Backcountry skiing is a romantic prospect for adventurers. Trekking across an isolated mountain, gliding through fresh snow, breaking new ground; does it get much better? But despite the obvious attracion, this is one activity that should not be undertaken lightly...
For some, going backcountry skiing or snowboarding means hiking deep into the wilderness to make turns where no one else has been. To others, it’s riding an out-of-bounds slope at a ski resort. Regardless of whether you hike, snowmobile, cat-track, skin, ride a lift or take a helicopter to get there, any time you’re outside of the restricted boundaries of a resort, you’re in the backcountry.
If you think you are ready to give backcountry a go – don’t. Well, at least not until you have had some real training with experienced guides. Here are some steps to get underway with backcountry.
Take a backcountry skiing or snowboarding course
Backcountry skiing and snowboarding require several new skills, like using touring bindings, skinning uphill, managing terrain, reading the weather and planning. In a backcountry touring course, you’ll learn the right way to do these things from trained and experienced professionals, rather than stumbling through them on your own or with a mate.
Avalanches pose a genuine danger to backcountry travellers. During an average year in New Zealand, there will be 37 reported avalanche involvements, which will result in 24 people being caught in avalanches, one of whom will die. If you want to ski or snowboard in the backcountry, you must enrol in avalanche safety training taught by a qualified professional.
Work on your ski-fitness
You don’t need to be a top athlete to go backcountry skiing or snowboarding but climbing uphill in fresh snow can be tricky, so it’s worth assessing your skiing ability and fitness level before heading out.
Skiing ability: It’s generally recommended that you can confidently ski or ride the blue (intermediate) runs at a ski field – at the very least – before taking on the backcountry.
Fitness level: If you’re reasonably fit, you can most likely enjoy a moderate backcountry tour. As you aspire to take on bigger trips and spend long days out touring, you will need to ramp up your fitness level.
Get geared up
To maximise your fun out there, you’ll want to get outfitted with backcountry-specific gear – and it’s essential you obtain the required avalanche safety equipment.
Avalanche safety equipment
Before you set foot in the backcountry, you and everyone else in your group must carry several safety items (and know how to use them):
Avalanche transceiver: A transceiver emits a signal that rescuers can pick up with their transceivers. The receiving transceivers interpret and turn the signal into a visual and audio display, which helps a great deal when searching for missing adventurers.
Avalanche shovel: A snow shovel is essential for testing snow conditions and digging out victims. Don’t use any old shovel; get one specifically designed for backcountry travel from a reputable outfitter.
Avalanche probe: This collapsible pole is used to probe for a buried victim during the pinpoint phase of the search.
Though not one of the three necessary items, avalanche airbag packs are becoming increasingly popular. These packs have an airbag which is typically deployed by manually pulling a ripcord. The airbag inflates and can help you rise to the top of an avalanche debris field.
Backcountry ski and snowboard equipment
There is a wide range of backcountry equipment available. Before buying, think about where you like to ski or snowboard and what type of terrain you prefer.
This will help you determine the balance of weight and performance which will work for you.
For instance, skiers who want to cover lots of ground and climb to high elevations prefer lighter setups, happy to sacrifice performance in deep snow. Skiers who specific skis are usually lighter than downhill skis, making uphill travel easier.
Backcountry skis: All downhill skis that can be mounted with backcountry bindings and taken out on tour are fine, but backcountry specific skis are usually lighter than downhill skis, making uphill travel easier.
Backcountry ski bindings: The defining feature of backcountry bindings is the ability to move your heels up and down so you can tour up the mountain. The majority of backcountry skiers use alpine touring bindings, which allow you to lock your heels down at the top of the hill so you can ski back down making parallel turns as you would while downhill skiing.
Skins: Skins are like pieces of material that temporarily stick to the bottom of your skis to provide traction for going uphill. When you get to the top, you take them off your skis or board and then ski or ride back down. They are essential if you don’t want to carry your skis or snowboard on your backpack. Some skins are made to fit specific ski models, while others are long rectangular strips sold in different widths which will need to be trimmed to fit. Once again, it’s about getting good advice. Backcountry skiing opens a vast amount of terrain. New Zealand has some of the best backcountry terrain in the world, and some of it is easier to reach than others – but the rewards are well worth it.
New Zealand has some of the best backcountry terrain in the world, and some of it is easier to reach than others
Once you’ve done it once, you’ll be addicted!
Article by: Steve Dickinson