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Rocky Start: A Beginner’s Guide to Backcountry Skiing

Welcome to Rocky Start: a how-to column for enthusiastic, but clueless beginners looking to try their hand at new outdoor activities in the Rocky Mountain region. I’m Sonya — a 25-year-old transplant from the East Coast in search of new adventures, but not always sure where to start. Follow along as I experience everything the Rockies have to offer. From hut trips, to fly fishing, to trail running — and even a bluegrass festival or two. I’ll be sharing tips and travel resources along the way, so that you, too, can dig into new adventures! 



This Activity Is Awesome For:

Backcountry skiing is perfect for someone who feels comfortable taking the blue runs and easy black runs at a resort. It’s cardio-heavy, so you’ll enjoy yourself more if you’re comfortable with a medium-to-high level of physical activity. Skinning uphill with a pack is a steady workout, so make sure your body is prepared for the challenge before you go. 

The Gear You Need:

When embarking on backcountry adventures, always be sure to go equipped with avalanche safety gear, functional layers of outdoor apparel, your ski set-up, sunscreen, water, and of course — your favorite snacks.

The Scoop:

The Rockies are a famous playground for high-altitude sports, but skiing remains the quintessential winter activity for locals and visitors alike. Having recently moved to Colorado, the thought of skiing the deep, fluffy powder found only a short drive from my backyard is the kind of stuff that I dreamed about growing up on the East Coast. After moving to the Centennial State, I couldn’t wait to try my turns on something that didn’t resemble a skating rink, like the icy runs I was used to skiing back home. As an avid resort skier, a ski-related activity was my first choice for my first Rocky Start adventure, and the beauty of backcountry skiing and the freedom of alpine touring really drew me in. 

Backcountry skiing differs from inbound skiing in a few ways: first, and most importantly, the terrain that you ski on is not maintained, which means that you get to ski on fresh snow instead of packed-down runs. This also means that the fresh snow you’re skiing on could be prone to avalanches, especially if the conditions are just right. In backcountry skiing, you actually spend less time going downhill, and much more time skiing uphill in special bindings that allow your heel to come up, much like a Nordic ski.

Educate Yourself:

In order to learn how to properly and safely ski in the backcountry, I sought out the professionals — Chris Nicewarner and Tommy Gram — both backcountry ski guides at Buena Vista Mountain Adventures. Chris owns the guide shop which operates out of the same building as The Trailhead (one of the top gear stores in town), and the Simple Eatery, a local cafe and popular meeting hub in town. 

According to the pros, every backcountry trip contains a level of risk and avalanche danger, but there are many resources available to skiers looking to safely ski out of bounds. The best resource for beginners is to take an AIRE 1 course — the best safety training course for newbies to the  backcountry. The AIARE 1 is a three-day course and costs roughly $400. After passing the course and getting your certification, there’s a one-day refresher course that is designed to be retaken every one 1-2 years to stay up-to-date on the best practices in rescue techniques and backcountry gear. Buena Vista Mountain Adventures provide both courses, but you can find a full list of course providers on the AIARE website. The Colorado Avalanche Info Center, the National Weather Service and the website Open Snow are all great resources for assessing snow conditions in your area to gauge the likeliness of an avalanche happening during your backcountry adventures. Avalanches can occur based on a variety of factors, like the slope, aspect, temperature, snowfall and elevation. The website CalTopo is great for creating custom maps based on these conditions. Since my knowledge of avalanches comes from the scene in Mulan when she buries a horde of enemy troops by blowing off half of the mountain, I paid close attention. Avalanche safety comes with a slew of terms that only frustrated skiers could conjure up. Like, a layer of snow that is unstable and prone to causing avalanches is called a “deep persistent slab problem,” which can last all winter. 

First Attempt:  

We started the morning by doing an avalanche training scenario in the field, which consisted of testing our avalanche beacons, going through the steps of locating a buried person, using a snow probe to find them and digging them out. My Wilderness First Responder training kicked in as we were digging, and I almost gave the buried backpack CPR. Thankfully, Chris wasn’t watching.

From there, we put on our skis and skinned up an old mining road for a mile or so. “Skinning” is simply the word for skiing uphill in skis with furry strips of fabric glued to the bottom to prevent your skis from sliding backward with each step. They are designed to be adhered and removed multiple times per trip.

The next day, after meeting to discuss our trip plan and looking at avalanche conditions, Tommy took me out for a proper ski in the local mountains with an incredible view from 12,000 feet. The trail up was a groomed snowmobile track, which made skinning uphill easier. After breaking for lunch (snacks are very important), we broke into fresh snow and crossed tree line at around 11,800 feet. Once at the top, the wind picked up significantly, and it was definitely harder to breathe at such a high elevation. Despite that, the views from the top were amazing! We plotted out our ski lines, ripped off our skins and dropped down into the snow. It was incredible. For someone who has only skied groomed trails, it was exhilarating to make tight turns in between trees and avoid rocks and small shrubs. I loved the idea of skiing in the backcountry before, but the reality was even better. (A word of advice here: before you go out backcountry skiing, do some squats. Lots and lots of squats. Your quads will thank me later.)

Travel Tips:

If you plan on testing your backcountry ski legs in Buena Vista, I highly recommend staying at the Surf Chateau — a recently-opened hotel situated on the banks of the Arkansas River. This small, but gorgeous property is every bit as laid back as it sounds. There’s no front desk hassle, and each room offers a wonderful luxurious feel that is perfect for relaxing in after a long day learning how to backcountry ski. The private cafe tables that look out onto the Arkansas River are an added bonus and a great place to relax and have a cup of coffee in the morning while the bright Colorado sun pours down on you.

At night, make sure to stop in at the Deerhammer Distilling Company which is located right in the heart of Buena Vista’s historic downtown. Cozy up in the rustic tasting room and enjoy a taste of the distillery’s handcrafted whiskey, or order it up as part of one of the many craft cocktails on the menu. But to truly unwind and rest up after a day on the mountain, make the short drive from town to the Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, where you can spend the evening soaking your aching muscles in the relaxing waters of the hot springs pools. 

Be safe, stay warm, and have fun! (And remember to take photos!) 

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