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the ultimate beginner’s guide to backcountry skiing | washington

In what seemed to be a blink of any eye, backcountry skiing has gained rapid popularity. In my friend groups, I through I was being adventurous to try out this new-to-me sport. You could read about my journey becoming a backcountry skier, but this guide is not about me. It’s for you and for me to share as much knowledge as I can with you. I came from being reluctant and unconvinced of a sport seemingly so dangerous and expensive to finding my way through with safety and low-cost in the forefront. I recently was involved in some meet ups and found that there’s a lot of potential for education about backcountry basics, so I hope this post can serve as a good starting point and reference for anyone looking to get into backcountry whether or not you know how to ski. One post is not long enough to share all I’ve learned, but this is a lot of the major things that’s helpful if you’re just starting out. I was pretty naive and overwhelmed in the beginning. I hope that this will relieve some of the inaccessibility and intimidation that backcountry skiing often has. This will especially be useful if you live in Washington cause a whole lot of local resources are listed here!

For a different perspective, my friend Kyle also wrote his version of getting into backcountry skiing as an absolute novice. He skis far more technical terrain than me and took a more aggressive approach to immersing himself into backcountry skiing. So check it out for some more inspiration!

Disclaimer: Backcountry skiing is an inherently dangerous sport and you are responsible for yourself. I am not a guide, but have learned many backcountry travel skills. This is to be used purely as a reference and in no way do I claim to know everything or can prevent any ill event from occurring.

Quick Links

What is backcountry skiing

How long does it take to advance to backcountry skiing?

Can I learn to ski by going in the backcountry?
Okay, I’ve got skiing down. What’s the next step to start backcountry skiing?

Your First Ski Tour

 

What is backcountry skiing?

In the simplest terms, backcountry skiing is where you use skis to walk uphill and transition into a mode to ski downhill. You can think of it as a mix between cross-country skiing and downhill resort skiing but in the backcountry. Okay, if you’re unfamiliar with all the words, here’s a quick explanation.

  • Downhill skiing (alpine skiing). This is probably the most basic definition of what most people think of skiing and is what happens at a ski resort. You can take lifts up a mountain and ski down groomed trails that are maintained such that the terrain is fairly even and predictable to ski on. However, weather can vary the snow quality despite being groomed, but still offer less variability than in the backcountry.
  • Inbounds/frontcountry. This is all area within the the ski resort boundaries where they maintain avalanche control and have groomed trails. Avalanche control is a controlled method to trigger any potential avalanches to create a safe space for skiers in the resort.
    • Groomers. Surfaces that are groomed by machine that create a more predictable surface to ski on.
    • Off-piste. Technically means out of bounds in French, but most people use this in reference to ungroomed areas within the resort boundaries. Usually where you find powder to ski on.
  • Sidecountry/slackcountry/lift-served backcountry: Disregarding all technicalities of the terms, these are areas outside a ski resort but accessed by lifts. This is where many people get an intro to backcountry skiing. Many (if not all) consider side country to be backcountry due to the avalanche risks, meaning this can be dangerous when skiers think they have the safety of the resort, when in fact they’ve entered terrain that is outside the control of the resort.
  • Backcountry. In ski terms, this any land outside of a ski resort, without avalanche control. Outside resort operating hours, a resort can be considered as backcountry without the proper avalanche control. Usually backcountry terrain refers specifically to land that is accessed by foot (not by lifts). You need knowledge to navigate this terrain because there are no real trails.
  • Randonnée/backcountry skiing/alpine touring. All different words for the same thing, skiing in the backcountry on ungroomed terrain.
  • Telemark/free heel skiing. Skis without locking heels, akin to xc skis but with no inherent uphill ability. A lunge technique is used for downhill skiing, which is the greatest difference between typical alpine skis. It can be used for both resort skiing and backcountry.
  • Cross-country skiing (nordic, xc skiing). Skis used here are lighter and narrower than downhill skiing. The skis have “fish scales” on the middle portion to help skiers go uphill on light slopes. The heel of the boot does not lock on these skis. In general you can get a set of gear for cross country skiing cheaper than downhill skiing. You can travel on both groomed and ungroomed trails.
    • Classic skiing. This is most similar to walking, but you can glide with every step. On groomed trails, there are tracks to keep the skis in line. This is also used for nordic skiing on ungroomed terrain, such as the Three Sisters Hut Traverse.
    • Skate skiing. Like the name, it involves skating, as in ice skating. It’s a cardio workout and uses different skis than for classic skiing. This is best done on groomed trails, where the snow is smooth and compact enough to glide on.
Cross country skiing

And a few more terms and other gear I’ll be throwing around. By the way, snowboarders might say otherwise, but when people say “ski” that often encompasses “snowboard”. I use it as a blanket term in situations where in a group, I’ll ask if anyone skied that weekend, knowing that some don’t ski and they snowboard instead.

  • Bindings This is professionally mounted to your skis and is the mechanism that will hold your boot in place by attaching to the toe and heel. It also has a safety release setting to eject your boots in case of a fall or crash. 
  • Splitboard This refers to the specific type of snowboard for someone who snowboards downhill but can still go uphill in ski mode. The snowboard splits lengthwise. Transitions between uphill and downhill are usually slower than that for skiers. Splitboarders generally don’t do routes that are traverses because there is not enough slope angle for them to ride on.
  • Skins. These are adhesive (reusable!) and allow the skis to go uphill without slipping backwards. If you stroke it one way, it’s smooth and glides. Stroke it the other way and it’s rough.
  • Crampons. These are spikes that you can attache to your feet. They’re use on solid ice and are more technical than micro spikes used for winter hiking. Strap-on crampons are great for ski boots because the straps allow them to be fit to most any shape boot. It’s also possible to use automatic crampons that clip onto your ski boots (it wouldn’t work well for snowboard boots and by this level snowboarders will either have switch to skiing or use hard boots)
  • Ski crampons: For most setups, these slip onto your toe bindings and when stepped on, the spikes on each side of the skis will “activate”. It’ll grab onto the snow like a normal boot crampon. Often used in spring condition snow when it’s icy and difficult to use the skins (you’re often on an edge and the edge can slip backwards).
  • Low angle terrain. Usually this refers to terrain that is < 30 degrees, or below avalanche terrain. It’s areas that are safer to ski on when avalanche risk is high.
  • Luge track. a slick track usually allowing a straightforward and quick way for skiers to exit a popular touring area.
  • Tree skiing. Skiing in areas of dense trees. Often refers to areas to ski to keep things interesting on higher avalanche risk days. Instead of steep slopes, you dodge trees.

Types of snow. Yes there’s lots of types of snow and you become more aware of the differences the more you travel in snow. If you’re new to skiing, you might hear a lot of these terms thrown around.

  • Powder This is the king of all snow. The stuff that gets everyone excited. It’s also when avalanche conditions are higher. This snow is the kind you can blow on and it lightly flutters away. And it’s got some subcategories.
    • Hero snow. your friendly snow that gives you all the confidence in the world
    • Blower. Used in context “This snow is blower!” meaning, it’s really good and you can blow on it! You can find this in PNW sometimes.
    • Cold smoke. Rarely seen in the PNW due to our warmer climate, but often seen in the Rockies. This is the epitome of great snow for many skiers.
  • Cascade concrete. This is particularly unique to the PNW where the fresh snow we get is fairly dense due to the warmer air. It’s super thick and you can’t quite blow on it, but it’s still soft to ski on. I personally get stuck in this quite often especially on low angle terrain.
  • Chunder. Clumps of snow and ice that make it bumpy to ski on, usually created over freeze-thaw cycles.
  • Corn. the glory snow of spring skiing. People like to wait for the right time to “harvest” the corn, when the sun has just softened the icy snow enough before it becomes mushy.
  • Mashed potatoes. thick like cascade concrete but created over freeze-thaw cycles and super slushy
  • Groomers. snow that has been groomed, can be tracked out or freshly groomed
  • Corduroy. the snow right after it’s been groomed. Looks like corduroy and skis smooth
  • Crust. an icy layer created by refreezing snow. Annoying when you punch through and fall to the next layer of snow
  • Dust on Crust. a dusting of powder or fresh snow over a crusty layer 

Back to what backcountry skiing is. In general, technique used to downhill ski in the backcountry is the same as what you would use inbounds. However, in the backcountry, due to the variable snow conditions, you’ll often make use of other technique you’ll see less of in the resorts. As the snow quality changes it can turn the simplest terrain into the most frightening. Sometimes, I like to think of that as where the fun comes in. Primarily, when running into more tough terrain, a lot of “survival” skiing happens, where the goal is to just get down safely as opposed to skiing the best form in the best snow. There might be a lot of side slipping or pizza turning. This is just one reason why it’s a good idea to be a solid, if not advanced, skier before diving into the backcountry. There other more technical techniques used in backcountry travel that relate to ski mountaineering (rock and glacier travel), but that is another topic in itself, which I won’t cover here. 

For uphill travel, on gentle terrain, it is fairly intuitive. It gets trickier the steeper the slope and the icier or thicker the snow. People usually refer to the uphill as “skinning” since you’ll be using your skins to walk uphill with the skis. There’s also more technique involved with that, including knowing when to use crampons, when to carry the skis instead of skinning, etc…

As you can see, there’s quite a bit more to think about when you’re backcountry skiing. Just a bit more than walking uphill and skiing downhill plus all the planning involved.

Splitboards ski with poles too

 

How long does it take to advance to backcountry skiing?

Now you know about backcountry skiing, you might be itching to know how to get into it. I’ve noticed that more people are looking to get straight into backcountry skiing, sometimes immediately even before ever setting foot in a resort. My first opinion is that it’s a pretty terrible idea. Let me explain:

  • Skills learned from skiing in a resort translate to the backcountry. These are skills you’ll use to get yourself down safely on your skis in case you find yourself in a sticky situation.
  • The resort offers a more predictable terrain to practice and hone in basic skills much faster than you would backcountry.
  • There’s nothing that replaces the repetition you get from skiing down tens of thousands of feet in a day in a resort. That practice gets you a lot better, especially in the beginning when you’re just learning.
  • Even the resort can have slightly different snow conditions on different days, which is a great way to ease into the world of variable snow.
  • The backcountry requires backcountry knowledge. No offense, but if all you’ve done is hiking on trails, the backcountry is a very different beast with or without snow.
  • Although there is terrain that avoids avalanche terrain (rare in Washington but not impossible), it’s really important to be very avalanche aware no matter what

That being said, if you are confident about navigating all the risks, you are free to do as you want. Technically, it takes as little as zero days to get into backcountry skiing. I have a friend who’s first day on skis was backcountry on Mt Hood. He has a strong mountaineering background and is athletic but there was still a lot of flailing and falling and loss of control. So although he managed to get down with no injuries, I still cannot reiterate enough how risky that is.

For most people, backcountry skiing is a natural progression of becoming an advanced skier. People are looking for the next challenge after being comfortable with blacks or double blacks in the resorts. The next most exciting thing is going into the sidecountry or backcountry and finding that sweet, sweet powder.

This isn’t just a personal preference, but the most common recommendation is to be able to get down any black in a resort before going to the backcountry. This is because there are often times where in the backcountry you must go down something out of your comfort zone even if for a brief 10 feet. Sometimes it’s not only the steepness, but it could be a random icy patch of snow or  a narrow strip of snow to stay on or tight trees to navigate. But as a very good baseline, being a solid intermediate skier is a good place to be. There are plenty of backcountry areas you can explore that is not terribly steep. And then there’s also places that might be so flat that it might be more skinning than skiing.

Another consideration is your experience and comfort with being in the backcountry. Someone who has mountaineering and snow travel background will general fair better than someone without that. Speaking from personal experience, there are times where I’ve toured with people who are way better skiers than me inbounds, but because I come from a mountaineering background, there have been many mental and physical skills that have carried over to backcountry skiing (dealing with layering and understanding snow qualities or when to transition to crampons). I also find that people who mountaineer transition from resort to bigger backcountry trips faster than those without.

Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you feel ready to start trying backcountry skiing. There’s many ways to ease into it through mentorships and courses. But there’s also ways to throw yourself into the deep end (unadvised), like my floundering friend. I’ll go over that in the section on your first ski tour.

 

Can I learn to ski by going in the backcountry?

Again, this is not the best recommended method. If you are trying to avoid paying the full price of lift tickets, here’s a couple methods you could try. 

  1. Human powered resort skiing. You could learn by walking uphill in a resort and skiing down some of their green runs. Different resorts will have different uphill policies, so look that up before you go. Most of them just require you to sign a waiver to release liability and to acknowledge the risks and your awareness of following uphill tracks (aka don’t walk straight up the middle of a ski run). In theory you can just hike up with snowshoes or boots and ski down with normal downhill skis, or you could skin up. The disadvantage to this method, as mentioned before is the slow progress made. If you have a friend to teach you, even better!
  2. Get weeknight night lift tickets. If you’re able to ski after work and get tickets at least 1-2 weeks in advance, tickets are quite cheap for night skiing at many resorts. Around half the price of a weekend ticket. It’s something like $50 at Snoqualmie including all the fees.
  3. Drive a little further for cheaper resorts. In Washington, these are Mt Baker, White Pass, Mission Ridge
  4. Kindly ask a friend for tips. If they’re extra nice, maybe they’ll offer more than just a couple tips. But honestly, learning with a few tips in mind at a time is a great way so you have something to focus on. Ask for drills they might know. Or better yet, find a friend who used to be a ski instructor and have them teach you! 
  5. Take group lessons or other discounted options. Typically lessons at resorts are a couple hundred for a package, which can be pricey. Group lessons will be least expensive but private lessons might reap the greatest progress. In the past, Stevens Pass had a 3 lessons guarantee to ski bundle deal. I suspect that there’s similar options out there if you can search for them. There’s also multiple groups that offer discounted lessons. Here’s some that I’ve found recently for Washington peeps:

Other considerations: do the math for yourself and see if it makes sense to get a season pass or a multiple resort pass (IKON, EPIC, Indy Pass, Mountain Collective). There’s various options for all resorts ranging from unlimited ski days to passes with blackout dates. Sometimes it only takes 8 days to break even, and if you are very committed, you can get more value out of a season pass. For beginners who need the repetition of skiing inbounds, a season pass is a very good idea. Currently, I ski backcountry more than inbounds, and would not break even from a season pass, so I typically just buy a couple night passes here and there.

In the same vein, if your first pair of skis is backcountry skis, that might not serve you the best. The fit of boots and skis are slightly different, although there’s no one to hold you back if you wanted to do that. If you can, get fitted for boots and skis.

Skiing tight trees

 

Okay, I’ve got skiing down. What’s the next step to start backcountry skiing?

Before you even go out, we gotta talk gear and avalanche safety!

 

What gear should I get?

If you’ve read this far, you’ll probably have picked up that backcountry gear is different than normal downhill gear. At the very minimum you can walk uphill in boots or snowshoes and ski down with your normal backcountry ski setup. Like with any sport or activity having the proper footwear is super important! I actually went through a couple boots before finding the right one – one where I was fitted properly. In general, when you can go lighter weight on gear for a more pleasant time on the mountain. But if your gear is on the heavy side, that’s okay, it just might be a set back to quicker progression if you care about that. Anyway, here’s some of my thoughts on gear.

Boots

These are the first things you should be looking for. It’s okay to get gear out of order, but finding the right boot is essential to having a better time on the slopes. For me, they generally fit slightly looser than normal downhill ski boots, but still fairly snug. For me, the uphill comfort is most important because generally you’ll spend like 80% of the time going uphill. And if your feet are uncomfortable from the uphill, you won’t have a good time going downhill. Personally, I enjoy more padded liners, but of course everyone has their own preferences. In the end, it was worth it for me to go to Cripple Creek Backcountry where they really helped me fit my boot and also had a fit guarantee where I could keep going back and get things fixed until the absolute best fit possible. In contrast with my budget boots, they would jam my toes or give me blisters until my feet calloused.

Skis

Everyone has different opinions about these but for those who are particular about performance, they’ll often have a “quiver” of skis, different ones for different conditions. Or if you’re like me you have one all-mountain ski that performs moderately alright in most conditions. Probably the more important aspect is the length of ski. When you’re first learning, you start on a shorter ski that’s easier to turn on. As you progress, you’ll start to find longer skis a better fit. If possible rent skis when you’re first learning so that longer skis are not an impedance to your growth. There’s plenty online guides out there, or ask a friend to figure out a good ski for you.

Bindings

The boots will determine what bindings you can get. Although heavier frame bindings allow you to use resort boots, it’s not widely used anymore. The frame binding has a setting to lock the frame or let it be mobile, pivoting at the toes. So it’s great for those starting out and wanting to keep their resort boots (assuming they have a walk mode), but ultimately can be a set back due to the weight.

The most common modern binding for skiers is Alpine Touring (AT) bindings, commonly referred to as tech bindings or Dynafit bindings (one of the big brands that make it). These use a system of pin in hole so the toe of the boot can pivot. There’s several types of heel bindings, some that rotate and others that have other more complicated mechanisms. Because there isn’t a frame, these bindings are naturally less heavy.

Bindings will also have the option of brakes (the two sticks on the side of the ski) or leash. This is to prevent the ski from sliding all the way down the mountain. Most backcountry skiers prefer the leash because on icy terrain or any long slope, you might lose your ski completely without the leash.

For snowboarders, their bindings are moveable between ski mode and snowboard mode. Sorry I know even less about that topic!

Skins

If you’re buying them separate from the skis, they have a range for the length of ski to fit. As equally important, you also need to make sure the width of the skin is enough to cover the base of the ski, especially the middle portion where it cambers under your feet. When buying new or slightly larger, sometimes they’ll come with a skin cutter so you can shape them yourselves. It’s pretty easy – attach  skin to skis and use the tool along the edge to cut the skin. The skin should stop right where you see the metal edge of the ski.

Poles

Whether you’re skiing or split boarding, poles are essential. Honestly any pole will do, but the best are collapsable ones, whether ski or hiking poles. For snowboarders, collapsable is important so you can store the poles when you’re going downhill. Some like to carry them in one hand just in case they need to pull them out real quick for a flat section. For skiers, having adjustable length is nice. Just like hiking, using slightly shorter for uphill vs slightly longer downhill is helpful. Tips on use of poles in this guide!

Helmet

Any helmet is better than no helmet. This is also fairly up to you whether you’re using your resort helmet or a more ski mountaineering helmet that also works for rocky terrain. In the spring, it’s nice to have a helmet with more air flow so you don’t overheat in it. Many ski helmets have removable ear covers. 

Glasses/goggles

Up to you what type you want, but eye cover is super helpful especially when the wind blows. It helps you see a bit better when you get flat light and can’t tell the difference between up and down. Some brands make interchangeable lens, so you can have a dark tinted lens for sunny days and a pink low light one, for example.

Beacon

This is the device that allows you to search and be searched in case of an avalanche. It’s unadvised to buy these used because they are safety equipment and you want the warranty and understand the history of the device like impact or potential issues it may have. It’s like the rule of never buying used rope. One big standard criteria is 3-antenna beacons that greatly improve the ability to search. Be familiar with your beacon before you head any further into avalanche terrain. There’s a few beacon parks that allow you to practice, or you can do it with a group of friends. Everyone has their own risk tolerance for how low they let their battery go. But basically under 50% the beacon will not be as effective. It has a pretty steep drop off under that and signals will be very weak afterwards, meaning basically useless. It’s similar to the light output of a headlamp over time. More often, people will change them after 75% or 2/3 bars. In line with this, always bring extra AAA batteries! 

Shovel

There’s lots of different shovels out there, pick your favorite! Some are lighter than others and some have a longer handle which is easier to shovel with.

Probe

These are also made with different material for strength and weight. The PNW snowpack is pretty thick, so it’s advised to get longer probes. 320 cm is great, but definitely have something more than that 240cm length. By the way, a lot of brands sell the beacon, probe, and shovel in a packaged deal.

Ski Straps

Yes, this gets its own category. Get a few of them. Keep them in your first aid kit. Keep one one your pole. They’re one of the most versatile things you’ll have and sometimes I even use them for summer non-skiing trips. They’re used for keeping skis together in a carry. Or to fix broken equipment. Or to temporarily splint a broken leg with a pole. Uses are endless and you never wish you had fewer ski straps.

Packs

Depending on time of year, you can get away with different packs. I like using one that allows an A-frame carry with skis clipped to both sides of the backpack (30L) and strapped together at the top with a ski strap. Sometimes I’ll use a normal day pack (20L) for days I know I won’t need to A-frame carry. At minimum the pack should carry your avalanche safety gear inside the pack and all your other typical essentials. The safety gear should not be on the exterior to prevent it from ripping off. There are also packs that have integrated airbags. In an avalanche, airbags have been known to save lives, bringing people to the top of the debris instead of buried. Not everyone uses these in the backcountry, and having one shouldn’t mean that you’re safe to go anywhere. Do more research to see if this is something you’d want.

Clothing

Personally, I just use athletic clothing and avoid cotton. If you sweat, it takes forever if not never to dry out in the cold weather. I try to bring at least one extra layer than I’ll ever need for the entire tour. I always have a puffy jacket and wind breaker (rain jacket or other waterproof layer). On the uphill, a base layer and rain jacket is good to break the wind without getting too hot. And for downhill, I like to add a couple more layers on.

I usually wear a soft shell ski touring pants that have leg zippers to cool off. In late spring, I’ll just wear leggings or shorts even! I think finding the right layers for each person takes a bit of time to fine tune, especially with the changing temperatures throughout the season. It’s nice if your pants also have a beacon specific pocket. One where you can clip the beacon to and deep enough for it. I find that wearing the beacon harness can be a little uncomfortable at times and the pocket method works better for me.

Gloves

This is a separate item because it’s so important. Bring more than 1 pair of gloves! Sometimes I’ve ben known to bring 3 pairs on one trip. Sometimes gloves get wet from snow getting stuck inside, or sweaty hands, or not fully waterproofed. I like to have a thin glove for uphill travel and switch to snow/ski gloves for downhill. 

Places to look for gear
  • Voile Backcountry Scholarship
  • Weston Backcountry Scholarship
  • Cripple Creek Backcountry: just for their knowledge in backcountry gear, it may be worth to check out (they don’t offer as much discounts though)
  • ProSki (Seattle and North Bend): local stores that offer great experts to help you fit gear
  • Wonderland Gear Exchange: second hand gear and clothing, or sometimes just older models, often half off or less
  • REI Outlet/Sale/Used Gear
  • Evo: Lots of end of season sales
  • Other outlets: Arc’teryx or The North Face has jackets and shoes sometimes 50% off or more in outlet stores like Seattle Premium Outlet in Marysville (stores in mall are different than outlet stores)
  • Isella Outdoor: Instagram based consignment for femme gear and clothing
  • Facebook Groups: PNW Ski Classifieds!, PNW Women’s Technical Climbing, PNW Women Backcountry Skiers and Snowboarders, Washington’s Alpine Climbing and Ski Mountaineering Group (usually focused at more advanced and technical terrain)
Places to rent gear
  • ProSki and Guide
  • Ascent Outdoors
  • Evo
  • Cripple Creek
  • Mountain to Sound Outfitters
  • Glacier Ski Shop
  • REI
Avalanche Rescue Demonstration

 

What about avalanches?

There really isn’t any substitute to practicing and learning about avalanche rescue and risk assessment. The AIARE series is the standard for avalanche training. It’s recommended to take the avalanche rescue course regularly to get the practice of searching and digging whether or not you’ve taken an AIARE course. AIARE 1 teaches the aspect of planning and risk assessment in addition to the rescue practice and a practice tour. It’s focused highly on decision making with a light touch on snow science. AIARE 2 dives deeper in all aspects including more understanding of avalanches and the science of it. Beyond that, there’s training geared towards guides. Most people will not go on a tour with new partners if they have not taken AIARE 1. So even if you think you have the equivalent practice of AIARE 1 from reading, videos, and a little practice, people will be quite wary. However, having taken AIARE 1 also does not guarantee that your partner is perfectly safe either. Therefore it’s imperative that you are always keeping each other in check. I know AIARE is a high cost to pay to get into backcountry skiing, but the fact is if you’re snowshoeing in the backcountry, you should take AIARE. It’s the price for safety. There are many organizations (especially for BIPOC/women…) that will help subsidize it, so be on the lookout (generally earlier in the winter months is the best time to look).

Also check out these:

It’s wise to keep up with avalanche forecasts and reports even on weeks that you’re not going backcountry. This is because conditions develop and linger over time and it’s good to know what weak layers exist from before. NWAC is the official avalanche forecast center throughout Washington State and into Mt Hood area in Oregon. During the main season, they’ll have daily forecast and on the shoulder seasons, forecasts will be more sparse. But no forecast doesn’t imply no avalanche danger. Bottom line, be very avalanche aware any time you’re thinking of heading out to the backcountry no matter what mode of travel.

Okay, now you’re ready to really set your foot on backcountry snow!

Skiing at Rainier

 

Your First Ski Tour

Everyone has a different start to ski touring. A friend took me to a nearby hill. Another friend started hers on a volcano. Some experience their first tour during their AIARE 1 course. And many more started at their local resort. Here’s an explanation of all the options:

Practice at a ski resort. In the safety of a ski resort you can explore how all the gear works, practice the motion of going uphill and transitioning. In the resort, you can bail whenever you want or keep doing more laps. If you go before the resorts open for the season, you can also get a taste of backcountry snow on terrain that you’re probably more familiar with. Check with each resort to see what their uphill policy is. The benefit of touring inbounds is that you can safely go alone in most cases. And you can also test out any new gear before committing to an outing. On a similar vein, you can also practice on cross country groomed tracks such as Amabilis, marked as difficult for xc skiing but more like a green for alpine skiing. You can also use this to practice downhill skinning (with skins on and heels unclipped) on green runs.

Find a friend or mentor. This is my favorite method! I’m a huge fan of mentorship through friends if they are nice and patient enough to ease you in. Or throw you in the deep end! I would not make the assumption that your friends will want to help you every step, but if they do, they are offering a gracious hand. Some of the best advice I’ve gotten has been little comments friends have given me as I struggle through something. Take those comments and work on your technique and you’ll keep improving from there! And soon, hopefully, your skills will become more compatible on tours that both of you will find enjoyable.

Try a volcano. It may sound daunting, but if you are fit and a solid skier, these should come fairly straightforward. There may be other struggles but the path will be easy to follow in clear weather. Camp Muir is probably the most common ski done for people who are seasoned “Turns All Year” skiers or beginners. I took a couple friends up who walked up in hiking boots and carried their ski gear in backpacks and transitioned to their resort skis for the downhill. Where else can you get that full 4500 ft of descent? Actually Mt St Helens is another great mountain to ski, though a little steeper than the trail to Camp Muir. And lastly, the south side of Mt Adams. It’s nearly 7000 ft of gain if you go in a day, plus an altitude to 12k ft. Be careful of getting altitude sickness if you attempt it. These three are great for their wide slopes, mostly intermediate runs, and lack of trees. Depending on the season and weather, the snow might be tough to ski for newer skiers.

Take a course. Please note that AIARE courses do not teach you how to use your equipment. Although you may find an instructor who will give a helpful tip or two to get you going. For the sake of the entire class, it’s good if you can do a little practice before taking the course (i.e. inbounds, obviously not into avalanche terrain unless you’re willing to risk it). What I’m referring to are courses specifically for an intro to backcountry skiing. Many guiding companies have these courses and a few more nonprofit groups also offer these. If you can afford this or get a scholarship to take one, I think this is one of the best ways to get into backcountry skiing because it is structured and provides a relatively controlled environment. As in the guides will keep your skill level in mind when choosing where to go and assist you as needed, whereas your friends might not know as many nuances to teaching the skills.

  • Ski Divas hosts an overnight intro course
  • SheJumps hosts many intro classes throughout the season
  • Edge Outdoors meetups and intro to backcountry skiing
  • Climbers of Color backcountry touring leadership
Kyle enjoying a soft ski jump

 

How do I plan a ski tour?

So maybe you’ve done a short tour or two. To be an equal partner, even if your ski partner is more experienced, it’s good practice to be involved with trip planning. For example, you have the power to raise questions about the terrain and weather. It’s important that you know your skill and ability and be able to convey that to your partners. More than likely they’d be willing to adjust the trip so you can have a happier time out there. You may be gathering a list of places as they show you around, but here’s some resources I use to plan my trips.

I always begin with checking the forecast and asking friends if they are free. Knowing who your ski partners are can drastically change where you go, just as much as weather. I typically use Windy to check a few forecast models. They have several including MeteoBlue and NOAA (NAM). I look at temperature and precipitation. If I’m also looking for views or general weather, the clouds feature is helpful. For a vertical stacked model of the cloud layers, expanding a dropped pin allows the meteogram tab to be shown. I won’t go much into detail for predicting avalanche risks, but generally, any big changes in weather can cause big changes in the snow, like a snow storm or sudden warm sunny days. As the days get closer, I’ll read the NWAC avalanche reports more closely and see how it matches my rough prediction. If you want a layman’s explanation of PNW weather, Kyle does a great job talking about it in his 4-part weather blog.

Generally speaking for Washington, the early months November-February are when our snowpack begins to build up. Rocks and trees aren’t fully covered in the first couple months, and collapsing snow bridges and open creeks are a real thing. As you head towards spring, this is where I think it’s friendlier ski terrain for the new skier. The days are also longer and more pleasant with sunshine. A type of snow called “corn” develops through many freeze-thaw cycles, so when the sun softens the snow late morning/early afternoon, it creates the perfect layer of snow. As much as people search for powder in the winter, they search for the corn in the spring. To me, it skis similarly to a resort. This ends around May when most of the snow has melted and no longer accessible straight from the car. Turns-All-Year people will continue searching for snow patches even in the summer to keep their monthly streak going. But by June, a lot of snow is sun cupped and bumpy, and not so pleasant as you’re gearing up for your summer hikes!

Meanwhile, I’ll probably have selected an area. If given a choice, I’ll often go to a place I haven’t been in a while, out of pure personal preference. Sometimes you might want to chase the powder. My next website I’ll visit is Caltopo. With their angle shading feature, you can see how steep slopes are. For beginners, you’re likely wanting to stay out of any coloring to keep angles < 27 degrees. This also means you won’t be traveling on avalanche terrain, so that’s a bonus. However, you still need to watch out for overhead hazards, when the terrain above you might avalanche and run into your path. Staying on mellow ridges is a good option since you’ll be out of fall line, but not always possible especially in the Cascades. For reference, black runs inbounds will start to touch 30 degree slopes and most terrain in Washington if you want to get far will pass through 30 degree terrain. That’s why people say you should be okay with black runs before going backcountry. Caltopo is also good for overlaying satellite imagery so you can see how dense a forest might be or if slopes are more open (rocks in the summer).

Like most outdoor trips, start small and work your way up. And have lots of backups and bail options. There’s so much I could go into for considerations when picking terrain due to all the variables, so I’ll just share some of the basics. On low avalanche risk days, you may feel free to travel out of tree line into the open. But in higher risk days, everyone will be tree skiing to avoid the unstable snow above the trees. It’s useful to be able to have control of your turns in tighter spaces when needed in cases like that. Furthermore, many ski tours begin in the trees before opening up in general, so get comfortable with the trees. The more trips you get out on, the more you’ll deal with different conditions, which means you’ll be getting more confident on tackling whatever the mountain throws at you. No amount of resort skiing even off-piste will equate to time spent in the backcountry. There’s just a different level of shenanigans to deal with. But over time, you’ll find that you’ll be more willing to go further and slowly push the limits of what you can do in the backcountry.

It’s hard to say exactly what skills and equipment are needed for any particular trip since it varies greatly on conditions. It takes some experience and mountaineering knowledge to fine tune what gear you’ll bring or what skills are required if you’re bringing a new friend. Below are some of the more straightforward trips you can look more into for beginner friendly tours!

 

Beginner Friendly Tours

Mt Baker

  • Artist Point. This is a short tour and generally out of avalanche terrain if chosen correctly.
  • Bagley Basin. Lots of lower angle and open terrain. There are overhead hazards. You could venture to Herman Pass or around Table Mountain. 

Stevens Pass

  • Grace Lakes. This is to the side of Stevens Pass. It’s a common snowshoe trail.
  • Skyline Lake. This is hardly backcountry if you stay on the forest road to the lake. It’s narrow with lots of people if you descend this way too. For the more adventurous, you can descend  the back side and get to Tye Peak.
  • Smithbrook. Parking along Hwy 2. Take the forest road up and explore around Mount McCausland or Nason Ridge.
  • Yodelin. Common beginner touring area. There’s some treed areas but terrain is mellow.

Snoqualmie Pass

  • Source Lake, Pineapple Pass, Snow Lake. There may be some short sections that are quite steep for the beginner but overall, lots of open terrain. It may difficult to find the luge track to get out to the parking lot and some side stepping involved. Helpful to have someone show you the way first.
  • Kendall Knob. There’s several variations but the simplest way is via the south side. You can come down the same way or catch the commonwealth luge track out. You can also explore the Kendall Lakes for a further tour.
  • Silver Peak. I enjoy this one in the spring when you can drive closer to where the PCT crosses the forest road. The north bowl is very pleasant! You can also approach it form the Annette Lake trailhead.
  • Mt Margaret. This is nice and away from avalanche terrain. It’s a couple miles to skin from the Sno-Park to the true trailhead. I’d advise taking the road as far as you can instead of the hiking trail to avoid the lower dense trees. Above, you’ll find spacious old growth forest. 
  • Keechelus. Personally have not been here, but I suspect it’s similar to Mt Margaret with some road skinning and open trees. Skiing on road is generally smooth sailing like the resort.
  • Amabilis. This less backcountry since there’ll likely be a groomed nordic ski trail all the way up. Stay in the middle of the track to avoid destroying the classic ski groves on the sides.

Blewett Pass

  • Everything around here is quite open and mellow terrain. Try Diamond Head or Tronsen Ridge.

Rainier

  • Paradise: There’s plenty of low angle terrain without going all the way to Camp Muir. Areas like Edith Creek or the Skyline Trail. You’ll still need to be aware of avalanche danger in certain areas.
  • Camp Muir: Classic line to ski. Usually there’s loads of people headed up. Just don’t get lost coming down!
  • The Castle: You can mostly follow the summer trail up from reflection lakes. Park at Narada Falls. The Tatoosh also offers more interesting terrain if you’re into that.
  • Crystal Mountain: The resort allows some uphill travel.  East Peak and Norse Peak are great areas for beginners. Trees are sparse and the bottom tracks are like luge tracks sometimes shared with snowshoers.

Mount St Helens

  • Take the standard approach from Marble Mountain Son-Park. Permits required April 1 to Oct 31.

Mount Adams

  • South climb, very strenuous. Many like to opt for the SW chutes for a more exciting descent, but it requires a bit of uphill at the end to get back to the parking. Permits required May 1 to Sept 30

Olympics

  • Hurricane Ridge: There’s a lot of short mellow terrain by the road and even the little ski hill within the National Park.

It may be intimidating to pick a route just by looking at a map. But there are many other ways to find well-known tours. Books like the Mountaineer’s Volken book has been in many people’s repertoire, among many others that are local to your area. There are also many facebook groups and some online forums that offer trip reports, such as Turns All Year or some of the groups I listed above. Be careful about taking other people’s GPX tracks because what works for them may not be the same the day you go. They are great as references though.

There are also many blogs where people write their trip reports. For my trips, check them all out here. My friend Madelynn also has a blog A Mess in the Cascades and is quite methodological about sharing, like a whole table showing the days she was out skiing vs the avalanche conditions. For more advance trips, check out my friends at ClimberKyle and Sam at Engineered For Adventure. They’re always dreaming of amazing routes and it’s a treat when they offer to spend a day to ski or hike with me.

For more tips and trips, read my companion guide. I hope this guide has been useful for you, and as always, feel free to comment or question! And most importantly have fun and be safe out there!

Madelynn on some fresh snow

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