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my journey becoming a backcountry skier

In a world where backcountry skiing has become popular, I wanted to share my story. Backcountry skiing is one of many sports ridiculed in inaccessibility from all aspects, yet it still allures lifelong skiers and the novice adventurer. I was hesitant to get into it, since I shied away from steep, narrow terrain and was barely okay with intermediate inbound runs. And I was hesitant to write this since (disclaimer) I’m still nowhere near that extreme level that people normally think of when they think backcountry skiing. But I am now confident enough to safely lead my own big tours backcountry and maybe my story will shed some light into this secluded sport.

Backcountry skiing is also known as ski touring, alpine touring, randonnée. It’s a sport where you walk uphill and ski downhill with the same gear. Usually referring to travel on ungroomed terrain as opposed to within a resort.

PS Keep reading to see some of my older photography! Different gear, different style, less editing technique…

 
Perhaps cross-country skiing is a useful skill for backcountry skiing (photo credit: friend)

How it all started

I was fortunate to have grown up with a basic knowledge of skiing. It’s an inherently expensive sport from gear, to lessons, lift tickets and a long drive in winter conditions. But there were a handful of times between elementary and high school where I got to ski, but never more than once a season. I’d share photos from that age but all I have are home videos on VHS. “French fry” and “pizza” got me through the green, easy runs that were still terrifying to go down. So, I stuck to those green circles marked on the lifts and sometimes, just sometimes I’d somehow get the confidence to try a harder run, one of those mystifying blue square runs. But usually, my confidence would get shot down, like when my friend and I accidentally took an advanced black run thinking it was the start of the blue intermediates. I butt scooted my way down to the blue, all the while crying on the inside and panicking for fear of rolling down the entire black run all way to the base.

A few years later, as I started to earn money, I was eager to ski with some friends again. I’ve always been hesitant to ski, but figured just this once couldn’t break the bank. It was comforting to know that we were both weak skiers and decidedly started on the magic carpet, the bunny slopes for absolute beginners. Haha we were at least a little better and picked up the green runs quickly. But those blue intermediates still baffled us. All these people would zoom past us as we slowly weaved our way across the slopes. By the end of the day, my legs hurt from the ill-fitted boots and from pizza-ing my way down. Even then, it was still fun, because time with friends was time well spent.

At the same time, I had a couple friends who had begun to backcountry ski and splitboard. Split boards are snowboards that can transition and split into skis for uphill travel. Like many other activities, backcountry skiing was on the list of things I would never get into due to the risks associated with it. In this case, it was avalanches because I had no knowledge of it. Although my friends would tell me that there are plenty of blue run terrain that I could do, I was still unconvinced. At least I had been made aware of this sport and it would remain floating in the back of my mind for a couple more years.

I think this was first ski post college
Skiing with my friend in the early days

Then one year, I took a discounted opportunity to skiing indoors. It’s one of those places built on a hill, enclosed and covered in fake snow. Per usual, I was terrified of the first descent. This was definitely angled steeper than a green. Eventually I found the courage to make my way down. By the end of the 250-foot descent, I found myself smiling and thoroughly enjoying myself. In this controlled environment, I had suddenly discovered the joy and confidence in skiing. Out of all places, an indoor ski center was where I decided to invest into backcountry skiing.

I skied a few more times that season, not enough for a season pass, but a handful enough to solidify my newfound love in skiing and ascertain I could ski intermediate runs. I figured that despite the costs of backcountry gear, it would likely break even with downhill gear and season tickets if I treated my gear well and made it last long.

Selling Points That Convinced Me
  • The lesser long term costs
  • The freedom of winter exploration
  • The challenge of learning
  • The potential of friends in mentorship
  • The avoidance of ski resorts

Acquiring Gear

I grew up with a mindset of spending less is better, so I am always looking out for deals. In reality, sometimes spending more gets you more quality gear, but given my inexperience, nearly anything would be better than nothing for me. In searching, it took a while to get all the pieces together. Facebook groups were not easy to find second hand gear, so I ended up needed to get all my setup separately. I had hoped to take out everything to ski with friends, but that didn’t pan out as quickly. Here’s what I ended up getting:

  • Boots second hand (about half off or less) from a facebook group
  • Skis 50% off from Evo
  • Skins 25% off from backcountry
  • Bindings with a friend discount
  • Avalanche gear with a friend discount

It was helpful having connections with friends who had deeper discounts, but many items are at least 25% off if you wait for the right time, or more when it’s end of season April-June. Second hand gear may be easier to find the beginning of the season in Oct/Nov. The hardest part was finding the right size for me. I was fairly clueless since I wasn’t an avid skier who has fine tuned the gear I prefer. Furthermore, as a petite woman, I am way outside the normal consumer size. Since fewer petite women are out there skiing, there’s fewer opportunities for me to get second hand gear. So when I found boots that seemed to fit, I went for it. They can cost more than $500 easily, so finding $100 boots seemed good even if the fit wasn’t perfect. However, I quickly had to get a second pair of boots because my first ones may have been the fit of a downhill ski, but one tour in and I could not bear the fit. Amazingly, I found super comfy ones half off at a Wonderland Gear. But even these were a bit too big and prone to giving my feet blisters until they calloused, and then they were perfect (minus the lack of full control going downhill).

Due to my size, I basically could not find any second hand skis my length range, so I ended up getting generic all-around skis and bindings to go with. The bindings were the pricey bit, but my friend convinced me of their value and honestly, they might be my favorite part of my setup. The skis were way longer and wider than any rental ski I had used, which was a big hurdle in re-learning how to ski. The hope was that I would “grow” into them as I got better. 

To be upfront, this is an unusual way to get into backcountry skiing. Most people have their downhill ski set and get very confident on black runs before progressing into backcountry skiing. If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll probably see that I’ve done a fair bit of snow travel and mountaineering, which gave me a leg up in the “backcountry” aspect of backcountry skiing. So I’d say my uphill skills are far better than my downhill skills.

 

Learning how to kick turn – taught by a split boarder
Mini ski tour with my AIARE 1 class

First Steps in Ski Touring

A friend took me on my first ski tour at Kendall Knob. I borrowed another friend’s gear and used my own boots because my gear was still coming together. It was an incredibly tough experience (I’ll share tips to prevent this in another blog to come). My shins were yelling at me on the uphill and subsequently, the downhill. I couldn’t enjoy the soft, plush snow. I kept slipping backwards while attempting steep kick turns going up, which depleted my energy. I was petrified of the first descent and refused to turn for half of the steep slope. I embarrassingly fell in front of some snowshoers on the way out. I got stuck on a flat section and side stepped my way out of it. But somehow even after all the struggle pain, I came out wanting to do it again. Maybe it’s the mountaineering mentality, or maybe I recognized the fun despite the pain.

Soon after, I climb/hike Mt St Helens while waiting for my ski set up. The whole time I was so jealous of all the skiers’ easy descent. I couldn’t wait for when I could enjoy the speedy descent for myself. Looking back, I was probably a overestimating my ski ability, but in good conditions, I believed I could ski the volcano, just as my friends had described to me before. It’s only a blue run right? Checking a topo map, it probably is closer to a difficult blue and black run with open slopes.

Getting down from Muir

My next ski tour was the ever popular Camp Muir. It is often may people’s first big ski tour given how gentle the slopes are. It’s a snowfield so there’s low risk in falling down the holes of the usual crevasses in glaciers and low risk in avalanche terrain for the most part. So even without avalanche training, it’s one of the safer places to go for a beginner, not to say it is without risks. Depending how choppy or icy the snow is, it’s generally a solid blue run all the way down to the car (minus the steep Panorama Point, I almost cried there). This tour was so much more pleasant than my first experience. And I was proud of myself for completing a relatively long tour. My technique was horrible but there was a huge sense of enjoyment and satisfaction.

A short history
  • Pre high school: ~3 days spread out between years with at least 2 lessons
  • 2018: 1 full day at a resort plus 3 hours of indoor
  • 2019: committed to getting backcountry gear. 
    • 2 days inbounds plus 1 day xc skiing
    • 1st ski tour with borrowed gear (Kendall)
    • 1 day inbounds plus 1 day xc skiing
    • 2nd ski tour with my own gear (Camp Muir)
  • 2020: Took AIARE 1, went on 9 more trips and 3 inbounds (lift-assisted)
  • 2020-2021 winter: 30 trips (including ~3 touring inbound) plus 7 inbounds (lift-assisted)

Technique and More

My sly plan to have my friends mentor me fell through once they moved away from the PNW. So I knew I needed to find new friends. Coincidentally, one of my good hiking friends wanted to get into backcountry skiing too, so we took our AIARE 1 class together. It was definitely a learning experience both for avalanche knowledge and being able to ski up and down slopes with tight trees. But it was fun to be with other people learning to get into the backcountry. Meanwhile, I was slowly accumulating a list of people I could ask to go on a tour with.

Eventually, backcountry skiing would take me to capture views like this

Still overconfident (and a little delusional), I quickly agreed to go on a ski tour with some new friends I had met. I figured, I had skied Kendall before, I could do it again. Little did I know, snow conditions are a huge factor. This time it was icy. My new friends were awesome and put up with my struggles again. They gave me so many tips from getting around exposed tree limbs to better uphill technique in general. At one point, I got so scared that I had to strap the skis to my backpack and walk down. Despite all of that, we had a good laugh and somehow, we remained friends and somehow they thought it was a still good idea to go on a ski tour with me again. And those next few trips were not the smoothest still. I think one friend put it best, that it took him some 10 tours to really get a feel for it. As fast learner, I hoped it’d be less, but clearly he’s a fast learner too and I’d agree that it does take about that long to experience variable snow conditions and to feel more okay with that.

Even though there were a countless number of issues I would run into, with each experience, I felt my knowledge kept growing. It’s through these new ski buddies that I learned so much. Little things like all the tips and tricks to perfecting the kick turn every time without getting your skis stuck in the snow, or being infinitely more confident in side slipping and approaching difficult terrain and conditions with more confidence. Nuances like knowing how to balance your weight on the skis to make the skin stick to steep slopes better. Or setting good uphill tracks. Being able to read the snow and connect the dots between field observations and avalanche forecasts. When planning trips, we’d discuss the routes and options. And though I almost never came up with the ideas, being in the conversation allowed me to follow along and make sense of it all. I’m super thankful for the open space for me to raise any concerns I had as a novice backcountry skier. It’s key to keep a trip safe for all!

Asked to photograph an all-women Avalanche Rescue Course

Slowly, I also started getting a better understanding of reading weather reports on my own. I use them now to roughly gauge avalanche risk or snow conditions a week in advance when trip reports and avalanche forecasts have yet to be issued. Maybe it’s intuitive to other people, but it took a while to finally easily predict which days would have the light powder snow versus an icy slab. Instead of relying on others to plan a trip, I can plan a route simply based off a topographic map and support it with other resources.

Sometimes, I still get scared of black runs because for so long, I’ve instilled in my head that those are hard and difficult. But backcountry skiing has taught me so much. There’s often times where you are forced go down something steeper than you’d prefer. Between all the pushing and variable environments, it has provided many opportunities for me to deal with many more conditions than the ski resort ever will. And now, although I might have a brief fear of the black runs, I also approach black runs with excitement, realizing how far I’ve come, how much more confident I’ve become. One of my full circle moments was being able to ski Eldorado Peak in a day. Previously, it was my first glaciated mountaineering trip and I struggled so much with the fitness aspect, carrying an overnight pack over a steep trail. Back then, I would have never dreamed of skiing the peak that made me struggle with every step. Coming back to do it 11 hours including breaks was such an inspiring moment for me. 

Skiing Ruby Mountain (photo credit: friend)

My resume of ski tours may not be long, but the skills and techniques I’ve acquired along the way have been bountiful. It’s knowing what is within my capabilities, knowing when to push the boundaries a little, trusting my partners, and flexibility to plan around everything from weather to partner ability. It took dedication, a lot of falling and failures, great friends, and persistence to keep getting better. I’m excited where backcountry skiing can take me, perhaps exploring Canadian peaks and maybe if the stars align, a trip abroad to those gorgeous European Alps. But you know, take my story with a grain of salt, I’m still on my first ever pair of skis…

hungry to read more?

Here’s some of my trip reports throughout my journey as a backcountry skier:

Read all my other ski trips here

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