A better approach to resorts, backcountry, and the terrain formerly known as sidecountry. Marc Peruzzi reports from Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. Photographs by David Clifford
A few years back I got into a bemused debate with a friend about powder skiing, resorts, and the backcountry. He was firmly of the mind that backcountry skiing is always better than lift-serviced skiing. I tried to make the case that, although I love touring for powder as well, a big day inbounds was just as vital to the skiing experience. I also pointed out that it’s safer to resort ski during storms, and that 10 manic inbounds runs in untracked or refilling snow can occasionally trump three or four serene backcountry shots in wild snow, those 10 runs coming as they do without major avy stress. My argument’s multifaceted coup de grâce? Trust the old maxim and save the backcountry until after the resorts are tracked out. Conditions often stabilize with time, and you’ll be a stronger skier because of it.
As if I needed more evidence that objective truths bounce off polemics like graupel from Gore-Tex, my friend remained entirely unconvinced. Which is fitting with the trend, not just of an age of waning reason, but of a shifting attitude toward backcountry skiing. Skiers are entering the backcountry earlier in the season (as we reported in the Winter 2013 issue; see “The Risk Continuum”), and they’re also heading out during storms more too.
Naturally, as more people ski the backcountry more frequently, avalanche deaths go up even as skills and education improve. This is what mountaineers mean when they write off deaths as “exposure.” Thanks to better gear, open resort gates, a higher premium on powder, and readily available avalanche certifications, we’ve just accepted more exposure as the new normal. Nowhere is that more true than in the easy-to-access backcountry, or “sidecountry,” immediately adjacent to resort boundaries. A fact brought to national consciousness by Snow Fall, a beautifully presented New York Times multimedia investigation into the February 2012 avalanche deaths in the Stevens Pass sidecountry. In response to that tragedy and many more, last season the National Ski Areas Association partnered with avalanche forecasters and purveyors of backcountry equipment to launch a campaign dubbed “There’s No Such Thing as Sidecountry.” The takeaway? That particular phrase might mislead lay skiers into assuming that avalanche risks are somehow lessened just because they got to their intended slope via a lift ride and a gate as opposed to a trailhead and a long approach. Beyond the semantics, there’s hard data to back this theory. In the Wasatch alone (home to most of the Utah resorts you recognize) 12 separate avalanche fatalities since 2000 involved skiers exiting resorts and triggering slides.
To address that sidecountry user group, Brandon Dodge, the snow safety director for Utah’s Brighton resort, now promotes Backcountry 101, a program that he built with the help of the Utah Avalanche Center. (Three of Utah’s 12 sidecountry deaths occurred outside the Brighton gates.) The main tenets of the policy: Alert the user they’ve approached the resort boundary and identify the hazards they’ll face on the other side. Inform them that it’s their decision to go and provide up-to-date avalanche forecasting. Educate the customer base via affordable avalanche classes. And finally, Allow unfettered access to public lands. “We didn’t have any legal obligation to start the Backcountry 101 program,” says Dodge, “but this is my resort, my home, my community. There was a moral obligation.”
So is there also a moral obligation to discontinue the use of the term sidecountry? Some, including NSAA, say yes. It’s also telling that the United States Forest Service doesn’t even recommend that resorts use the word “backcountry” on their signage. That term too is perhaps more enticing and less understood by inexperienced users than industry insiders may recognize. To that point, there have been rumblings about removing “backcountry” from signage at boundary points as well. Of that proposal, Brighton’s Dodge is not convinced: “I’m against stripping the term from our signs. It’s backcountry terrain. It’s just top-down instead of bottom-up. When you come out of the resort, you are in avalanche terrain.”
As a magazine editor and writer who has long promoted open access to the backcountry, and a generally more adventurous approach to skiing and snowboarding both inbounds and out, I am of course as responsible as the rest of the industry in these matters. After refusing to use “sidecountry” in print for the better part of a decade for the reasons described above, I eventually succumbed and used the by now common term a few years ago on a cover. As personal policy, I tend to avoid skiing out gates—far better to pick your way uphill from a trailhead and get a feel for the snowpack as you climb. But I could no longer ignore the fact that sidecountry skiers represented a relatively new, but very real, user group. As an editorial hedge we steadfastly directed would-be sidecountry skiers to resort-based guiding operations. But because we too are part of the wider skiing and snowboarding community, we’ve since ceased using the word. Still, the debate rolls on: “Dropping the term sidecountry is crazy,” says Paul Diegel, executive director of the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center. “It’s like saying we’re going to quit using the term breast cancer, and hope that cures it. I don’t understand the rationale. I’m in this to raise awareness. We have a serious problem in people going out through the access gates and dying.”
Let all that serve as preamble to the following “There Is (Kind of Sort of Maybe) No Such Thing As Sidecountry” package of stories. Call it ski writing with a mission. The goal is to remind people like my polarized backcountry-only friend that resort skiing is still relevant, even if it doesn’t have the same cachet. For the budding sidecountry crowd, the message is to learn backcountry skills slowly over years, or better, decades. And for both groups the message is to try to separate traditional lift serviced skiing and backcountry skiing in your head, and whenever possible, physically in the real world as well. Skiing out the gates of a resort is just inherently more dangerous because of what Dodge calls th-at top-down approach. It’s easy to turn around on the way up; far tougher to do that on the way down.
Last spring I took that resort to backcountry conceit and actualized it at Aspen Highlands, Colorado and the nearby West Elk backcountry. Less modestly, I took that conceit, connected with friends, and absolutely slayed it, scoring the best powder skiing of my season over a mere three days. (Take that, the rest of you punters we assigned stories to.)
Because Aspen and Carbondale are within a few hours of my home, I watched the weather maniacally last March, tracking a low-pressure system. When the storm hit, I recruited my co-worker and Mountain spokesmodel Rob, and we struck out that evening, connecting with friends Penn and Kir at the Aspen Highlands base for first chair the following morning.
With only eight inches at the corral, I was slightly deflated. It wouldn’t be enough to bury the crust layer. It was also burly out. Shredded by the wind, we eked out rough turns on the wrong aspect as we waited for the hike to Highlands Bowl to open. A heli-ski guide I know would describe the surface as lightly frothed-over frozen ocean with dead cetaceans. Two fluff turns then bang! as a submerged whale breached the surface.
Highlands remained oddly deserted. Somehow, although I’d managed to follow the approaching weather for 10 days, it was a sleeper storm for residents of the Roaring Fork Valley. Craft beers from lead cups will do that. Chasing Kir and Penn up the Highlands bootpack, we dropped in skier’s right of the main bowl with perhaps three tracks ahead of us in the cirque. At 11,500 feet, the snow stays chalky in the hike-to terrain. We could still feel the edge-able base on this northeastern exposure, but cold snow billowed up to our belts. Sadly, Penn had to depart for work after that fairly glorious shot. Sadly for Penn.
By our second hike up Highlands, I was afraid our tenured acreage would be cut to ribbons. But the severity of the now escaping storm deterred the few skiers on the hill. Only a dozen staggered about like the undead on the hike. This time from the summit of Loge Peak, we bypassed the main bowl for the treed north-facing slopes of the G-Zones. The wind had brutalized us on the climb, but Kir had high hopes for wind-loading on this leeward shoulder. The ground blizzard was in full effect. Try first tracks in bottomless Colorado blower powder. It was over-the-shoulder-with-sluff-running-downhill-obscenity skiing. I’m still coughing up white chunks.
Kir’s turn to depart arrived after lap three. Gassed, Rob and I refueled quickly before attempting a fourth hike of the ridgeline. If the storm had accelerated before, now it was blowing a gale. With visibility nearing five feet, I lost the bootpack twice and went to all fours once in the ensuing vertigo. As we hiked, we passed a patroller rolling his eyes at us as he shepherded a disoriented skier out of the windward face of the ridge. He’d apparently fallen and could not get up. Clap on clap off, the clapper. Yes, run four was just as deep. They closed the gate behind us. It was one of those resort days when we should’ve been wearing avalanche transceivers. (See: “Inbounds Invincibility Syndrome.”)
In the morning, Rob and I departed Aspen for Carbondale, connecting with my close friend J.R., Anonymous Jim, and Anonymous Steve before heading to the West Elks. (At the risk of having my fingernails removed with pliers, that’s about all the location details you’ll get. To learn more, visit the Cripple Creek Backcountry ski shop in Carbondale; cripplecreekbc.com) The storm blown out, the sky turned the color of an avian cliché. Yesterday’s windstorm atop Highlands had me concerned for what we’d find, but as soon as the skintrack departed the aspens it was clear that the entire drainage was largely unaffected. The West Elks are more akin to the Wasatch Range in Utah or Teton Pass in Wyoming than they are to the exposed, anchorless, wind-hammered alpine faces of the Continental Divide to the east. The north-facing slopes were loaded—imposing cornices spoke to that—but we had no intention of skiing them anyway. A weak layer had persisted in the shade for most of the season.
Spreading out as we crossed avalanche terrain, we topped out above a wide east-facing bowl. Beat up from a hard day of bootpacking and resort charging, the hour-plus ski tour was recuperative. One at a time we floated conservative backcountry turns in a blank slate of knee-deep powder before yo-yoing the bowl again and skiing to the car.
Sadly it was Rob’s turn to depart. Sadly for Rob. The next day J.R., Mike, and I returned to the same zone, this time opting to tour farther out a ridge to the north before descending a northeasterly spine bisecting two drainages. By the first turn I knew that this would be the best powder run of my entire season. Maybe two seasons. If it was obscenity skiing at Highlands, this was Holy Tourette’s syndrome conditions. The cold night air had pulled the moisture from the powder, which flumed overhead with each effortless turn.
Because of time constraints, we only got that one run; a few thousand feet of skiing. Nothing like the vertical we’d earned at Highlands—even with all the bootpacking. Was one day better than the other? The question doesn’t even register. The memories live apart—in the resort and in the backcountry.
From the Winter 2014 issue.