Where to go is a common question. One of the great aspects of travel over snow is you can go pretty much anywhere you want, instead of where the trail-builders want you to go. That leads to a lot of choices, often with local names that don’t appear on any maps. When you’re starting out, where do you go to find the goods?
The first place to look is in local shops for winter backcountry maps and guidebooks. Look at the descriptions carefully to figure out the best slope for a sunny spring day or mid-winter after heavy snowfall accompanied by strong NW wind.
Explore. Learn to watch for and avoid avalanche terrain traps and exposure to dangerous slopes and go wander. Follow other skin tracks. Use mapping programs to identify slopes steep enough to ride without getting into the 30-40 degree avalanche risk zone, and facing towards the North side of the compass to get the least sun-affected snow. Follow your local social media and figure out where others have gone or are going. Maybe go there, or somewhere different but with similar elevation and aspect, but be aware that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “you can’t always believe everything you read on the Internet.”
Pay attention and prioritize learning. Ditch the ear buds and listen to the snow, the weather and your partners. Ask questions. Getting into backcountry riding without an experienced mentor is risky as well as not much fun. Finding or making friends with those more experienced and willing to show you around and teach you the tricks will grow your skills quickly. If you don’t have a network of backcountry-savvy friends, consider taking an avalanche class and befriending other students, looking for outdoor clubs like the Mountaineers (Seattle), Mazamas (Portland), or Wasatch Mountain Club (Salt Lake City), or just channeling your best extrovert skills and introducing yourself to those you meet on a skin track or at a trailhead. Consider spending some days with a professional guide. Following a pro who knows snow and terrain, paying attention and asking a lot of questions, can be your best bang for the buck for experiencing and learning about safe backcountry travel.
The safety and wisdom of backcountry skiing solo is constantly debated. A partner gives you a factor of safety in case of an injury or an avalanche burial and often more voices in the conversation lead to more options and better decisions. Solo backcountry travel when you are new to the game adds risk and limits your learning—we don’t recommend it.
Backcountry riding offers big rewards in exchange for hard work, climbing a steep learning curve and investing in specialized gear and training. It’s not for everyone. It trades the quantity of runs you can get with a lift ticket for the quality of untracked snow all day long. It requires you to stay alert to changing conditions and threats. Your gear choices affect your comfort and fun, even more so than when you’re riding lifts. Once you have the gear, it’s inexpensive, not counting the extra calories you’ll likely consume at the end of the day. After a few days of riding nothing but untracked powder, that smug look on your face may become permanent and you may never find the resort quite as appealing again.
Paul Diegel has been with the Utah Avalanche Center since 2001 as a volunteer board member, full time Executive Director responsible for communications, marketing, fundraising, strategy, and UAC business operations, and most recently as a part time advisor and creator of eLearning avalanche classes. Paul grew up skiing; racing, competing in the early days of freestyle, and speed skiing. He has degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Bioengineering, and an M.B.A.. He spent 30 years in technical and business roles focused on biotechnology product development, while skiing at every opportunity and ski instructing and patrolling. He skis and splitboards in the backcountry and competes in Ski Mountaineering and spends summers trail running, biking, and exploring whitewater.
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