Backcountry Skiing - Tools of the Trade
La Sportiva ski team athlete Andy Dorais is an ER doctor in the Salt Lake Valley. While he finds his work rewarding, time spent with his young family is more so. Any remaining gaps are filled with backcountry skiing in the Wasatch mountains and the western US.
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"How do I get into backcountry skiing?" is an oft uttered question that I'm hearing more and more as the sport gains prominence. Beyond a willingness, there are a number of tools that will make one’s first forays into the backcountry more rewarding and more likely to draw them back.
The most common story is an alpine skier sees their friends ducking the rope lines to ski fresh side country snow. Then they look across the valley and see tracks being laid down on pristine slopes and they realize they are missing out on something. Inquiries are made. Used gear is purchased. They set out on their own, fueled by visions of face shots and Powder Magazine worthy Instagram photos.
Bushwhacking, sweating, slipping, swearing, all occur. Frustration sets in and they feel they have never worked so hard to travel such a short distance ever in their life. Finally on top, the transition to downhill mode is awkward and takes what seems like hours.
Finally, clicking in, the beleaguered first time backcountry skier drops down the fall line. A grin replaces the furrowed brow and just for a second, they are ecstatic. The glory is theirs and those few turns are the best of their life.
Then it's over.
Back floods the despair as they hit some breakable crust as the snow quality changes with aspect or elevation. The final few turns are pure survival and hate. They arrive at the car depleted but in awe of the ephemeral sensations they had during the first part of their descent.
That was my story. I then went out and bought the wrong gear for the type of skiing I wished to pursue. I learned more lessons. I skied some good snow mixed with plenty of bad. I bought more wrong gear. Eventually though, I got the right tools for the job and now moving efficiently through the mountains under my own power is one of the most liberating and rewarding sensations of my life.
The tool kit to which I refer includes a few tangible basics; clothes, skis, boots, skins, and avy gear. But it also includes some intangibles such as fitness, humility and avalanche education. Backcountry skiing is an aerobic sport. To optimize one’s efficiency and hence be able to ski more, developing aerobic fitness will open the door. No amount of fitness however, can make up for poor technique. Learning to skin properly and efficiently will unlock your aerobic powers. And finally, no amount of fitness or technique can make up for the wrong equipment for the job.
There should be no fudging on avalanche equipment. Hopefully, you'll never have to use it. But if you do, it will save your life or your partner's life. Get a modern beacon. Know how to use it. Get a solid shovel and probe. Practice. Again, it could save your life or your partner's life.
Clothing should reflect the aerobic requirements of uphill skiing. Many times, the exertion on the up will reduce me to just base layers with puffy jackets and shells being applied for the down or on windy exposed ridges.
Focusing on the hard goods, there has been an explosion of both skis and boots that cover the spectrum of skiing. My focus has been more on the light-and-fast end of the spectrum, and there are more offerings than ever. Boots like the Stratos Hi Cube or the Raceborg have nearly friction free articulation at the ankle with over 70 degrees of range of motion. Trying on a boot like this is mind blowing. It feels lighter and more free than a standard hiking boot. Pairing this with a light ski will allow one to rack up the vert and ski more than they ever imagined possible. An all-day adventure now becomes feasible before work.
I also enjoy steeper ski mountaineering and for this the Spitfire 2.1 is my boot of choice. It is still light and walks well but will be more reminiscent of an alpine boot on the down for someone just coming into the sport. Paired with a mid-fat ski, I find it the perfect combo for objectives like the Grand Teton.
And for the rare days when the down matters more than the up, boots like the Spectre and the Synchro will allow you to go full free ride. Sometimes the weight penalty is worth the freedom of expression on the down.
Moving on to the intangibles, find a mentor and solid partners. For me, this has led to some of the greatest friendships of my life. Get educated. Taking an avalanche course is a start. But try and learn every day. Check the local avalanche center forecast daily and compare that to what you're seeing in the field. Eventually, you'll be more and more able to synthesize your own assessments. And lastly, as Kendrick Lamar raps, "Be Humble." That may be the best tool for a long successful career.
Photos : ©Jason and Andy Dorais
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andy Dorias is a member of the La Sportiva Skiing Team.
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