500 vertical feet.  With early September rivaling spring in the Northern Hemisphere, we enjoy conditions ranging from corn on north aspects to boot top powder on the southerlies. We couldn’t be more stoked to make our first turns of the season together in such a remarkable part of the world.

I’ll be back next year for my first turns of the season in the Southern Hemisphere.  If there are any Chicks out there keen to do the same, let us know and we can put together a Chicks trip to make it happen.

What is backcountry and why is it so awesome?

BACKCOUNTRY SKIING Q & A WITH CHICKS GUIDES NORIE KIZAKI AND KAREN BOCKEL

Backcountry SkiingChicks:  Let’s start with the basics:  What is backcountry skiing?

KB:  It’s skiing outside and away from a ski resort, on unmarked, ungroomed, and unpatrolled snow slopes.  It’s my favorite kind of skiing!  Usually, you have to earn your turns by hiking uphill to get to the top of the run.  You need special equipment, including climbing skins that attach to the bottom of your skis, ski boots that have a walk mode, and avalanche rescue gear.  You also need skills to navigate the snow-covered mountains beyond the resort.

Chicks:  Why is backcountry skiing so special?

NK:  Backcountry skiing is special because it can take us to places where we could not go otherwise. Skinning can take us a longer distance in a shorter amount of time than being on foot.  Though there is mechanized skiing in the backcountry these days, if we are talking about human powered skiing, the cost of equipment has become reasonable for most people. It is the oldest, purest and simplest method to enjoy skiing.  It was the only way for me to ski every day in winter growing up.  The very best part of backcountry skiing is the relationships you develop with people you ski with, whether they are clients, friends or your significant other.  When I think of backcountry skiing, the first thing that comes to my mind is the people with whom I have shared joyful moments.

Chicks:   What is your favorite backcountry skiing range?

KB:  The San Juan Mountains!  This is where I learned to ski (and be!) in the mountains, and therefore they are really close to my heart.  It’s where I cut my teeth, and where learned about snow and avalanches.  The high alpine terrain is just beautiful.  There are endless opportunities for big and small ski tours with good access off the high passes such as Red Mountain Pass.  The snowpack can be challenging, but when we get blue skies and powder, it’s dreamy out there.

NK:Japan!  That is where I am from.That is where I speak the language and understand the culture. That is where I do most of my ski guiding.  That is where I share joy and laughter with many of my clients, friends and my husband.  That is where I excel and can provide the best skiing experience to my clients.  I look forward to many more years of skiing and ski guiding in Japan.

Chicks:  Who can go backcountry skiing with Chicks?

KB:   Good question!  If you are an intermediate to advanced alpine skier or snowboarder, you can join Chicks with Stix.  For our Backcountry Skiing clinic on Red Mountain Pass, no prior backcountry experience is required – this course will teach you all about the backcountry!  It’s perfect for someone wanting to explore the backcountry for the first time, or for refreshing basic backcountry skills.  The Bird is also a great way to explore powder skiing in the San Juans – via helicopter!  No backcountry experience is required for this clinic either, but the pace will be a little faster and there is opportunity for lots of vertical.  If you’ve ever thought about trying heliskiing, this is the perfect intro.  By the way, we have a good description of our ski levels on our website.

NK: In terms of our In Deep trip to Japan, you would want to be intermediate resort skiers or rider, and you would want to have a few days of powder skiing experience. If you are an intermediate skier, you can learn to ski in powder quickly.  Guides can instruct you on how to ski in deep powder efficiently.  Besides skiing ability, if you enjoy the experience of a different culture and food, you will have a great time!

Chicks:  When is the best time to go backcountry skiing?

KB:  Each mountain range has their season.  Right now, at the beginning of the December, the snow cover is thin and more dangerous here in the San Juans and in the Tetons.  By January, things begin to fill in, and good skiing can be found in many areas – but always watch the avalanche danger!  In March, the sun begins to warm up the snow, and we transition into spring skiing – the time to go up high, ski big peaks and big lines.  Each part of the season has its challenges.  Make sure you and your partners are prepared.  Going with Chicks is a great way to learn from AMGA/IFMGA guides and get the best training possible!

Chicks:  Tell us about your favorite backcountry skiing day.

NK:Every day I go out is my favorite day.  I enjoy skiing with my husband whether it is a mellow tree skiing day or it is a 50-degree couloir type of day.  We also had awesome days with the Chicks In Deep last year in Hokkaido, Japan, skiing some amazing lines and laughing so hard that my stomach was hurting.   If you know me, I cannot stop smiling when I am skiing.