Backcountry Travel

Christmas Moose, not taking chances this year.

Lots of articles about the pandemic nudging newbies into the backcountry. With that in mind, I thought I’d share a handful of thoughts that should be front and center of your mind.

Here’s a weird stat – attending an avalanche safety course is correlated with avalanche fatalities. In Colorado, we even had a course get swept.

I have a theory – it may be because the techniques taught don’t work very well.

Avoidance is the only safe strategy for avalanche terrain – at my last avy class, we carefully dug four pits on the same slope. Each pit gave a different snapshot of the slope. None agreed – hands down the best lesson of the course.

Don’t trust a pit.

Do know your slope angle. Caltopo.Com is a great research tool => check “slope angle shading” as a “Map Overlay”.

The lake in the middle of this shot was the site of a fatal avalanche. Two guys dug a pit to see if conditions were OK. The slope went and one skier was killed when the debris broke the ice on top of the lake and he went in.

Even if you are not on a slope, you can get killed from above. I was reminded of that because I read every single accident report on the CAIC’s website.

Such a great site – it’s a shame we don’t see the lives saved and accidents avoided. The CAIC team do very good work.

Some of these reports are tough reading. Snowmobilers doing everything right last season near Vail. Two fathers killed while their wives/babies were waiting in a backcountry hut near Aspen. I read the reports and bear witness to the survivors.

A Better Place To Learn

One of the best developments of the last few years is resorts opening their terrain to uphill skiing. Lots of positive impact from this:

  • You can travel light and choose your effort => typically, with a backcountry setup and avy gear, the slope chooses your effort.
  • You benefit from the resort’s avy control and grooming.
  • There’s usually a parking lot below you and other skiers around you.
  • You can follow your uphill effort with a couple hours of lift-assisted turns – making turns after a long climb is a different type of fitness. It reminds me of running off the bike.

The last point is fundamental. It will take forever to learn your turns in the backcountry. There isn’t enough opportunity to make turns.

If you want to become proficient then 100 days on snow, split 50/50 between alpine/uphill, focus on tress/steeps/bumps on the resort. Two seasons of that protocol, with a year-round strength program, and you’ll be decent. Four seasons and you could be skiing like an instructor.

Maybe you don’t want to be a great skier. It does take a lot of time!

What follows will help you enjoy yourself and avoid unforced errors.


In the backcountry, if you get wet and lose your ability to move then you will find yourself in a survival situation.

My family thinks I’m an absolute nut about shelter from the wind and not getting damp. That’s because they’ve never found themselves in an unplanned survival situation!

Shovel, puffy in a dry bag, sil-tarp, headlamp, spare batteries => don’t die because you left a few pounds at home.

I once had to start a fire on top of my stove to keep myself from freezing. I was trying to ski from Silverthorne to Winter Park and found myself at the bottom of a snowy valley. Day light was running short and I came to a river swollen with spring run off. Running the risk of getting soaked, solo, seemed stupid so I went to Plan B. The ability to hunker down, light a fire and sleep turned a potential survival situation into a moderately entertaining adventure. I retraced my steps in the morning.

Don’t want to carry safety gear? Easy, skin at the resort.

Buy a middle of the road, lightweight touring setup then ski it at the resort. This was the best decision I made at the start of my backcountry career. My setup didn’t do anything “just right” but it let me figure things out.

Many resorts will allow you to practice in lower-stakes, but realistic, backcountry conditions by skinning up through the trees before the lifts start spinning.

Microspikes – I use them year-round on steep dirt and snow.

Navigation & Communication

iPhone, Garmin watch, inReach communicator, Earthmate app, OpenSnow app, OpenSummit app, CAIC app, googling trip reports, downloading photos/tracks in advance. All useful.

A skill that might save you a night out, or worse…

  • using GPS, find yourself on a map
  • figure out where you’d like to go
  • lay down a waypoint
  • navigate to the waypoint

Learn it before you need it because…

On a changing slope, in the trees, when the clouds roll in… it can be impossible to get your bearings and, if you’re like me, then you can burn a lot of energy resisting the reality that you’re lost!

The circle in the middle was my track before I stopped, relaxed, had something to eat/drink, got my Navi-gear out and decided to self-rescue (from a route I’d done a half dozen times before). I thought I was following another skier until I realized it was my own track! Humbling.

In Vail, we lost a well loved ski instructor because he decided to ski home via the side-country. A navigation app OR a shovel OR a set of skins probably would have saved his life.

He got lost, got cold, sat down and died => an easily avoidable tragedy.

It can happen to any of us.