Snow SafetyBackcountry skiing is nirvana when the weather is perfect and the snow is soft powder, but conditions can change quickly. Always check the snow report before you head into mountains.
Avalanches pose the greatest danger to backcountry skiers. Any slope, even a shallow one, can slide, but odds are greater when avalanche conditions are high: after a snowstorm or a thaw-freeze cycle. For the current avalanche forecast, contact the public agency that oversees the terrain you are planning to ski, typically the US Forest Service.
Here are a few other precautions to take:
- Always tell someone who is not going with you where you will be skiing and what time you expect to return.
- Never go alone. Three skiers are better than two. If one person gets hurt, the second can stay with the injured skier and the third can go for help.
- Have everyone wear an avalanche beacon, a small transceiver capable of sending off an electromagnetic signal, and carry a shovel and a probe in their pack.
- Spread out when traversing a snowfield, and ski one at a time down a slope to lessen the chance of triggering an avalanche.
- Head for the trees if visibility is poor. The trees add contrast to the snow and help you stay oriented in a whiteout.
- Take off your pole straps in a glade. If your pole snags on a hidden obstacle, you'll avoid wrenching your wrist and reduce the chance of a more serious injury.
Gearing UpThe right gear means better performance, comfort and safety in the backcountry. Plan to remove and add layers of clothing throughout the day as you climb up and ski down. In addition, the weather in the mountains can change at a moment's notice. Even if it is sunny and 30 degrees, be prepared for a blizzard. Here are the basics you'll need.
Clothing Wear wicking layers, starting with a base layer top and bottom, and then a fleece top. On cold days, wear fleece bottoms too. Bring a down jacket to throw on during long rest stops to conserve body heat. For the ski down, put on a Gore-tex top and bottom to keep you dry in the powder if you fall, and to protect you from the wind.
Goggles Protect your eyes with goggles, which also help block glare from the sun and snow.
Hat & Helmet On the way up, wear a hat to keep your head warm, particularly when resting. On the way down, a helmet is the safest option, particularly when skiing through trees.
Skis Any alpine ski will work, but the lighter the ski, the easier the climb. And choose a wide-waist ski to float in powder and crud. (Ask for at least 72 mm in the waist for skiing on the East Coast and 78 mm in the West.) Some skis designed specifically for backcountry skiing repel snow and can be waxed both top and bottom.
Randonnee Bindings These bindings allow your heel to move freely on the climb up, and then lock in securely for control on the way down. If you split your time between the chairlifts and the backcountry, put them on your alpine skis and use the same set-up for both.
Ski Poles Backcountry buffs prefer telescoping poles. The lightest are carbon fiber or titanium. Use wider baskets at the base of your pole if the snow is deep.
Skins Removable synthetic skins stick to the bottom of your skis, providing traction for the climb up.
Ski Boots Randonnee boots are softer, lighter and fit closer to the foot than most alpine boots. They have a pronounced "walk" function for more flexibility while climbing, yet still provide alpine-like support when turning downhill.
Ski Socks Avoid blisters with a thin technical wool or synthetic sock, which also provides warmth and superior wicking.
Backpack You might not ski on the groomers with a pack, but in the backcountry, it carries food, water, safety gear, extra clothing and skins.
A former member of the U.S. Ski Team, Lisa Densmore skis about 80 days a year and prefers skiing in the backcountry when the powder is light and deep to just about anything else in life.
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