Many skiers realize at a certain point that it might be worthwhile to get off the beaten track and away from the well groomed monitored pistes of Ski Resorts. They are feeling the call of the wild backcountry. Backcountry skiing is a term used for all kinds of skiing that is done in the wild, where there are no lifts, no pistes, no lodges, no patrols, or other comforts. It is back to basics, just you, your gear, and nature.
Backcountry Skiing is for more advanced Skiers only and you will need to have a lot more knowledge and (other) Skiing skills before you leave the safe environment that snow resorts create. This section introduces you to Off Piste and Backcountry Skiing and how you can take your first try at it. It also explains what the essential gear it that you should take with you on a backcountry trip.
If you learned to Ski on well groomed pistes in nice snow resorts then you are in for a surprise when you go off piste. The wild can be relentless.
Snow & Surface Conditions
You will need a high skill level on all kinds of surface. From the hardest Ice to the softest Powder, you will need to be able to maintain total control of your skis no matter what the mountain throws at you.
In Ski Resorts you might have been confronted with the occasional tree along the piste. Off piste you will have to have enough control to avoid crashes with trees and boulders or falls off cliffs or crevasses. You will need to have enough turning and stopping power to avoid these obstacles last minute.
Mountain & Rescue Skills
Avalanche Awareness, First Aid and basic Mountaineering skills are essential for backcountry Skiing. Make sure to learn them either through books or preferably through licensed instructors.
Make sure you are able to assess possible dangerous situations and deal with them wisely. Hundreds of people injure themselves each year in Backcountry Skiing and most of the accidents could have been avoided.
Gear & Preparations
As explained above you will need to increase your knowledge and skills before you can take off into the wild. Check the following:
If you are planning to ski off piste a lot then you might want to consider purchasing special backcountry Skis. These are specifically designed to handle backcountry conditions. Make sure to bring climbing skins for your Skis. This will make it much easier to make your way up on Skis.
Gear & Supplies
Pack the following basics:
- First Aid Kit – in case of accidents
- Food & Water – for nutrition
- Extra Clothing – in case of colder weather
- Detailed Map of the area – for nowing your whereabouts
- A compass or GPS – for coordination
- Mobile Phone – for contacting people
- Sunblock – for protection from the sun
- Goggles – for protection from the sun, snow, ice and branches
- Helmet – for head protection
- Emergency Whistle – for calling attention
- Avalanche Transceivers – for telling your whereabouts in an avalanche
- Snow Shovels – for digging yourself out of the snow
Depending on the route your are taking and the terrain you will encounter:
- Trekking Poles – for trekking difficult terrain
- Snow Shoes – for crossing deep snow
- Belays and Harnasses – for climbing
- Ropes – for crevasse rescue and rock-/ice climbing
- Crampons – for icy surfaces and ice climbing
- Ice Axes – for icy surfaces and ice climbing
Getting into it…
There is no simple way to learn Backcountry Skiing. You will need to push your own limits untill you are confident enough to really go for it. The following list could be a good road map to set you up for backcountry Skiing:
- Make sure that your standard Skiing techniques are well developed and you posses the skills described above.
- Once you are ready for it give small off piste runs a try in your snow resort. Make runs through the trees and practice your last moment turning skills. Do not make these runs alone, take a friend who can help you in the worst case.
- Work on your basic Mountain & Survival Skills and Knowledge as described above.
- Try the unmarked/ungroomed backcountry routes that some larger ski resorts offer. Make sure to plan these runs ahead and know the route you are going take. Try making them with someone who knows the area and is more experienced. Take the backcountry gear with you as described above.
- Once you are at a comfortable with backcountry routes you can really start planning your own routes. From this point on the sky is the limit! You could hike/climb up and board down, book runs with snowcat transport or head for the skies with a helicopter. At this moment Heli-Skiing is pretty much the limit when it comes to Backcountry Skiing…