Have you ever been backcountry skiing or splitboarding? Lugging yourself and all your gear up a mountain on your back and travelling for what seems like forever to distant peaks takes a real adventurer and passion for powder. But wait, let’s just check that we’re all on the same page as to what ‘backcountry skiing’ really means.
Backcountry skiing is skiing in unmarked or unpatrolled areas not within a ski resort or area. Usually a long snowshoe hike, uphill ski climb with the use of skins (adhesive tread for your skis), or drop from a helicopter is required to get to the best spots. There are no defined runs and no ski patrol to pull you up by your bootstraps when you’re down, so make sure you bring some friends. Never go into the backcountry alone if you want to come out. It is wild, untamed and exhilarating. Let’s be clear: hitting the runs in your neon onesie or Santa suit at Whistler-Blackcomb is not backcountry skiing.
It’s an adventure sport for those seeking pure wilderness, isolation from resort crowds and huge highs of personal achievement. It’s an exciting prospect and one that might get you wanting to snap your heels into your skis ASAP, but it’s an endeavour that mustn’t be taken lightly. It must be emphasized that backcountry skiing is risky. The mountains are a powerful domain in all seasons of the year, but winter is avalanche season. It’s essential you are fully prepared before going out. Relevant avalanche skills training (in the form of a recognized AST course) is required. These courses will teach you about avalanche terrain, trip planning and travel techniques, and the equipment required for the backcountry (e.g. shovel, avalanche probe and beacon/transceiver) and how to use them in a rescue. An online tutorial is also available for an introduction and some pre-course preparation (though is not a substitute for the hands-on course). Having the right gear for your trip is absolutely essential, and you can find introductory guides here and here. Navigational and winter survival skills are also a must. MEC has regular events across Canada introducing navigation and backcountry skills e.g. the Backcountry 101 series and Digital Navigation 101 (refine your search to the ‘Hiking and Camping’ category). For winter and wilderness survival courses, check out these mountain schools for your area. Once you have some courses under your belt, and experience under the guide of a professional, you’re ready for your own adventure.
Now that we know what this incredible outdoor activity is and how to do it properly, here are five reasons why backcountry skiing is just better than ordinary, resort skiing.
An overnight backcountry ski trip is made just that bit more amazing if you’re staying in a hut perched atop a mountain. Those hours of pain after hiking all day in the snow will almost immediately be forgotten when the glow of your destined hut pops up on the horizon. Lighting up the wood stove inside and melting a pot full of snow to make hot chocolate will make this your greatest outdoor adventure yet. And you haven’t even started skiing.
Slugging it up a mountain with your skis strapped to your back at times can be nothing but awkward and painful. You’ll get used to feeling pain all over your body, adjusting whether it should be your shoulders or feet that are screaming for mercy. If you’ve come prepared, you’ll improvise and make the best of any situation. Got blisters? Whack some duct tape on those heels. Tent ripped? Duct tape. Need to fashion a spoon because you forgot yours? Sticks and duct tape. Just please don’t forget the duct tape. You’ll learn just how innovative you can really be when you need to survive out there.
Mountains as far as you can see and powder as deep as you could ever dream of. In no time you’ll be floating along on top of the pow that’s there just for you. Spray it about and make it worth it. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot some wildlife in what seems like an inhabitable landscape. You’d be surprised. While you’re out there in the middle of nowhere and as tired as you may be, pop your head out the door in the dead of the night and catch the Milky Way or even Lady Aurora dance across the sky.
No more lift lines
It may be hard work getting up there and the reason for lifts may quickly become apparent, but it’ll be worth it. After a big sleep and bite to eat, you’re going to want to make sure that your ski down is even better, and you won’t have to wait around for it. “Earn your turns”, as they say. You’ve covered all that distance and now you have this whole terrain just for you and your mates. No one will be shredding that line you were wanting to drop right in front of you.
You’ll come back from the backcountry a new person. At the end of the day, you will look back at the top of the peak and tell yourself, “I did that”. Your grit and commitment got you there and it got you down in one piece, with a stoke level envied by all. You’ll never be the same skiier. Your stories will be raw, real and will help inspire your resort-hopping pals. Be careful though – as much as they might envy you, you yourself, will always be left craving more remote vistas.