Explore Colorado / Explore The Outdoors

Skinning into to Backcountry

As someone who basically learned to downhill ski as an adult, I’ve found venturing into the backcountry intimidating.  I have tons of friends and cousins who are super comfortable traversing all sorts of terrain outside of ski resorts, but honestly I’ve thought of it as a “no go” zone for me, which is odd considering I spend so much time on trails hiking in the summer and snowshoeing in the winter. Guess it has to do with a healthy knowledge and fear of avalanches and a fear of hitting trees – both of which you should have in the backcountry I suppose.

When I found out about Snow Mountain Ranch’s Intro to A/T (Alpine/Touring) Backcountry Skiing course I decided it was time to jump in and give backcountry a shot.  YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch is where I learned to cross country ski and always love time there.

The course started at Snow Mountain Ranch’s Nordic Center and was led by Elliott Leslie.  He spends most of his free time in the winter traversing the backcountry on Berthoud Pass.  I was joined by Chrissy, an 8th grade biology teacher, and John, a civil engineer and his 13-year-old son Ian, a ski cross racer.  Needless to say, they’re all much better skiers than me, but that’s ok.  For the course, it’s recommended to have at least intermediate skiing abilities.   I’d also suggest having a helmet.  It’s not required but a great idea to have with you.  First up in the course was getting geared up with boots, skis, and poles.  The rentals are part of the course.  Elliott showed us how to put skins, named because they resemble sealskin, which the first ones were made from.  Now ski skins are made from nylon, mohair or a combination of both materials.  They’re designed to let the ski slide when you’re going forward, but not slide backward.  There’s a sticky substance on one side so the skin adheres to the ski.  It’s not permanent and when you’re in the backcountry, you put the skins and take them off depending on if you’re going uphill or downhill.

“You can never let your guard down.”  That’s one of the biggest takeaways I got from the classroom portion.  Skiing in the backcountry is not like skiing to the bottom at a ski resort.  There are variable ski conditions and terrain you encounter, but you also get to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature.  Elliott went through things like making good terrain choices, what makes an area avalanche prone terrain, the gear you should have (beacon, shovel, and probe are the bare minimum), and basic avalanche safety.  “It’s an interactive relationship with the environment,” is what Elliott closed our classroom portion with.   That part of the course was about 2 hours.  We took a lunch break then headed out to venture into the backcountry.

We drove over the Nine Mile Mountain, which is on property of Snow Mountain Ranch. First was a beacon check to make sure each one was working properly and battery life was good. Next was practicing getting in and out of the skis, which are way different from downhill skis. You have to line up holes on each side of the front boot to clip into the bindings. There’s also a lock tab you have to remember to do. It’s a critical step as I would learn later in the outing. The heel binding is different. When you skinning up, you want the heel to be free. When you get ready to ski down, you turn it 90 degrees. There’s stuff you have to do to your boots too. I kept thinking there’s so much to know! I just knew I would forget a step, and sure enough I would. Elliot even showed us how to use a slope meter to measure the angle of slope.

It was such a glorious day. Temperatures were in the 30s but with the sunshine as soon as we started skinning up, all of use shed layers quickly. I thoroughly enjoyed the skinning part of backcountry skiing. It was so freaky to me that I didn’t slide back at all. The snow covered landscape was so beautiful as we skinned higher and higher. When we got close to top we looked back over the valley and saw a bald eagle soaring in the sky. It was on those awestruck moments.

During that stop Elliott decided it was time to simulate a beacon search and rescue. As part of that we talked about magnetic field lines since beacons pick up signals from another beacon using curved paths, not in a straight line. Always nice to toss in a physics lesson! It was really cool to see the beacons in action in a non-emergency test situation.

We continued skinning up to the top and ended up at one of my favorite spots in Colorado – God’s Mailbox. I had been in this exact spot several years ago, but since then the old metal mailbox has been replaced by a larger wooded one. You can ski, snowshoe or in summer hike up and leave a note, prayer, or whatever you want. I took a moment of prayer while taking in the incredibly beautiful scenery I was blessed to be looking at.

We skinned on a little farther and found a spot to take our first turns in the backcountry. To do that we had to take the skins off our skis and change the bindings for downhill. I was first to take a few on the sea of white snow. Nervously I started slow the picked up speed to carve out a few more. My buddy and avid backcountry skier text me, “”Good luck and enjoy the motion and freedom.” To which I promptly text back, “baby steps!!!” That’s exactly what I was doing. There is definitely a freedom you feel skiing unchartered territory, but at the same time I was klutzy and felt like I was learning to ski all over again.

Being the least experienced skier of the group, I decided to not ski down as far as everyone else. That decision would set off a comedy of errors that at the time were not funny, but now really are hilarious. One by one everyone else skied down. Knowing the others would skin back up, after a few minutes I decided to try to re-skin my skis by myself. I was expecting to sink some when I took off skis, but going down into waist deep snow then having to dig myself out multiple times was a twist to the story I wasn’t expecting. I got the skins re-attached to the skis pretty uneventfully. I managed to get my left foot locked into skis and then while attempting to get my right foot in my giddiness over learning to ski in the backcountry for a few moments turned terrifying as I kept sinking farther and farther into the snow. I kept telling myself I was okay and part of backcountry skiing is taking care of yourself and not relying on others to bail you out. So there I was in a sticky situation…rather a snowy situation in waist deep snow. Only thing to do? Clamber up on top of my skis in a similar fashion to how a seal lion goes from water to ice ledge. After about 10 minutes, which seemed like hours, of getting one ski on then sinking into the snow again when it unclipped, I finally managed to get both on and slowly started going back uphill with one or the other ski coming unclipped every few glides. When the rest of the group finally re-joined me, Elliott helped me figure out the step I missed. It’s the small, but critical step of pulling up the lock tab at the front of the boot. I’ll never forget that step again! Exhausted from my floundering in the snow, I tried to keep my chin up as we started skinning back to the next point where we would ski. I would again feel like a klutzy newbie skier doing pizza and French fries while dodging trees sticking out of the snow. It took awhile but we all made it back safely to the cars. When you’re learning something new, I’m a fan of experiencing what it’s like when things go wrong. Guess I follow the old adage of “failure breeds success.” That’s exactly what I got on the tail-end of my skinning into the backcountry adventure. Would I go again? Absolutely!