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An Introduction to Backcountry Safety

View of Mt. Yeckel from the base, near Margys Hut above Aspen, CO. View of Mt. Yeckel from the base, near Margys Hut above Aspen, CO.

Words and photos by Caleigh Smith.

The storms werent brewing, yet the forecasts called for anywhere from lots to heaps of post-Christmas-time cheer. The Roaring Fork Valley shed a collective tear as it began raining on January 8. And it rained. And kept raining. And the forecast of snow for the next eight consecutive days began looking more and more ominous as the irritating rain would inevitably freeze into a hard-packed layer of avalanche-prone wet slab or simply dangerous loose, wet snow.

The dark sky closed that night without much fanfare to match the dreary countenance of all those hoping beyond a hope that the predicted feet of snow would come to fruition. No colorful sunset, a few ominous bangs of thunder, and the day was over. Caput. Finale.

And yet, somewhere in the night, Ullr decided to grace us with the glorious goods, and somewhere that morning, the traffic was thicker than usual, chock full with commuters on their daily work grind and powder junkies heading up to Aspen for a reported 15 inches. Little did they know, or perhaps decided to ignore for the promised land up valley, Williams Peak behind the small, family-style Sunlight Mountain Resort also received Ullrs blessing.

I peeled off my skins at the top of my second hour-long hike to the top and carefully attached the leashes of my brake-less skis to my boots, pushing them into ski mode. I turned my beacon to transmit mode and sidestepped off the wind-loaded cornice, past my avalanche testing pit, and began floating down the mountain in untracked, crystalline, immaculate powder.

View from the backside of Williams Peak, up Four Mile Road above Glenwood Springs, CO. View from the backside of Williams Peak, up Four Mile Road above Glenwood Springs, CO.

Backcountry skiing can be one of the most rewarding winter activities. You usually can avoid much of the annoying stop-and-go powder/work traffic, you hike for as long as your legs can or want to carry you, and then you get to ski some of the best, and most untouched snow of your life.

Backcountry skiing can also be one of the most dangerous winter activities. Too many people venture out without proper equipment, and that entails more than skins and telescoping poles. Adequate backcountry gear includes a (charged) beacon, a sturdy, preferably metal, shovel, a non-rusty, reliable probe, people who know where you are and when youll be back, a partner (also with the correct gear and knowledge of how to use it), proper avalanche safety and testing abilities, some degree of wilderness first aid, accurate and recent weather reports, past and future, among many other nuanced facets of safe backcountry travel.

Some colleges such as the University of Denver, Colorado College, and Colorado Mountain College have Avalanche certification courses, up to level three through The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). Other upcoming AIARE courses throughout Colorado include ones provided by Aspen Expeditions, Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides, Pikes Peak Alpine School, Apex Mountain School, Silverton Avalanche School, Irwin Guides, Backcountry Babes, White Room Adventures, and thats all the trainings that are happening even before the middle of this month. Hundreds of other affordable courses can be found and registered for at AIAREs website:

Another fantastic resource to have in hand before venturing out is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations (NOAAs) National Weather Service which gives detailed, accurate, accessible, and frequently updated weather reports and forecasts. To complement NOAAs information, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) provides up-to-date and carefully reported information on state-wide avalanche threats as well as fatalities or injuries across the country and what went wrong. Once you have your snow, avalanche, weather, forecast, and temperature reports in hand, CalTopo is a website that you can locate, map out, and print the exact location you want to ski, including topographic lines, mile counts, and slope angles.

As they say, know before you go.

Nettle Creek Cirque on Sopris Mountain above Carbondale, CO. Nettle Creek Cirque on Sopris Mountain above Carbondale, CO.

Skiing is addictive, you wouldnt be on this website, checking reports and reading this article if you didnt already know this. Backcountry skiing can be even more so and that is one aspect that makes it so much more dangerous. Its like when drivers have the set-up: the snow tires, the all-wheel or four-wheel drive crusher, and the encouraged invincibility that having the gear can provide. But having the gear just isnt enough. Having the certs (certifications) isnt enough. Even having the training and extensive knowledge sometimes proves inadequate as well. One of the most valuable assets that any backcountry skier, snowboarder, Ater, Telemarker, etc. can take with them out there is the caution and level-headedness to be able to turn around at the top of a gloriously powdered fresh expanse of heaven. If your tests fail, dont say it was just an anomaly; if your gut twists because you even think the slope might be just one degree too steep in these conditions, take all your gear and knowledge and training and certificates back to the resort and know that you could have made it down safely. But you also couldnt. Fate doesnt make friends.

I dont want this piece to scare you out of backcountry skiing or encourage any daredevil compatriots out there to send er anyways: I want to encourage the right gear, the right training, good friends, a good head on your shoulders, and a good time!