I decided during this past summer that this winter I would get back to doing something I enjoy almost as much as anything else – skiing in the back-country. I tried not to make a big deal of my stated desire, as I had not to a great degree skied in downhill equipment let alone in the back-country in few years. As most of you know I snow-shoe and use traditional cross-country ski’s on the valley floor, but the feeling and effort is very different than summiting a peak, mountain or top ridge-line and then skiing down.
I have been lucky enough to have experienced skiing the most demanding terrain offered by the most challenging ski resorts in Western North America – as Linda and I would ski 50-75 days a year from British Columbia to New Mexico. On some days it feels as if this happened just before the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Although the views can be extraordinary and the amount of vertical that can be skied is substantial via Heli-skiing and Snowcat skiing; I feel most of the enjoyment I get from skiing is gained from the effort of getting to the top by your own energy and physical efforts.
My son (Kyle) and I discussed my desire as we summited the highest peaks in each of the five mountain ranges in the area this summer. Kyle said he had an interest in giving back-country downhill skiing a try given that my main goal was to use it as an effort to continue to be outdoors and trade skis with skins for hiking boots so as to experience the region we love so much. With Linda’s approval Kyle and I decided give things a try.
Given the equipment is so dramatically different than when I last used it on a regular basis and I had not really done much in recent years, Kyle and I agreed not to push anything to hard or fast. We agreed to effectively start from ground zero in terms of education and equipment. With the help of local retailers who I have known and trusted for almost 30 years and friends who ski in the back-country on a regular basis we selected equipment. Ironically, my friend Peter LaFleur who follows the industry as close as anyone I know and is a superb and sound skier and Andy Muenter who owns Backwoods Sports and sold me my first back-country equipment in 1985 recommended exactly the same gear. Given that Andy’s policy allows you to try and return or buy any gear he recommends Kyle and I outfitted ourselves quickly.
I will admit there are plenty of toys in sports. However, much of what would be perceived as toys in this sport could end up saving your life – if used correctly. Skiing in the back-country can be exceptionally dangerous. Horrible killer snow slides can occur no matter the preparation and care taken. Kyle and I agreed that we would carry the proper safety equipment and know how to use it, that we would always know the snow conditions via the very latest reports and know how to confirm the conditions in the spot we are about to ski and most importantly neither of us would ski in a spot if the other disagreed. We started slowly skiing of the backside of Elkhorn in order to get our bearings and become familiar with our equipment. Before any ski we review conditions via the Sawtooth Avalanche Center as the avalanche danger can be considerable especially in the steep wind-eroded areas of the upper elevations. If available we look videos by staff that show the snow-pack and conditions. Last weekend we put on our skins and climb about 500′ vertical and ski off the top of Galena Summit on the north and western facing slopes.
On this day Kyle and I decide we will start at Galena Summit but head west southwest to the top of Titus Ridge and ski back down to Kyle’s truck from the very top of the ridge-line through chutes and trees and around Titus Lake. This effort will require about 1,400 ‘ vertical of climbing in two miles. It should be noted it has effectively not snowed for six weeks, but there is over 48″ of snow where we are skiing and today the avalanche danger is very low. Even though there is no “new” snow, Kyle and I find plenty of spots for skiing in fresh lite powder – one of the advantages of being in the back-country at over 10,000 feet in elevation. We check the snow conditions and avoid going off the top of a cornice that looked ever so inviting. The initial 600-700 of vertical is fairly steep (~55 degrees in pitch) and the powder is a little over waist high. The next portions are not as steep (~30 degrees in pitch) and a easy float on the snow. Most of the last stretch is a traverse on a south-facing slope. The conditions are crusty and remind me of the north-country at Crystal Mountain adjacent Mt. Rainer in Washington State. The last pitch to the road is in shade and the snow is light.
Kyle and I walked back to the car with smiles on our faces.