If sales of alpine touring skis and splitboards are any indication, there is a backcountry boom this winter as more people than ever seek to get away from ski resorts — many of which are limiting capacity and requiring reservations. Although the sport has a century of history in the Cascades, there are still considerable barriers to entry from equipment to skills to fitness. Where indeed to start?
Check your equipment
First and foremost, you need skis equipped with alpine touring bindings that allow for a free heel during the ascent and a locked heel for the descent. If you are a snowboarder, then you should get your hands on a splitboard, which as the name suggests splits into two for uphill travel and then snaps back together for the ride down. While snowboarders can strap their boards to their backpack and hike up in snowshoes, if you are serious about backcountry travel, a splitboard is the way to go. Climbing skins are also an essential. Make sure they are cut to the size of your skis or splitboard and run edge to edge.
Although there are bindings that allow use of a traditional alpine ski boot, these setups are needlessly heavy and will make for a steeper learning curve. Today’s standard for backcountry skiers are alpine touring boots that have both an uphill “walk” mode with more flex in the boot and a downhill “ski” mode that stiffens up for better control when making turns. Splitboarders can use snowboard boots, but so-called “hard boot” splitboarding, which involves trading your comfy snowboard boots for rigid ski boots, is becoming increasingly popular.
Rent or buy from local shops like Ascent Outdoors, evo, Mountain to Sound Outfitters, ProSki Seattle, Pro Ski and Mountain Service (North Bend), and REI.
Learn to ski uphill
On any backcountry outing, you’ll spend most of your time going uphill. It’s both simpler and more complicated than it looks. Climbing skins give you traction, which allow you to effectively cross-country ski uphill without sliding backward. But beginners have a tendency to pick up their feet like they’re hiking.
“It’s not snowshoeing,” cautions Rich Bennett, who teaches uphill technique as part of a Wednesday night series at The Summit at Snoqualmie. “You’re learning how to slide over the snow so you minimize the amount of energy you expend.” (The last session this season is on Feb. 17.)
Alpine touring bindings come equipped with heel raisers that allow you to tackle steeper terrain, but that doesn’t always mean you should go straight up. Moves like kick turns, effectively cutting switchbacks on skis, are usually the most efficient method of travel for ascending steeper slopes.
“Maintain a low angle to conserve energy, which is important when you’re on a backcountry trip because you might be in it for the long haul,” says Bennett. In the Cascades, where most backcountry tours require some kind of overland approach to reach a slope worth skiing, prepare for many miles and several hours of moving through the mountains. There are relatively few short tours to be found in our rugged terrain.
Practice makes perfect
Even if your ultimate goal is winter solitude exploring the vast Cascades, our local ski areas are actually the best place to start. Skinning up a groomed run is a safe, controlled environment in which to get more comfortable with your equipment, practice your kickturns, dial in your transitions from uphill to downhill mode, adjust to the weight of your pack (make sure you are carrying avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, as well as the rest of the winter 10 essentials), and figure out your layering system as you’ll heat up on the climb and cool down on the descent.
The Summit at Snqoualmie, Crystal Mounain, and Stevens Pass all have uphill policies that delineate when and where visitors can skin uphill within the ski resort boundaries. When in doubt, ask ski patrol before you go.
Bennett likens resort skinning to indoor climbing. “You go to the climbing gym to learn the basics of climbing, but no one is ever going to confuse indoor with outdoor rock climbing,” he says.
Backcountry skiing engages muscles like quads, glutes, core, and hip flexors in a fashion unlike just about any other sport, including downhill skiing. “If you have been riding lifts all season and then start with even a modest day of uphill skiing, you will need more recovery than you would from a full day of resort skiing,” says Mandie Majerus, one of three local physical therapists who crafted the Alpine Training Project, which offers ski-specific strength training including a backcountry-oriented program.
Even though it’s already midwinter, in many respects backcountry ski season is just getting underway as we look ahead to the spring, when avalanche conditions stabilize, lower elevation roads melt out, and bigger peaks like the Cascade volcanoes come into play.
“It’s never too late to train,” says Majerus.
Stay avy savvy
If you do plan to venture out during the winter and early spring, avalanche hazard remains a serious threat. Washington suffered this season’s first avalanche fatality on Feb. 9, adding to a national count on track to make this the deadliest winter in a century. Don’t add to the total.
Haven’t taken an avalanche safety course yet? Navigate over to Northwest Avalanche Center’s Backcountry Basics, where you can take an online avalanche awareness course and find out how to sign up for a more intensive class that meets the standards of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.
Find partners, pick a route, and go explore
Don’t travel alone into the backcountry. Struggling to find partners? While there are meetup groups galore on social media, Turns All Year remains the Northwest’s old-school online forum to meet fellow backcountry skiers and swap trip reports.
Grab a copy of “Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: Washington,” authored by internationally certified mountain guide Martin Volken and his roster of guides at Pro Guiding Service in North Bend. More visually oriented? Check out the ski atlases from Beacon Guidebooks compiled by Seattle-based ski guide Matt Schonwald.