Editor’s Note: This is Part 4 of a four-part series on The Art of Skinning. Read Part 1: An Education, Part 2: The Equipment, and Part 3: The Approach. Contributing Editor John Robison IV explores the backcountry, the culmination for a lifetime of education in the mountains.
Author’s Note: I am by no means a professional, or even all experienced. I’m sharing this partly for selfish reasons — to drill it all down while it’s fresh — and partly to share my perspective as a freshman backcountry rider for those who are interested in getting into backcountry skiing. This is not a comprehensive work, merely an introduction to an immense and complex subject.
This final part is the shortest in this series for a reason. Riding “the line” is the smallest aspect to backcountry skiing; it’s almost an afterthought. As visions of stomping monster unridden lines dance in the heads of freshmen backcountry riders, the veterans know… the downhill bit goes by in a flash.
Of course, in the backcountry there are many more factors to consider before riding a line than at the resort. First and foremost would be constant awareness — each person must be always looking, listening and feeling for variations in the slope that may indicate a “loaded” area. Each section of the descent needs to be discussed and the safest manner of travel decided. Usually this means skiers and riders going one at a time, meeting at a safe point downslope, assessing the next pitch, then continuing in the same fashion. This is to minimize risk and maximize the likelihood of a safe and efficient response in the event of a slide.
Look for rock or tree outcroppings as these may represent a weakness in the snow layer. The “convex roll,” where a slope steepens quickly and stresses the bonded layers, is another point where an avalanche is likely to be triggered. Fresh snow (deposited less than 24 hours prior) has not had time to settle and bond with the snowpack; it will be very touchy and prone to slide. Rapidly changing conditions such as temperature rise or high winds also may make for changes in the snowpack that must be assessed before dropping in. Listen for “whumps” or cracking, rapid changes in snowpack may trigger a slide even a mile away.
Keep in mind the ramifications of getting caught in a slide: skiing a benign slope might seem fine, but the presence of a massive cliff just below may change the danger level. And as amazing as it would be to grasp that state of peak flow for a continuous four minute descent of a 4,000 foot pitch, what if your partner was buried right at the top of the section? Uphill travel can be extremely slow and tedious: bear this in mind when deciding on meet-up points.
Furthermore, snow conditions can be much more difficult in the backcountry than on the manicured resort. Depending on angle, aspect, and weather history, one line can lead from blower pow to icey crud to crusty marshmallow in a matter of seconds. Always bear in mind: the patrol is not a short lift ride away. There are no toboggans to haul you out. If you injure yourself, you are imperiling your own life and the lives of your teammates. The backcountry is not the place to test the limit of your downhill technique. (For a grounding account of just this read Trevor Husted’s recollection of a backcountry injury, and the subsequent negotiating of a foreign healthcare system with an open tibia fracture.)
Frankly, riding pow is the smallest component of a day in the backcountry. Hours of effort go into riding one simple line — if the reason for learning to ski in the backcountry is to ride huge pow lines, motivation will dry up quickly. The lifelong backcountry skier must love the entire process: the research before the trip, the maintenance of the equipment, the trust in the team, the rote effort of climbing a steep powder slope, the feeling of frigid fingers with no warming hut to pop into. Those who can embrace this, who love the mountains for the raw aliveness that only they can evoke, get to enjoy the limitless and effortless feeling of riding down the mountain, earned by their own exertions.
This is skiing in its purest form.