The popularity of backcountry skiing has taken off with the development of better gear and the rising costs of ski resort lift tickets.
The main draw is giant slopes of untracked powder snow.
Rather than a lift ticket, skiers pay their way with sweat and effort — and a healthy price tag for gear. They grind up slopes by skinning (putting climbing skins on the bottom of their skis) up hill, then ripping off the skins and skiing back down. Because of the effort, backcountry skiers are often in better shape during the winter than any other season.
Eastern Idaho and western Wyoming offers prime backcountry skiing — from the ultra popular Teton Pass area to the giant slopes of the Lost River and Lemhi ranges.
On the downside, skiers must be ever vigilant about avalanche conditions. In this backcountry, there are generally no ski patrols, quick rescues or nearby warm lodges. Here we talk to four people who love their backcountry skiing.
Occupation: Physical therapist
How long have you been backcountry skiing? 2 years
Where are your favorite places to ski? I don’t think I can say I have a favorite place. I am more interested in exploring new places. I have spent a lot of time in the Lost River Range, the Pioneers and around Teton Pass.
What attracts you to this recreation? The beauty, the challenge, the thrill, the unexpected, the snow and skiing.
What was your most epic day skiing? Each day in the backcountry is epic in its own way. There are so many. Leatherman and Devil’s Bedstead are near the top of the list. But the one that sticks out the most would have to be spring skiing in the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon. Perfect weather, amazing company, and two strenuous climbs to (the top of) South Sister and Broken Top Mountain in one day. Each climb ending with great corn snow skiing. It was July 2 and we were still able to ski to and from our campsite. Well worth the chase for snow.
What do you do to avoid/mitigate avalanche danger? Take an avalanche course. Read avalanche books. Look at the weather forecast. Stay up to date on what has been happening with the weather and how it could affect the snow. Look at past and present avalanche reports and avalanches that have happened. Pick safe aspects of the mountain to ski off your information you have gathered. Constantly check snow conditions as you are skiing. And have the mindset to turn around when there are warning signs or uncertainty with snow conditions. Each adventure in the backcountry is a learning experience in so many ways.
How do you sell this activity to someone interested in trying it out? The places you can explore in the backcountry seem endless. You get away from people and submerge yourself in nature. The thrill of finding fresh snow and views make the climb well worth it.
Have you ever been injured doing this? Not in the backcountry. The closest thing to injury would be whiplash from a hard fall.
How often do you think about skiing? Probably every day.
Name: Jason Walleser
Occupation: metallurgist/research engineer/materials engineer, take your pick.
How long have you been backcountry skiing? About 6 years.
Where are your favorite places to ski? The Teton Pass wins for ease of access, reliable snow quality, and terrain. Taylor Mountain, when it’s safe, is my favorite. Grand Teton National Park would rate higher if it allowed dogs. For exotic, Iceland provides a unique opportunity to ski from sea to summit in a wild snow-filled, treeless landscape. This year, I’m focusing on finding new places nearby.
What attracts you to this recreation? Two factors have always and continue to attract me to backcountry skiing: 1) Untracked powder is simply amazing to ski. 2) The adventure of exploration. Even though I often ski where I travel in the winter, it looks totally different. Over-snow routes are also more flexible than summer trails. As a major bonus, I can take our dog, Freja, who is a snow beast.
What was your most epic day skiing? I haven’t had any Type 3 Fun epic days yet. In the Type 2 category I have a couple. After a night of winter camping in Teton Canyon Campground, I led a number of newer backcountry skiers up Table Mountain. On the descent, we dropped too much elevation too soon and missed the easy way down. Instead we had to traverse a number of steep walled gullies filled with snow to escape. For Type 1 fun — skiing from sea to summit and back again in Iceland on my honeymoon wins. There was even a steep section with a cornice drop to make things a bit more exciting. We skied several runs in out-of-this-world terrain with people from around the world.
What do you do to avoid/mitigate avalanche danger? Get some education and safety gear (beacon, probe, shovel). Avalanche safety courses are offered by a number of companies in the Teton area. 1) planning — read the avalanche report if available. Otherwise, study the local weather patterns. Study the topographical maps. Caltopo.com has the capability of shading slopes by their angle. 2) When skiing, continuously evaluate the conditions for signs of danger or differences between actual conditions and the report. If no report is available and in unfamiliar terrain, dig a snow pit. 3) Maintain good communication between teammates. Talk about the plan before the trip, share thoughts during, and debrief at the bar afterwards.
How do you sell this activity to someone interested in trying it out? Fresh powder, fewer crowds, no $100 lift ticket. Enough said usually.
Have I ever been injured doing this? No.
How often do you think about skiing? Daily, when in season. I usually daydream about the next area to explore or how the weather will affect this weekend’s skiing.
Name: Julie Geng
How long have you been backcountry skiing? I’ve been skiing in the backcountry for about 30 years. I started out cross-country skiing and using XC skiing to access peaks in the winter in Colorado. Trying to ski down steep mountain slopes on XC ski gear forced me to buy a tele-ski setup. Frustration with tele skis drove me to buy AT (alpine touring) gear about 15 years ago and I’ve never looked back.
Where are your favorite places to ski? I love Teton Pass and all the varied terrain and easy access it offers. I also love to ski Grand Teton National Park on bluebird days to get great views of the Tetons!
What was your most epic day skiing? My most epic day of skiing was when I still tried to climb peaks with my cross-country skis. We were attempting to climb James Peak (Colorado) in winter by the east face to the north ridge. We went in on a Friday night after work and skied up and over a plateau to camp at the base of the east face. It was dark and we didn’t realize we had descended down a steep couloir that fortunately didn’t slide. We woke up in the morning to a snow storm. We loaded our heavy packs and headed up. Being the only female and a lot slower than the guys, they were constantly waiting for me. I never took time to eat or drink. The terrain got steep and we eventually put on crampons and put skis on our packs and continued up to the ridge. At the ridge it was windy, cold and still snowing. By then I was depleted. All I wanted to do was lay down and sleep. … I felt better after (eating and resting) and we kept going, eventually we put our skis back on. We got to the summit in a complete whiteout. My friend got turned around and almost skied off the east face, but fortunately saw the air beneath his ski tips before he went over the edge. The compass came out and we eventually descended the southern slope/ridge and dropped out of the clouds and could see a bit. But by then it was starting to get dark and we were all spent and trying to ski down even moderate slopes on cross-county skis. It was extremely taxing and it was 10 p.m. by the time we got back to our vehicles. No one hurt and no one left behind, but very tired kids!
What attracts you to this recreation? I love being outdoors and I love getting away from crowds and I love fresh powder flying in my face! I like that I generally stay warm on the uphills and I like getting the aerobic exercise!
What do you do to avoid/mitigate avalanche danger? Mostly ski lower angle slopes or slopes with trees when the danger gets higher. Or ski the area when it gets really bad.
How do you sell this activity to someone interested in trying it out? I don’t usually have to sell anyone but I stress that you can always find untracked powder somewhere and it can be great skiing even when it hasn’t snowed in days or weeks. I do stress you have to like the uphill and aerobic exercise. That’s all part of the deal!
Have I ever been injured doing this? Nope, never injured skiing, climbing yes! Skiing? Never.
How often do you think about skiing? In the winter, every day!
Name: Scott Stevens
Occupation: Massage therapist
How long have you been backcountry skiing? Depends on how you define “backcountry.” I grew up in rural western New York and I had Vermont cousins who introduced me to cross-country skiing in the early ’70s and I began exploring the untracked areas in the hills around my home. I moved here in the mid-’80s and continued my explorations, becoming first a tele skier and now an AT skier. I’ve ranged all over our the region but my favorite places are the out-of-the-way, seldom-visited spots.
Where are your favorite places to ski? I’m inspired by the “process.” Looking at maps, Google Earth, tracking weather, snow depths, avalanche conditions — staying in shape, tuning equipment, recruiting partners, and then the “day;” skinning, evaluating conditions, choosing the “line” and of course, making turns, sharing it with my partners and returning to a warm home to start it all again.
What was your most epic day skiing? Wow, that’s a really tough question because there have been soooo many epic days! And so many “types” of “epic” — most vertical, highest altitude, longest skin track, worst weather or snow conditions, avalanches, broken gear, etc., etc.! But two stand out; skiing a deeeep powder line the first time on a shoulder of Sheep Creek Peak in the Snake River Range with Dean Lords and Mark Holbrook and a spring ski of Redbird Mountain in the White Knobs with Dave Bramwell and Mike Lanier. Both fit my desire to explore the seldom visited and are stunningly beautiful parts of “our” Idaho!
What do you do to avoid/mitigate avalanche danger? I check weather and avalanche sites daily throughout the season, carry and train with beacon, shovel and probes with my partners, develop a plan before going out and constantly evaluate and discuss conditions while out. With that said, I have been in and around several avalanches over the years and have been duly humbled by those experiences.
How do you sell this activity to someone interested in trying it out? Because of the “complexity” of backcountry skiing; weather, conditions, avalanche potential, cold, remoteness, equipment, skiing skills, avalanche skills, finding partners, etc, I don’t really try to “sell” this activity. If someone is interested in learning or is curious, I love to talk about it and share my experience but getting into it must be their decision.
Have I ever been injured doing this? Knock on wood, I have not been injured backcountry skiing in any substantial way. I have had partners injured however.
How often do you think about skiing? I ski all year around, so I suppose I think about it a fair bit!