10 Reasons To Finally Give Backcountry Skiing A Try

Don’t get us wrong: Ski resorts are great. But if you’ve ever been stuck behind dozens of people in a lift line, not so patiently waiting for your turn to get back on the slopes, thinking the “good” snow is being scraped away by everyone in line before you, you wouldn’t be alone. For me, making the jump into the backcountry was a product of being tired waiting in line, but the benefits go well beyond that. Not only can you skip the lines and ticket windows, but you’ll get a full workout in, and have lots more flexibility with time and your ski schedule. So why should you consider skiing uphill?

Credit: Luke Looman

1. It’s great exercise.

The biggest thing to like about uphill travel—whether you’re deep in the backcountry or just doing an uphill lap at the resort—is the amazing exercise it provides. When I’m on a steep pitch, almost to the end of my ascent, the burning in my lungs and legs and the exhaustion of the climb feels great. While this may prevent some from trying skinning, my fellow exercise junkies out there know that the sweat makes the experience even better because you’ve earned each of those turns.

2. You have more time flexibility.

For me, this seems more important than for most other skiers. I work rotating shifts so my schedule fluctuates, and my busy schedule usually doesn’t allow me to take a ski day. But since I don’t need to rely on a chairlift, I get turns in anytime, day or night. Just last week I did an uphill lap at my local ski area at midnight simply because that was the most convenient time for me. If you’re going to be uphilling at a resort, before heading out, always get familiar with the policies of your particular ski area and the hours they allow uphilling. They typically go well beyond the mountain’s life hours, but it’s worth knowing if there is a cutoff.

Credit: Luke Looman

3. Find more location variety.

Another big selling point for skinning is that all you need is a mountain and snow. Once you get better, you can explore different routes, and begin to challenge yourself with tougher terrain. Backcountry skiing has not confined me to one route like riding a chair lifts. And now, it’s exciting when I get to the top of a new ski line. I see a different view almost every time I go out, even if that view may not be as picturesque as the resorts, the feeling of exploration is unmatched by any chair lift rides.

4. Ride more terrain.

Resorts usually cater to families and tourists, and I have noticed their terrain options are limiting compared to backcountry skiing. There are only so many times I can ski yet another wide-open groomer before I crave some fun glades with their hidden, unexpected obstacles. In the backcountry, you’ll stumble on lines you never knew existed. The trees may tighten up, you might stumble upon an open field, or you may be headed straight towards a cliff (be careful!). Those surprises have proved rewarding to me when I find an exciting stretch of woods that let me find a good flow but also challenges my skill level.

Credit: Luke Looman

5. Ski through sunrises and sunsets.

Everyone loves a good sunrise or sunset, but if you’re confined to resort skiing, you rarely get the opportunity to ski during these picturesque moments. Skinning allows you to combine your favorite outdoor sport with a daily dose of natural beauty. Since uphill skiing is more arduous and takes a longer time, I end up stopping and enjoying the view more than I would have otherwise. The sunrise or sunset gives me an excuse to stop at the top and relish in the fact that I worked hard to get up there, while taking in a gorgeous view.

6. Make it as competitive or uncompetitive as you want.

If you’re competitive like me, knowing how quickly you can skin the local uphill route can increase bragging rights to your buddies. When someone tells me they made it up a mountain in a certain amount of time, it isn’t long before I’m getting packed up to try to beat that time. There is something special about being competitive in a difficult sport that makes it more rewarding.

Credit: Luke Looman

7. Combine camping with skiing.

For any crazies out there that enjoy winter camping, finding a good backcountry zone that allows camping can provide an entire weekend of exploring. If you are willing to skin in the night before, you can gain access to almost any terrain on the East Coast (that’s avalanche safe), and you are likely putting yourself in an incredible spot to start your day the next morning.

8. It’s cheaper!

While a touring-specific ski setup can come with some initial cost, thanks to the rising costs of ticket prices, you can actually save money in the long run in the backcountry. And especially considering how many years you’ll get out of that new gear, it’s well worth it.

Credit: Luke Looman

9. Find better—and deeper—snow.

I’ll admit, I am a bit of a snow snob. Fake snow just isn’t the same as natural, and any other snow snob will agree with that. When you catch a powder day at the resort, it may not last long before it turns into bump city. However, the backcountry may remain undisturbed all winter long. You just need to know where to find the goods.

10. The “Cool Factor.”

When you do the research, spend time looking at maps, talking to locals about the good stashes, it makes the ski experience so much better. Standing at the top of a remote mountain thinking “I bet not many people have skied this before, if ever” is something I think every skier should experience.


Opinion: How to Handle the Flood of New Backcountry Users

It should come as no surprise that there are more people than ever who are exploring the outdoors and recreating in new places. It has been the work of outdoor companies, guiding outfits, educational programs, and town recreation departments (just to name a few players) to get people outside for decades. The result? More and more people have been encouraged to “escape to the wilderness” and pursue a healthier lifestyle among the trees and mountains. But the fact that this romantic and well-intentioned message has truly taken hold of us inevitably means it’s taken hold of others and we’re all escaping to the same getaways. 

Social media, the Covid-19 pandemic, and unprecedented access to recreational spaces have all converged to push more people outdoors. By now we’ve all noticed how parking lots are full, there are lines for popular climbs, and it might feel harder to be alone outdoors. Not to mention the risk to our “secret spots.” So, what should we do?

But the fact that this romantic and well-intentioned message has truly taken hold of us inevitably means it’s taken hold of others and we’re all escaping to the same getaways. 

Let’s start by talking about what we shouldn’t do. Outdoor activities, especially adventure sports, have a long history and pervasive reputation of elitism, gatekeeping, and hiding a disdain for competition of space behind an open-armed welcome message. Outdoor athletes and recreationists are not bad people, but they understand a notion that was aptly put by rock climbing pioneer Royal Robbins decades ago, “a simple equation exists between freedom and numbers: the more people the less freedom.” 

Isn’t that a big reason why we like going out into the wilder places? I can get a lot more skiing in if I go to a resort, or a lot of climbing in at a gym, so why make the effort to hike for hours for a couple ski runs? Or a few pitches of climbing? There’s a lot to unpack there, but it’s a question to keep in mind as we think about how we might treat the new wave of outdoor users, and the changing landscape of the places we’re used to having to ourselves. 

Let’s all remember when we were first starting out. We were all newbies at one point or another, and everyone needs experience to learn. How do you gain experience? Get out and make mistakes, figure it out, and get some mileage in, maybe with a mentor or a group of peers. With more beginners venturing out of their comfort zones and into the woods than ever, there is no reason for us to make their journey harder by being judgmental, alienating, or protective over places that aren’t ours. It’s not your terrain. 

I’m a New Englander, and recognize my own aversion to sunny, cheerful salutations to everyone I pass, but it’s not hard to be a kind person, or at least to pretend to be one for a moment. Look out for each other! If something is obviously unsafe or needlessly risky, say something. On the other side of the coin, it’s no fun to be patronized. I know that I wouldn’t appreciate a stranger accosting me for not taking the Ten Essentials on a Sherburne lap, or reminding me how “steep the trail is up there.” Somewhere on the spectrum between the crusty curmudgeon and the mansplainer there is a happy space for a real peach of a neighbor. 

The other bird that tends to get the worms is the one that goes someplace else. Meaning having a plan B, C, and D can save the day if you show up to a feeding frenzy.

So what do we do now?

The early bird gets the worm. No matter what “the worm” is to you, you’re more likely to get it if you show up before anyone else. Depending what you’re going for, that might be pretty darn early. The other bird that tends to get the worms is the one that goes someplace else. Meaning having a plan B, C, and D can save the day if you show up to a feeding frenzy. Keep in mind that there has been a documented rise in accidents that seems to stem from this dispersion of users into less familiar and more remote terrain. This is certainly not advice to get in over your head if your favorite local spot is a little busy, so remember your limits, and also remember that the mountains aren’t going anywhere. 

That being said, one thing that won’t be around for long is our pristine wilderness. The great environmental bummer of our time is our impact on the places we love and profess to care about. Far worse than any complaint of having neighbors at the crag is how we are disfiguring and destroying our valuable natural spaces, and at an alarming rate. One thing that we can be sure of is that the number of people getting out into the woods will only increase, and that the variables we can control have nothing to do with who is using the outdoors. Here is an opportunity to remembering share—Leave No Trace principles, to model good stewardship, and to help out our community and conservation programs in maintaining sustainable use of our crags, trails, and parks. Don’t just let someone else take care of it, because if we all assume that someone else will care for the outdoors, then there will be nothing left to enjoy. Donate some cash, volunteer some time, and be a part of the solution. 

Now might be a time to start thinking about where the outdoor recreation world is heading, how it’s evolving, and how our activities might need to evolve as well. We no longer live in a world where “because that’s how it always was” is helpful or meaningful when it comes to our adventure sports. The conversation instead should be open to anyone, constantly in motion, and working towards protecting the land and the communities that we all depend on. 

Credit: Tim Peck

Video: 5 Tips for Staying Safe in Avalanche Terrain with MWAC

Looking for something to watch tonight? How about refreshing your snow safety.


Why This Is The Year To Get A Real Backcountry Ski Education

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, skiing is different this winter. Whether you’re one of the many who’s bought a backcountry setup to discover what skiing is like away from the crowds at the resort or an experienced ski tourer who has explored much of what the Northeast has to offer, there’s always something in your skill set that can be improved. Before the winter is over, consider a backcountry-focused lesson with the EMS Climbing School to up your game.

Earning Your Turns

If you’re new to backcountry skiing this winter, getting comfortable with the gear and learning to skin uphill will be the steepest parts of your learning curve. Spending a day with an EMS guide is a sure way to accelerate the learning process.

According to Keith Moon, the Climbing School Manager, an introductory backcountry day focuses on the fundamentals of ski touring: skinning uphill, transitioning from the ascent to the descent, and managing terrain on the descent. Whether you have your own setup or borrow one from the school, at the end of the day you’ll feel much more confident traveling into the backcountry.

After your lesson, put that knowledge into action with a first tour of your own. Mount Cardigan, the Granite Backcountry Alliance glades in and around North Conway, and the Sherburne Trail on Mount Washington all make excellent first tours. Additionally, if the tide’s out in the backcountry, uphilling at the resort is a great way to get some vertical and earn your turns, all while minimizing the objective hazard.

Credit: Chris Bennett

Know Your Avalanche ABCs

Speaking of objective hazards, avalanche training is essential for anybody venturing into terrain where things might slide. One way to do this is to sign up for an AIARE Level 1 avalanche course, which Keith describes as one of the Climbing School’s most popular offerings. The three-day course provides a great foundation for the dos and don’ts of traveling in avalanche terrain, covering topics like tour planning, decision making in the field, rescue techniques, and basic snowpack tests. By the end of the course, students should have the knowledge necessary to have a successful (and, more importantly safe) day skiing something like Tuckerman Ravine.

If you’ve already taken a Level 1 course or can’t swing the whole course right now, spending a session with a guide reviewing avalanche fundamentals is another good option. A day focused on improving your knowledge is perfect for those just getting into avalanche terrain, providing a taste of what a full AIARE course is like while still scoring the backcountry goods.

Meanwhile, for more experienced folks, a day-long outing catered to your skill level is a perfect refresher. For those who are ready, a day spent “mock leading” a guide like Keith around the backcountry is invaluable, especially when they provide feedback about your tour planning, decision making, and backcountry techniques. For small groups with big post-pandemic ski touring plans, this is an ideal shakedown mission.

Credit: Tim Peck

Expand Your Bag of Tricks

There are ample other developmental-focused reasons to consider spending a day (or two) with a guide this winter. Here are three:

  1. Become more efficient on the uphill. Sure, fitness is a big part of uphill efficiency, but if you can’t do a kick turn, don’t know when to deploy your ski crampons, or default to an overly steep skin track, improving your skill level will go a long way toward scoring huge vertical on subsequent tours.
  2. Improve your mountaineering skills essential for bigger objectives. Topics on a day like this include skills such as when and where to transition from skinning to booting, ascending using crampons and an ice axe, using a rope to add a margin of safety, and building basic snow anchors using your touring equipment. More advanced options include training for glacier travel and crevasse rescue. All in all, a day practicing these skills with a professional like Keith is sure to improve your mountain savviness.
  3. Dial your personal ski touring kit. Everybody’s kit can always be improved and spending some one-on-one time with a guide reviewing the contents of your kit is a great way to get a second opinion about what you’ve been toting around the backcountry and ensure that you’re purchasing the best equipment for your individual objectives. An added bonus—you’ll get to see what the professionals are carrying on terrain that you frequent.
Courtesy: Backcountry Access

Ski Some Gnarly Terrain

Assuming the snow gods deliver, the Gulf of Slides, Oakes Gulf, and Raymond’s Cataract offer some of the most spectacular lines in the East. Scoring a descent of one of these prized ski lines is an achievement, and having a trained professional like Keith along to manage the risks and snap some pics ensures that you’ll send safely and in style.

To sign up for a session with the EMS Climbing School this winter, visit www.emsoutdoors.com or call 845–668-2030.


The Perfect Ski Width for the East Coast Backcountry

The search for the perfect-width backcountry ski can leave East Coasters feeling a lot like Goldilocks. Some skis are too wide, others are too narrow, and finding one with a waist size that’s “just right” seems impossible. If you’ve been dreaming of a ski silhouette that cruises uphill, shreds downhill, and can tackle the Ice Coast’s notoriously variable conditions, here are some thoughts.

Credit: Tim Peck

What is Ski Width?

For the unfamiliar, ski width is a measurement of the ski at its middle in millimeters—also called underfoot or the waist—and is generally the narrowest point on a ski. A ski’s width at its waist is almost always included in a ski’s nomenclature, from superskinny cross-country skis to portly powder planks.

Because skis are typically hourglass shaped, it’s also common to see a ski width measurement using three numbers, such as 138-106-124. In this format, the first number is a ski’s width at the front (at its widest point), the middle number is the width at the waist, and the last number is the width of the tail (at its widest point).

Credit: Tim Peck

Too Wide (115+)

We’ve all seen the super-sized planks the pros use in the TGR and Warren Miller movies and thought, I want those! And there’s no denying super-fat skis are fun on the deepest days—their large surface area provides an abundance of floatation and lets you surf on top of the snow. However, on average days, super-fat skis can elicit comments like these skis are too heavy, it’s too hard to hold an edge, and it’s too tricky to turn. 

So, unless you’re getting flown to the world’s best powder stashes or chasing storms from region to region, super-wide rides are pretty impractical as a primary driver for East Coasters. Skis with 115+ mm waists underfoot are best left to the powder professionals, those living in dreamy destinations, or as a secondary pair tucked away in your gear closet for the deepest of days in the Greens, Whites, and ’Daks.

Credit: Tim Peck

Too Narrow (85 and under) 

Skinny skis are all the rage in Europe—of course, so are skin suits and listening to techno at après. And they also call backcountry skiing “randonee” and groomers “pistes.” Here in the Northeast, it’s far more likely that a skier will choose a ski that is too wide, than one that is too narrow—likely because a certain portion of the population thinks that bigger equals better.

Less width generally equates to less weight, which makes narrow backcountry skis easier to tote around on long tours (like Mount Mooilaukee or on the auto road of Mount Whiteface) and are great for control in tight trees like those of the GBA when the snow isn’t that deep. They are also great for the rando racers in your crew. That said, getting caught with skinny skis when the snow is stacking up can suck the joy out of even the best pow day and leave skiers uttering remarks like it’s too deep and my skis are sinking, it’s too much effort, and going under the snow instead of on top is too slow.  

Credit: Tim Peck

Just Right (90 to 105)

Too-wide skis are no fun in anything but soft snow and skinny skis are outgunned when the going gets deep, which makes the sweet spot for the waist width of an East Coast backcountry ski somewhere in between the two. Skis in the 90 to 105 waist range (sometimes called a mid-fat ski) provide a nice blend of the attributes of both fat and narrow skis.

A ski that is “just-the-right” width will have enough surface area to keep you floating on those rare Northeast days when the snow is measured in feet, not inches. They also are easy enough to skin with that you won’t shy away from all-day tours or multiple laps and can shred through New England glades even when the snow is more frozen than fluff. You can even bring them to the resort for an uphill lap or two without attracting strange looks from the lift.

Finding a sweet spot within this “do-it all” range is very skier-specific. For those looking to move faster on the uphill or ski more groomers than couloirs, a ski with a width at the lower end of this range (90-95) is best. Skiers prioritizing the “down,” by contrast, are likely to prefer the range’s higher end (i.e., 105 underfoot).

Quiver 

Not to ski shame anyone—there is nothing wrong with fat or skinny skis—they’re all fun to ride. In fact, having a quiver of skis (of all sizes for all conditions) is an awesome luxury if you can afford it. After all, the correct number of skis to own is N+1—that is, the number of skis you own plus one. But if you can’t own a collection, a mid-fat ski is a great compromise for those looking for one ski to do it all.


How to Choose Your Avalanche Safety Kit

There is nothing quite like the feeling of skiing fresh, untracked snow out in the wilderness after hours of hiking and toil, with no crowds or civilization in sight. This is the bliss of backcountry skiing, and while there are countless reasons why it is great, there are also considerations to be made in order to manage the increased risk of travel in potential avalanche terrain. Avalanches are serious hazards, and each year more and more accidents occur as more people venture out away from resorts into uncontrolled terrain.

Anyone who travels in avalanche terrain should consider taking avalanche equipment with them. This is not just limited to skiers and snowboarders, but any sort of users that find themselves in these areas. It is important that you have the proper equipment, not just to manage risk for yourself and your party, but also in case another person or group needs help.

The avalanche safety kit may have many pieces, all of which warrant discussion, but there are a universal three: a transceiver, a shovel, and a probe.

This article is by no means a replacement for instruction or education concerning avalanche rescue. Seek qualified instruction and training! Buying and having this equipment is one thing, but being able to use it correctly and effectively is entirely another.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Transceivers

Your avalanche transceiver (also known as a beacon) is the most complex, varied, and expensive part of your avalanche kit. It is essentially a small two-way radio transmitter that works by generating signal pulses, which can be picked up by other transceivers in a different mode. The beacons have a handful of methods to lead rescuers to a buried victim. Generally, these are slightly smaller than your average PB&J sandwich and are carried either in a harness close to the chest or in specific “beacon pockets” that can be found in some ski and climbing apparel. Transceivers have been around since the 1960s, and decades of research and refinement make us lucky to have these advanced tools at our disposal. All transceivers on the market use a common signal frequency (457kHz), so no matter which model or brand you go with, every device is compatible with every other device.

Almost all avalanche transceivers on the market today (excluding some outliers) are three-antenna transceivers. Historically, transceivers have used two or even one antenna, and these are now defunct. Having two or fewer means that in certain orientations, the signal from a buried person’s beacon would not be intercepted by rescuers. Use caution if buying older transceivers, and make sure to check each unit.

Digital vs. Analog

These days, most transceivers on the market are digital, meaning they use a microprocessor to interpret incoming signals. This means the display is updated more quickly when searching for a signal. Analog transceivers are the original technology, and while the search range can be greater, these are more difficult to use. Some models are able to use both technologies in conjunction depending on the situation. Generally, transceivers in today’s market have quite varied effective ranges, generally between 40 and 70 meters, depending on brand and the technology that they use. The longer a beacon’s range, the further away from a victim you can be before beginning to pick up their signal, making searches faster and easier.

Features

There are many helpful features available on modern avalanche transceivers, without being simply bells and whistles. Most commonly you’ll find directional indicators on an LCD screen on the device, to be used in addition to auditory signals. These displays look different for each transceiver, so take time to find one that makes sense to you and learn how to read it quickly. Generally you will see a combination of directional arrows and distance in meters, both designed to help you narrow in on the buried beacon. Another common feature is a “flagging” feature, which in multiple-burial situations (when you’re looking for more than one person) allows you to intentionally block the signal from a victim that you have already found, to focus your device on the other buried transceiver. Different manufacturers also build in some of their own features to devices, like Bluetooth capabilities.

Pricing

As mentioned above, avalanche transceivers are the most expensive piece of the kit. Prices vary from around $250 to $500, accounting for differences in features and performance. While not every user needs the top of the line beacon, these are one life-saving piece of gear and are always money well spent. Have a good one that you trust with you or a friend’s life.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Shovel

While it may benefit you to shave weight in other places in your kit, your shovel should be able to handle whatever you throw at it without failing. You will be shoveling like a mad person in a rescue, and worrying about your shovel’s durability shouldn’t be on your mind.

Materials

Avalanche shovels can be found using steel, aluminum, and plastic in their construction. In general, the shaft of the shovel will be aluminum, the handle will be plastic, and the blade should be metal. Plastic blades, while being the lightest option and may be good for digging out your car or building a snow fort, is much more likely to break when chopping and moving avalanche debris, and should be avoided in the backcountry.

The size of the blade will also affect how the shovel performs: A larger blade means you can move more snow at one time; However, it will be harder to fit into a backpack. The blades on the market have slightly different shapes to them, and it’s worth investigating what you like.

Handle

There are a variety of shovel handles out there, including D-grip, T-grip, and L-grip. There are pros and cons with each type.

The D-grip is your classic shovel handle like you’d find on a driveway shovel. These give you the best grip and offer the best leverage for using the shovel, especially with big gloves or mittens. However, it is larger, and also possible to break off the handle (being plastic).

The T-grip is very popular as well. It is simple, low profile, and very hard to break, although using it with mittens is trickier.

The L-grip and other special case handles you may find are less popular, but the L-grip will perform similarly to the T-grip, with a little more to hold onto. Try out a couple different types (with gloves/mittens) to see what you like.

Shaft

Shovels these days are pretty similar across the board when it comes to the shaft. In general, you’ll have an aluminum construction, with an extendable, telescoping adjustment. The shape of the shaft (round, rectangular, etc.) is more of a personal preference than anything. You will come across shovels with fixed or removable shafts, meaning you can or cannot separate the blade from the shaft and handle. Fixed construction is stronger, but a separating shovel will fit into a smaller package. Longer shafts will mean more leverage and perhaps increased performance, but it will be harder to fit in your backpack as well.

Features

Some shovels have extra features that can be rather helpful as well, but keep it simple! There are a couple models out that allow you to change the orientation of the shaft and blade from a “shovel” mode into a “hoe” mode, which can be quite helpful when used correctly. Some of these have extra little handles close to the blade for bonus control.

Courtesy: Pieps
Courtesy: Pieps

Avalanche Probe

The avalanche probe is used primarily for finding your buried person once you’ve narrowed in your transceiver search. These are all pretty simple and light, but be careful that yours will hold up to the rigors of use, and practice deploying and using your probe plenty before you need it.

Materials

Probes on the market will almost exclusively be either made of aluminum or carbon fiber, although steel probes can be found as well. The latter tend to only be used by professionals because of how robust steel is. For the layperson, aluminum is the most popular given its balance of weight and durability (and price). Carbon fiber is the lightest, saved for the gram-counting high-end athletes. Carbon fiber can splinter and break so one should use caution if using a carbon probe.

Length

Avalanche probes are available in a plethora of sizes, ranging from 2 to more than 3 meters in length, and tend to be measured in centimeters. Common sizes include 240, 280, and 320cm. The size you want depends on where you are and the size of the snowpack you’re operating in. In the Northeast, you will almost never need a 320cm probe, as this area simply doesn’t get that amount of snow. If you were traveling in the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia, 240cm may not be sufficient, as they have very deep snowpacks. It’s best to study up on where you will be going to educate your decision.

Features

Probes are simple pieces of gear in general, but there are still small differences that can feel important to certain users. Some probes have printed-on graduations, which can be bright and obvious at first, but later may fade or be worn off from use. Other manufacturers have started laser engraving the graduations to eliminate that problem, at a higher cost. The most variable feature of probes on the market will be the lockout mechanism. This can be a mechanical lock, a special tie-off, or some plastic snaps. Find something that couldn’t loosen itself when in use and it easy for you to use.

EMS -Winter-Ski Mistaya Lodge -3734

Additional Avalanche Gear

While the beacon, shovel, an probe make up the essential triad of avalanche safety and are the three items you should always have when traveling in avalanche terrain, there are other items that can play a key role in snow and avalanche safety that might also be a good idea to think about purchasing and bringing along.

RECCO

This technology works by using a detecting device to send out a concentrated radio signal until a separate reflector bounces the signal back to the detector when hit. These reflectors are woven into various pieces of outerwear and other gear. A rescuer using the detector can locate a buried person wearing RECCO reflectors similarly to a transceiver search. Something to note is that RECCO detectors are large and very expensive, meaning they are almost exclusively used by ski patrollers in resorts, or from helicopters, and therefore should never be relied upon in place of an avalanche transceiver, but can be a nice feature for inbounds skiers.

Airbag

Avalanche airbag systems are a newer player in the game, and have proven to be valuable if you’re caught in a slide. They work by keeping you closer to the surface of an avalanche once inflated, which hopefully means you either get found sooner or are only partially buried. They come with special backpacks or can be attached to specific backpack models. These systems are very expensive, sometimes hard to travel with, and manufacturers are still ironing out all the details.

Courtesy: Backcountry Access
Courtesy: Backcountry Access

Avalung

Another crafty piece of avalanche tech, the Black Diamond Avalung system, has been proven to significantly extend the amount of time you can breathe while buried in snow. It is basically a snorkel that allows you to inhale oxygen from in front of your face and exhale carbon dioxide from your back. The downside is that per manufacturer’s specifications, you should already have it in your mouth when an avalanche occurs (Because you may not be able to find it while being carried, and once the avalanche is over, it’s likely impossible to get it in your mouth), and it can be quite cumbersome.

Communication

In any emergency, it is crucial to have the option of calling for help if you need to. This becomes increasingly difficult in the backcountry, where most avalanches occur, so the communication systems that you use must be an integral part of your rescue kit. While cell phone service may be available in many remote places these days, it cannot be entirely relied upon. This is where special devices such as the Garmin inReach come into play. Radios and satellite phones can also be helpful when used correctly. Do your research on what kind of device fits your needs, and become an adept user before you need to.

Helmet

A large number of avalanche injuries and fatalities, especially in places like the Northeast which has a thinner snowpack, are trauma-based injuries. A simple ski helmet may be one of the biggest life-savers if you’re ever caught in an avalanche.

TK_EMS-Conway-7946


It Can't Happen Here: 12 Myths About Northeast Avalanches

Many people believe that avalanches are a problem reserved for skiers and climbers recreating “out west.” However, unstable snowpacks and avy-prone slopes can be found throughout the East Coast’s mountain ranges. Read on for why you should be upping your avalanche awareness this winter.

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1. Myth: Avalanches Only Happen in the Presidentials

In 2018, Aaron Rice (the skier who famously climbed and skied 2.5 million vertical feet in 2016), triggered an avalanche in Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch. Just days later, six soldiers in the Vermont National Guard were caught in a slide. In February of that same year, a skier was buried up to their waist in an avalanche on Wright Peak in the Adirondacks. Stories abound about recreationalists getting caught in avalanches in the Northeast, inside and out of the Whites. Here’s one about Trap Dike. And here’s another tidbit about two other avalanches in the ’Daks in February 2019. Just because you’re not in Tuckerman Ravine doesn’t mean you should let your guard down.

2. Myth: East Coast Avalanches Aren’t Fatal

The East Coast makes up only a small percentage of the fatalities caused by avalanches nationwide. With that said, even one death is too many. The past decade has seen two avalanche-caused fatalities in the East: one was a skier descending Raymond Cataract and the other was a climber in Pinnacle Gully. The right terrain (which the East has plenty of), plus the right snow conditions (which we also get), mixed with a lack of education and bad luck can definitely be fatal.

3. Myth: Eastern Avalanches are Only Deadly to Those Out Alone 

Although only solo travelers have been the victims of deadly avalanches on the East Coast in recent years, groups have not escaped fatalities resulting from avalanches. In 1996, two skiers were killed by an avalanche in Mount Washington’s Gulf of Slides. In 2000, one skier was killed and three others buried by an avalanche on Wright Peak in the Adirondacks. Groups are no less likely to cause avalanches, but if the members of a group are well-trained, they have the ability to rescue a buried friend. Soloists have no such luxury.

Credit: Jamie Walter
Credit: Jamie Walter

4. Myth: I’m With A Guide, It’s All Good 

According to the Utah Avalanche Center, avalanche professionals are far less likely to perish in an avalanche when compared to other users—less than 1 percent of all avalanche fatalities involve avalanche professionals. Having said that, a popular saying is that the avalanche does not know you are an expert! Last year, two AIARE certified Level 3s and one AIARE certified Pro 1 were caught in a slide in Oakes Gulf. Everyone makes mistakes and must practice the same good decision making.

5. Myth: I’m Experienced, I’ve Planned Well, I’m Safe

John Steinbeck said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This is especially true with avalanches on the East Coast. You can take all the AIARE classes, read the avalanche reports, and have years of experience in avalanche terrain and still get caught just like the Ski The East team did on a trip to the Chic-Chocs. Vigilance is equally important at all experience levels.

6. Myth: Accidents Only Catch Unlucky Skiers and Climbers 

There are a lot of things in life outside of our control, but more often than not getting caught in an avalanche isn’t the result of bad luck. More than 90 percent of avalanche accidents are triggered either by the victim or someone in the victim’s party, and most could have been avoided by better decision making.

7. Myth: The East’s Comparatively Minute Snowpack Makes Avalanches Less Deadly

The East Coast may not have the dense snowpack of the west, but we do have an abundance of trees and rocks. While asphyxia is the primary cause of death of avalanche victims, trauma accounts for about a quarter of avalanche fatalities.

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8. Myth: Mount Washington Is Home to the Only Avalanche Center East of the Rockies

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center is the only US avalanche center east of the Rockies, but it’s not the only avalanche center in the Northeast. As anyone who’s visited the powder playground above the US border knows, Avalanche Quebec provides forecasts for the Chic-Chocs and has the distinction of being the only avalanche center east of the Rockies in Canada. But as we’ve seen, just because someplace like the Adirondacks or Green Mountains doesn’t have an avalanche center, doesn’t mean they are immune to avalanches. It just means you’re going to need to use your own judgement.

9. Myth: “Everything Will Be Fine, We’re On An Established Hiking Trail” 

Trails that seem simple in the summer, can be more complicated in the winter. Even if they don’t cross an avalanche path directly, they may sit below one, or travel in a gully or other terrain trap. Some trails, like the route up Lion Head on Mount Washington, transition to a winter route when the summer route is deemed to be too risky. But if you’re traveling the summer route before the switch is made, make good decisions.

That being said, as one university outing group recently found out the hard way, it’s easy to get off trail in the winter and stumble into avalanche terrain, even on the Lion Head Winter Route. Their adventures are touched on toward the end of these reports (1, 2) from the MWAC.

10. Myth: Avalanches Strike Without Warning 

The vast majority of avalanches provide warning signs well before they slide—cracks forming around your foot or ski as you move through the snow, a “whumping” sound coming from the snowpack, and signs of recent avvy activity all are indicators of avalanche potential (though you may only have seconds warning in some cases). So, too, are recent snowfall and visible plumes of blowing snow (which is a sign that the areas where the snow stops are loading up). Learn to recognize the signs by taking an American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) class.

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11. Myth: Packing an Avalanche Beacon, Probe, and Shovel Makes You Safe

Avalanche tools such as a beacon, probe, and shovel go a long way toward increasing your safety in avalanche terrain; however, a tool is only as good as the person wielding it. Studies show that 93% of avalanche victims are recovered alive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes of burial, but the likelihood of survival diminishes significantly after that. The safest bet is to avoid getting buried, but practicing and familiarizing yourself with your beacon, probe, and shovel can mean the difference between life and death. Again, taking an AIARE class includes education for using these tools.

12. Myth: Ice Climbers are Safe if They’re Not Climbing in the Ravines

Popular ice climbing destinations like Shoestring Gully, Willeys Slide, and Mount Willard’s South Face have all avalanched in the past. So have some of the longer gullies on Mount Webster. Looking for an example? Check out S. Peter Lewis’ and Dave Horowitz’s recounting of one such avalanche on Mount Willard’s Cinema Gully in their classic Selected Climbs in the Northeast. Fortunately for them, everything turned out okay.

 

Hopefully that busts a few East Coast myths for you. When you’re out in the field this winter, keep an eye out for red flags like recent snowfall, signs of snowpack instability (whumping, collapsing, and shooting cracks), rapid warming, wind loading, and signs of recent avalanches. And take an AIARE class from EMS Schools to get you up to speed on safe decision making in avalanche terrain. You may not have realized how much we have in the East.


Everything You Need to Know About Uphill Skiing

Uphilling at the resort is one of the fastest-growing winter sports—and early winter, before there’s snow in the backcountry, is the perfect time to try it. Whether you’re looking to learn the skills required for backcountry travel in a lower-consequence setting or just get some early-season elevation in your legs, uphilling should have a place in your quiver this winter.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Why Uphill?

Like so many alpine activities, uphilling has long been popular in Europe, but is rapidly increasing in popularity in the US. Today, more than half of North American resorts allow uphill skiing. In New England, the reasons to embrace the uphill are numerous.

Reliable Conditions: Let’s face it, the truth is that Northeast snow is unreliable. Some seasons it comes late, some seasons it never comes, and some seasons are interrupted by a mid-winter thaw. Snowmaking and grooming keep the resort a reliable option most winters.

Early Season: It’s the rare (and coveted) year that the backcountry season gets started with a huge November dump. A great thing about uphilling at the resort is that once it’s cold, there’s usually man-made snow on the ground, meaning you can get skinning immediately (subject, of course, to resort-specific restrictions).

Safe Snow: Many of the Northeast’s most coveted backcountry runs, like those in Tucks, are in avalanche terrain. Thus, skiers and riders require specialized gear and knowledge. They also need time for conditions to line up. Conversely, avalanches are not a concern within eastern ski area boundaries, making for one less thing to worry about.

Off Hours: Many of us have ski bum dreams but nine to five realities. Many resorts allow uphill skiing before and after the lifts spin—meaning you can earn pre- or post-work turns during the week and satiate your ski stoke, all with the added bonus of avoiding the lift-serviced crowds.

Fantastic Fitness: Running on the treadmill and sitting on the exercise bike might get you fit, but they’re boring and indoors. Uphilling is a great low-impact workout and allows you to train outside so that you’re in shape for when the conditions are right to venture into the backcountry. Plus, the ski downhill is way more fun than anything you’ll find at the local gym.

Enjoy an Old Favorite: If you live near a small mountain and have grown tired of lapping the same three or four runs, uphill skiing provides a new way to enjoy well-covered terrain. Additionally, that cruiser might feel a bit more challenging on post-ascent legs.

Great for First Timers: Interested in shredding one of Tuckerman Ravine’s iconic runs, surfing the pow at one of the GBA’s glades, or ticking a descent of a four-thousand footer off your bucket list, but uncertain where to begin? Uphilling at the resort is a great way to mimic the backcountry experience while minimizing the risks. Try a couple of uphill days to dial your kit, hone your technique, and get some experience in a lower-consequence setting.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Best Places to Uphill in New England

More and more ski resorts in New England are embracing uphill skiing; However, uphill policies are unique to each destination. In addition to whether or not a resort allows uphill skiers, some other things you’ll want to know are if the ski area charges for uphilling and if they have a prescribed ascent route. Before heading to the hill, check out the United States Ski Mountaineering Association’s list of uphill policies for US resorts, or stick to these uphill-friendly spots…

Magic Mountain: The gold standard for uphill skiers in the Northeast, Magic welcomes uphillers at all times, with the exception of powder days (when the mountain receives 6+ inches of snow) when they ask that uphillers wait for the lifts to spin before starting to skin. Magic’s “Hike One, Ride One” policy gives uphillers a token for a free one-ride lift ticket if they skin all the way to the top.

Black Mountain: Black Mountain is the epicenter for New Hampshire’s uphill ski scene. Uphillers are permitted from sunrise to 4 pm. It’s also home to a robust rental fleet of alpine touring gear and hosts Friday Night Lights, a ten-week uphill series for skiers of all abilities.

Mount Abram: Want to know what it’s like to have a ski resort all to yourself? Find out just twenty minutes away from gargantuan Sunday River at Mount Abram. This resort allows uphill access to its trails during both operational and non-operational hours—including Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday when the lifts don’t spin at all.

Wachusett Mountain: Skiers in central Massachusetts hoping to sneak in a run before work will want to check out Wachusett, which allows uphill skiing (at no charge) before the lift runs. Not an early riser? Check out Berkshire East, where the terrain is open to uphillers from dusk to dawn provided they’re season ticket holders or purchase a ticket—they sell both day and season uphill passes.

Mohawk Mountain: Proving that you don’t need to be in the mountains of northern New England to earn your turns is Connecticut’s Mohawk Mountain. The mountain is open to all skiers, including those who want to earn their 650-foot descent, during regular operating hours.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Uphill Ski Gear

In general, your uphill ski kit will closely resemble a backcountry ski kit without the avvy gear. To start, you’ll need an alpine touring, telemark, or splitboard set up with skins (although some mountains permit snowshoes) along with appropriate boots, poles, and layers. Although you’re at the resort, strive for self-sufficiency by packing a small first-aid and repair kit. You’ll also likely want a helmet, goggles, food and water, and a small pack. One of the advantages of skinning at the resort is that the car or base lodge is often close by, letting you pack light and make adjustments to your gear throughout the day. Another benefit of being near the lodge is the ability to sneak in and warm up between laps.

Uphill skiing is still in its early stages and many resorts are tinkering with their policies, so if you enjoy the uphill make sure to adhere to the skier responsibility code and be on your best behavior. Better yet, if a resort offers free uphill access, stop in and grab a beer or snack and show your support for them. Ski ya on the trails!


10 Backcountry Ski Tools for the Tech-Savvy

Whether it’s avalanche airbags, magnetic goggle lenses, or shred-recording apps, technology is revolutionizing backcountry ski gear. With Cyber Monday upon us, here are 10 favorite tech pieces likely to be working their way into your backcountry kit in the near future.

Courtesy: SPOT
Courtesy: SPOT

1. SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Messenger

Whether you’re day tripping in Tuckerman Ravine or on a multi-day tour in the Chic Chocs, the pocket-sized SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Messenger is a standalone device (meaning it works independently of your mobile phone) with its own dedicated phone number that allows you to send messages, post to social media, send out an SOS, along with a host of other neat features.

2. Pieps iProbe II

Every second counts after an avalanche, especially if somebody is buried. The Pieps iProbe II works in coordination with a beacon to speed up searches and find burial victims faster using audio and visual cues. When deployed, the probe automatically turns itself on to narrow down burial sites—beeping and lighting up as you get closer to a buried transceiver.

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Credit: Smith

 

3. Smith I/O Mag Goggles

Awesome optics, huge field of vision, and multiple lens options have made Smith I/O goggles a long-time part of our ski kits. Although interchangeable lenses are nothing new to ski goggles, Smith’s I/O Mag goggles up the ante. Taking advantage of magnetic locking mechanisms on the lens, swapping lenses is easier than ever and fingerprints obstructing your view are a thing of the past.

4. Scott Patrol E1 Avalanche Backpack 

At first sight, the flux capacitor on the Scott Patrol E1 Avalanche Backpack seemed straight out of the future. On closer inspection, it’s a supercapacitor, but that doesn’t make it any less wow-worthy. Unlike traditional and lithium-ion batteries, supercapacitors can be taken on planes with no restrictions, are not sensitive to changes in temperature, and last for 500,000 charging cycles. Don’t you wish the rechargeable batteries in your headlamp would last that long?

5. DPS Phantom Wax 

Waxing skis or taking them to the shop to get tuned has long been an annoyance to skiers more interested in nabbing runs than scraping wax. DPS Phantom Wax needs only a single application to deliver a permanent solution for keeping your skis sliding. Unlike traditional ski waxes, Phantom Wax changes the chemical composition of your ski’s base, eliminating the need for regular reapplications.

Courtesy: Black Diamond
Courtesy: Black Diamond

6. Black Diamond Guide BT Avalanche Beacon

Black Diamond’s first foray into avalanche beacons has us thinking that it’s time to upgrade. The Guide BT (the BT stands for Bluetooth) is able to update its software, alter the beacon’s settings, and manage its battery all through an app accessed via your smartphone or tablet.

7. Salomon Shift Bindings 

A binding capable of delivering the performance of an alpine binding with the uphill ability of a backcountry binding has been something that ski-tourers everywhere have been dreaming of for years. Enter the Salomon Shift, which offers a fully certified alpine mode for downhill charging and pin-type toe for touring efficiency. This binding rips on and off piste and is a great option for skiers looking for a “quiver of one” binding.

8. The North Face Futurelight Fabric

Skiers are always on the lookout for layers that will keep them dry when it’s wet, breathe when they’re working hard, and keep them warm when it’s cold. Enter Futurelight, manufactured using a process called nanospinning—in which a fibrous material is extruded and repeatedly layered on itself into an ultra-thin and flexible web-like structure—to create thinner, more breathable, waterproof membranes. Proven to be up to the task of the most serious ski missions, Hilaree Nelson (O’Neill) and Jim Morrison put Futurelight to the test on their first ski descent of Lhotse Couloir.

9. Ski Tracks App

99 cents won’t buy you much at even the most budget-conscious ski resort these days. However, for less than a dollar, the Ski Tracks app will track just how much value you squeezed out of that three-figure lift pass. Working with your smartphone, the Ski Tracks app records metrics such as maximum speed, number of runs, distance skied, and total vertical. Don’t forget to thank us the next time you’re boasting about how much vertical you shredded.

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10. PeakFinder App

After years of arguing over which mountains are in the distance, the PeakFinder app is making it easy to know the answer without having to dig out a map. Using augmented reality, the Peakfinder app turns your phone into a directory of surrounding peaks and quickly displays the names of the mountains and peaks your looking at. Best of all, it even works when you’re offline!

 

Is there a piece of ski tech you’re particularly excited about this season? If so, let us know about it in the comments below.


The Forest through the Trees: Skiing the GBA’s Glades

If you haven’t skied any of the Granite Backcountry Alliance’s new glades in New Hampshire’s White Mountains yet, you’re missing out. Formed in 2016, the GBA’s mission is to provide low-impact human-powered backcountry skiing opportunities to the public through the creation, improvement, and maintenance of ski glades in New Hampshire and Western Maine. Working in partnerships with public and private landowners, the GBA has so far established five glades, with more on the horizon. Want to sample the GBA’s handiwork? Keep reading for the beta on a few of their most recent projects.

Skiing the trees on Bill Hill. | Credit: Tim Peck
Skiing the trees on Bill Hill. | Credit: Tim Peck

Great Glen North/Bill Hill Glades

Named after a local who “spent some time in them thar hills,” Bill Hill is located on land owned by the Gorham Land Company—who also own the Great Glen Trails, the Mount Washington Auto Road, and the newly opened Glen House Hotel. Categorized by the GBA as a “lunchtime lap” destination, don’t be dissuaded from spending a day sampling the skiing at Bill Hill; The various glades here may be short, but they feature tightly spaced trees in an area that was recently logged and have just the right amount of pitch. On top of that, Bill Hill is north facing so the glades hold snow after a storm.

To access Bill Hill, park in an obvious plowed area on Bellevue Road—just outside of downtown Gorham—and begin skinning on an established snowmobile track to the far end of the airport, which is easily identified by a brick building. Snowmobile traffic here can be heavy at times, especially on the weekends, so keep your guard up, wear bright colors and, if traveling in a group, skin in single file. At the end of the airport, traverse through an open area—that’s also clearly popular with snowmobilers—and loop back along the opposite side of the airstrip for a few hundred yards before entering the woods on the right. If this seems confusing, just picture the approach as a “U.”

Shortly after entering the woods, skiers will come across a mountain bike trail sign reading “For Pete’s Sake.” Follow that trail momentarily before breaking left onto an old logging road that leads to steeper terrain, eventually gaining a ridge and the top of the gladed skiing—if you’re not skiing in the middle of a storm, there is a good chance someone has done the hard work and put in a skin track to follow. From the top of the ridge, there are multiple glades to drop into and enjoy the 600-foot descent through the trees to the old logging road you entered on. From here, either head back up for another run or retrace your steps to the car.

Looking down on the Crescent Glades. | Credit: Tim Peck
Looking down on the Crescent Glades. | Credit: Tim Peck

Crescent Ridge Glade

Another great glade is just up the road in the Randolph Community Forest. Offering something for everyone, Crescent Ridge Glade features five distinct ski corridors—described by the GBA as “low-density vertical lines that are approximately 35-50 feet in width”—that all funnel skiers into a large hardwood glade and, eventually, back to the trail they entered on. From here, skiers can easily head up for another lap (or three) before returning the way they came to their car. Offering a wide variety of terrain in a relatively condensed area, the initial pitch of Crescent Ridge’s runs vary between 30 and 35 degrees, before mellowing to 20 to 25 degrees, eventually giving way to 10- and 15-degree terrain on the ski out.

Crescent Ridge skiers start the day at a plowed parking lot located at the end of Randolph Hill Road, right off of U.S. Highway 2 in Randolph. From the parking lot, skin past the kiosk on a wide track for a few minutes before entering the woods on the Carlton Notch Trail. Following the GBA’s blue blazes, skiers will skin through gently rolling terrain, through a large open field with amazing views of the Northern Presidentials (just turn around), and past the bottom of the large hardwood glade. It’s here that the skintrack steepens for the final push to the ridge and entry points to the ski corridors, which are numbered 1 through 5.

Skiers should plan on it taking between an hour and an hour and a half to make the little-under-two-mile, 1,000-foot climb from the parking lot to the ridge and expect it to take 20 to 30 minutes to transition and make the 600-foot climb needed to lap the trees. Getting back to the parking lot is easy and fast (provided the water crossings are filled in)—simply ski back the way you came in.

Skiing Maple Villa with Mount Washington in the distance through the trees. | Credit: Tim Peck
Skiing Maple Villa with Mount Washington in the distance through the trees. | Credit: Tim Peck

Maple Villa

Maple Villa Glade is the largest, longest, and most popular glade on this list. Skiing at Maple Villa—which is named for a hotel at the end of the original ski trail—has a long history, beginning in 1933 with the Civilian Conservation Corps cutting the “Maple Villa” ski trail. Shortly thereafter, Maple Villa became the Intervale Ski Area, which operated for approximately the next 40 years. Following the closing of Intervale Ski Area in the mid-1970s, the Maple Villa area was home to the Eastern Mountain Sports (cross-country) Ski Touring Center. Skiers today will discover everything from tightly spaced trees to resort-esque runs varying in length from 800 to 1,700 feet.

One of the factors for Maple Villa’s popularity (in addition to its expansive terrain) is its proximity to North Conway. The parking lot for Maple Villa is found on 70 East Branch Road in Intervale and is just minutes from North Conway. Leaving the parking lot, skiers follow blue blazes along the original Maple Villa Ski Trail as it slowly gains elevation along the two(ish)-mile skin that climbs approximately 1,700 feet. A number of descent options are obvious from the top of the glade—all of which offer a mostly moderate pitch and terrain alternating between closely spaced trees to more widely spaced runs. Keep your eyes peeled as Mount Washington can be spied through the trees on the descent.

The upper half of Maple Villa is meant to be lapped, and the area’s primary runs all deposit skiers to the same place—allowing them to follow the skin track back up roughly 800 feet of elevation, or providing them with a gentle ski out the way they came, along the old Maple Villa Ski Trail. Skiers can expect it to take an hour to an hour and a half to go from the parking lot to the top of the gladed terrain and between 30 and 45 minutes to skin a lap.

 

Whether it’s establishing larger areas like Maple Villa or maintaining smaller “lunch lap” locations like Bill Hill, the Granite Backcountry Alliance has put a lot of time, work, and money into these projects. If you explore these glades, please be courteous of the area and respectful of the rules, especially where to park if a lot is full. If you’d like to support the GBA, consider donating, becoming a member, attending one of their events (like the upcoming Wild Corn on April 4th), or taking part in one of their workdays.