Active Outdoors: Are you ready to get back to (skiing) basics this winter?
Bill Currier, the man who taught me how to turn and stop on skis, also happened to be the person who built what I have been told was the first ski tow in Massachusetts. I still find it amazing that I share a direct connection to the earliest days of New England skiing.
Before he built that rope tow on a sloping farm field, Bill earned his turns by climbing up the hill and then skiing down. Believe it or not, that’s one of the big trends in the ski business these days – people by the thousands are leaving the groomed trails and lift-serviced slopes and taking to the hills under their own steam. And steam you do! Climbing hills on skis is a wonderful way to get your heart pumping and your lungs working. It’s Active Outdoors at its best.
Now, before the hills are covered in deep snow, is the time to make a plan and gear up your mind and body to be ready for off-piste skiing this winter. If you’re interested in backcountry skiing, especially if you consider yourself an “intermediate” skier, I’d recommend a three-stage progression.
First, start the year out with a lesson at an Alpine ski hill, preferably on your backcountry gear (more on this in a moment). Even if you are already a good skier, it doesn’t hurt to tune up your skills on groomed terrain before you go exploring. Snowmaking means no waiting for Mother Nature to deliver. The emphasis on groomed ski terrain is usually on going faster, but if you are going off to explore the backcountry, you need to focus more on being able to control your speed, avoid obstacles and handle ungroomed snow. Bumps skiing is great practice for backcountry – the trick is to be able to turn when you have to, not just when you want to.
Next, as soon as there’s a little snow, get out on the groomed trails at a cross-country area and travel uphill on skis. If you can slide up a moderate hill on waxless cross-country skis, you’ll have no troubles (with technique, anyway – aerobic capacity may be a different matter) getting up the hill on your backcountry skis with climbing skins.
Then, as soon as there’s enough snow, start practicing with your backcountry gear. Oddly enough, the best place to get the miles you need to get good is in the glades at a lift-serviced ski area, where you can make lots of runs in a day. Only when you can get through the trees without crashing into any are you ready to start exploring trails, woods roads, powerlines, fields, anywhere there’s a slope and snow. Often, the first place you’ll explore is the “side country” at the same area, where you depart from the trails and glades at the ski area and explore untracked snow. The best sidecountry gets you into places where you have to climb back uphill to get back to the lifts and lodges.
I’m totally hooked on backcountry skiing and, if we have a good snow year, will be passing along places to go and things you need to know a lot this winter. As much fun as lift-serviced skiing is, going it on your own can be even more rewarding. Downhill skiing is good exercise for your legs and your core, but backcountry skiing is great for your lungs and heart as well. Choose your gear, your companions, and your challenges wisely, be safe and enjoy all of New England’s hills on skis this coming winter.
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
There are three ways to get into backcountry exploring. Which you choose will depend on your skills and your desires.
If you are a skilled snowboarder, a “splitboard,” which comes apart onto two separate skis for climbing hills with skins, then clamps back together for riding down, is the way to go. Snowboards offer a lot of float on deep, untracked snow, so this option works extremely well.
If you are already an experienced downhill skier, Alpine Touring (also called AT or Randonée) bindings let you free your heel for climbing up the hill, then clamp it down to ski as you would in regular Alpine gear. The latest generations of AT ski boots (like the Fischer Ranger 11 vacuum-fit boots I’m now skiing on) work in both specialized AT bindings and in your standard Alpine gear. One pair of boots for everything!
The traditional “backcountry” ski gear is Telemark (Tele), which usually uses a cable binding that allows your heel to lift for climbing. Instead of clamping down your heel for descending, you use elegant, raised-heel Telemark turns. While I love Tele, I simply am not good enough to use the technique comfortably in the backcountry. But if I were just getting started with my sights set on backcountry skiing, Telemark is the way I’d go.
Whichever you choose, being able to go exploring when the snow is deep is an amazing feeling.
The governmental agencies responsible for wilderness search and rescue aren’t wildly enthusiastic about the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing. Can’t blame them since it has dramatically increased the number of calls they get. Typically, someone not properly prepared goes exploring in the afternoon and runs out of daylight before he or she (usually he) can get back to safety. He then uses his cell phone to call for help.
To avoid looking this stupid, learn in small, safe increments, go with experienced companions, and carry extra safety gear with you every time you head into the woods.
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)