“Math class is tough,” Barbie infamously quipped in 1992. Those four words triggered an avalanche of women showing the world that they could do anything and, as one comic strip pointed out, “backwards and in high heels.” In Utah, women have been stepping into touring boots and heading high into the backcountry, an often-foreboding landscape, finding powder, passion and purpose. Now, one group is on a mission to introduce even more female resort skiers and snowboarders to backcountry skiing and to show them how easy and hard it can be – one step at a time.
Utah Mountain Adventures has been offering backcountry daily or multi-day excursions for skiers and snowboarders throughout the Wasatch Mountains since 1993 and, seeing a desire among local lady shredders, introduced “Women’s Wednesdays,” single full-day tours, several seasons ago. Either is perfect for intermediates to experts itching to give backcountry a try with others cheering them on. For women already comfortable in the backcountry and want to learn more and push harder, the Mavens meet for seven full-day sessions.
My ski pal, Stephanie, had attended several Women’s Wednesdays and had been poking, prodding (and kind-of nagging) me to join a Women’s Wednesday with her for a while. We ski regularly together at Snowbird and, so, I kept thinking, “These guides are great, and if Steph goes, this will be fun.” But I, also, had clashes of (even more nagging) self-doubt wrestling with the voice that encouraged, “If Steph thinks I can do it, then…OK, I’m in!” So, I signed up.
For anyone who’s skied Utah’s famed resorts, no matter your ski level, backcountry skiing carries with it a certain mystique. Every groomer skier longs to glide through the forest, and every powderhound wants to make figure-8s down a bowl. The backcountry can offer both in a setting so intimate and pristine it seems unimaginable at today’s increasingly popular resorts.
However, the backcountry also carries an element of danger. It’s more than skiing through the gates at your favorite ski resort; it’s skiing completely out of bounds. No trails, no patrollers, and often no cell service. It is easy to become disoriented among the trees and peaks, which may or may not be visible. Imagine hiking a trail in the wilderness and, then, straying from it. Oh, and then there is the risk of avalanches.
Although casualties are rare, backcountry risks are ever-present and can occur any time there is snow on the ground. To be honest, there are risks on every trail – snowcovered or not – throughout Utah. Therefore, everyone everywhere is advised to recreate responsibly. Utah Avalanche Center is world-renowned and they monitor the canyons and conditions, providing detailed forecasts and instruction on avalanche risk and safety. Bottom line: Know before you go! Better yet, hire an experienced guide and take one of many avalanche education courses offered every winter. This is not just highly recommended but, like a helmet, should top your list of safety equipment before heading into the wild Wasatch. More on getting into backcountry skiing can be found here.
Aside from the helmet and other clothing (discussed below), backcountry ski equipment (often called alpine touring or AT) is very different from resort ski gear. The folks at Wasatch Touring in Salt Lake City have everything you need to rent or purchase, from skis, boots and poles to backpacks, shovels and probes and everything else, including snacks (bring lots of snacks), for your backcountry tour.
As the staff brought out my gear, the first thing I noticed was that the skis were much lighter than resort skis. This, I would quickly discover, makes hiking less taxing on legs and knees. They are also wider than carving skis to float on the ungroomed snow. The bindings, however, are the biggest difference. They have multiple levers on the front and rear and adjustments allowing your heel to lift as you walk (similar to Nordic skis). Then, there are another two levers to keep your heels elevated as you climb taking pressure off of hamstrings and Achilles tendons. Finally, there are long, detachable “skins” running along the bottoms of each ski that allow you to climb without sliding backward.
If this all seems confusing, it is…at first. My biggest challenge with my first backcountry tour was, in fact, the gear. It was high-quality equipment, but I did not anticipate the stress of trying to adjust boots from walk to ski mode, stripping off the skins, grabbing additional layers from my backpack and eating a snack on a frigid summit after a 2+-hour climb. My UMA guide, Winslow Passey, sipped her hot soup (which smelled amazing, and I will absolutely remember to pack that next time) and patiently walked me through and double-checked my buckles, bindings and zippers.
But then, I had to take my very first turns down a tree-lined trough of powder on brand new skis. The line looked good but, admittedly, it was steeper than I imagined, more than 30 degrees. Indeed, avalanche dangers are more prevalent on slopes over 30 degrees. However, with excellent conditions, we were able to ski steeper slopes that day. With my heart rate and adrenaline at their peak, that additional stress caused me to unnecessarily – not panic, but – forget how to dance backwards in heels. It was definitely not my best run (and might have been one of my worst lately), but a strange thing happened: Like slicing a tee shot at the first hole of golf, I could feel what was possible, what was magical and I wanted another shot to try it again.
Backcountry skiing is tough, but like most things, including math class, you just work through it to find the solution. Perhaps, someone just cut Barbie off before she could finish that part of the sentence.
Knowing what to expect and how to handle the backcountry means getting someone to guide you, and the best guides will gauge where you should venture. There is a fine line between pushing yourself and punishing yourself in the wild. So, before we set out, the first thing Winslow had me recall before the trip was where I skied and what I skied. The terrain is different among resorts – groomers, trees, bowls – they all ski differently even if they are marked the same. For example, because Deer Valley is on private land, it can glade the trees giving skiers more space and fewer obstacles. At Snowbird, part of the Wasatch National Forest, there might be more exposed shrubs requiring some “bushwhacking” in spots. Both can be rated black diamond runs. Expect and be able to manage a bit of everything in the untamed backcountry.
Be honest with your guide, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. She not only wants to take you somewhere you can handle but also enjoy. This is, after all, supposed to be fun. That said, for a backcountry ski tour, UMA recommends that you should be comfortable skiing off-piste (non-groomed runs) and be physically able to hike with skins at altitude for a good portion of the tour (skiing downhill takes only a fraction of the time). There are many touring options in Utah’s mountains. Discuss which routes (length, altitude, slope) will be best for you.
The actual skiing is only one part of backcountry touring, and despite living in the mountains, hiking is not my favorite activity. But I loved skinning, and part of the reason was that our merry band was chatting away the entire time about touring…and everything else. Between topics, Winslow and Stephanie kept reminding me to imagine drawing a line with my big toe as I dragged each ski forward. Because of this, I avoided lifting and carrying my skis or straining my hip flexors, a common first-timers problem and why I don’t enjoy hiking. However, while skinning, I moved to a rhythm, gliding my skis and poles forward and then up…and up…and up even higher and even steeper.
The skins attached to the bottoms of the skis almost magically prevented me from sliding backward, no matter the pitch. However, to avoid obstacles (shrubs, stumps and streams), turning skills were necessary. No pirouettes, but a few “kick turns” allowed us to reach the top. Kick turns on backcountry skis require moving your poles and then each ski to make a 90-degree turn. They are not difficult, but they take practice; forget looking elegant the first dozen tries.
If you’re beginning to notice a theme here, yes, backcountry skiing is at first humbling, but, from the first moments, also rewarding. It takes every skill you’ve learned outdoors and puts them into one complete adventure — skills used in downhill skiing, cardio experienced in cross-country, sure-footedness in hiking, strategy while climbing. Even the rhythm while skinning reminded me of tapping out a pace during mountain biking. You don’t have to be experienced in any of these pursuits, but they form the parts of an orchestral score that you can hear and recognize whistling through the canyons and trees.
Sometimes, you have to differentiate what is hard from what you actually accomplished. Like any type of skiing and snowboarding, backcountry touring takes practice, but you don’t have to be an expert skier or snowboarder to learn. Go with a guide and learn from the best; take some friends and have a lot of fun. Then, go hunt for your own gear. You’ll want to try backcountry skiing again and what girl doesn’t want a new pair of cute boots!