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Going out the Gate: Why Backcountry Decision Making Matters on the Resort

Photo Credit: Aspen Snowmass

If you’re skiing in Colorado chances are you’re a soft snow fanatic. That feeling of weightlessness and pure joy as you lay tracks through an open powderfield is borderline indescribable – and a feeling we all chase. No matter the stoke or the adrenaline, it’s important to note that the search for soft snow often leads us into avalanche terrain – even if you’re on a resort. 

Although we’re not here to deter you from chasing those coveted turns, we are here to educate you on your responsibility as a skier or rider in these zones. Even if a lift is in sight, the fact of the matter is slackcountry is backcountry. It’s not just on deep days, it’s important to include backcountry decision making into your terrain choices no matter the day. 

  • How will you know when you enter sidecountry or slackcountry terrain? Be on the lookout for “gates.” No, they won’t necessarily have a latch, but they will have a sign letting you know that you are entering an area with backcountry conditions and that rescue may be delayed. Sometimes gates are avalanche beacon access only, and others are subtle and you may not even notice passing through one – always be aware of your surroundings especially when you think you may be entering a gate. 


  • With big dumps comes big responsibility. If it’s a big storm day and you’re feeling those powder day jitters, head to and read the report! The avalanche report will walk you through the forecaster’s outline of the day and let you know exactly what slopes could pose the greatest risk. Most avalanche accidents happen when the danger is Considerable. On days listed Considerable or higher, maybe consider wearing an avalanche beacon inbounds and carrying a shovel or probe if in especially consequential terrain. There’s no shame in being cautious in avalanche terrain – the best ski day is a safe one. 


  • Part of the reason we love skiing out here, is that the terrain is HUGE, which means there’s a whole lot of terrain for ski patrol to assess and control every morning – especially after a big storm. When it is a storm day, and we hear those beloved booms of avalanche control, it’s important to only enter terrain that has been opened by patrol. It’s not a day to duck a rope. Should you trigger a slide, you could put yourself and others in serious danger. Wait it out – getting rope drop is half the excitement. 


  • Always travel into these zones with a buddy! Even if you’re skiing trees on a regular day, tree wells can pose a serious danger so it’s always important to have a partner. 


  • Before you hit your line, discuss your plan and where you and your partner plan to meet post-descent. Ideally you’ll go one at a time and to be sure to have eyes on each other. This is also a great excuse to get some shots for the ‘gram. 


  • If you’re unsure where to begin or a bit nervous, with knowledge comes power! Check out programs like the Mammut Center at Copper or a slew of online resources as a great way to learn backcountry basics. A lot of resorts also offer tours based off of skill level and terrain, which will also help you get a lay of the land and ask.