A Beginner's Intro to Backcountry Skiing in SLC

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“Getting into” backcountry skiing is intimidating, and perhaps that’s a good thing. It’s dangerous, and untrained newbies wandering out into the wilds can put everyone in the backcountry at risk. Still, the barrier to entry is high even for those willing to invest time and money into the necessary gear and training.

Then they still have to learn where to even go, how to get there, and how long it’ll take.

In my earlier skiing years, I had friends who occasionally tolerated me tagging along. I was painfully, awkwardly aware of being the liability in the group. With a borrowed beacon, hand-me-down pack, and odd-sized skins, I didn’t get invited on many outings. I got so frustrated at constantly being ditched that one day I climbed Solitude’s Fantasy Ridge by myself. I’d done it before; my plan was to drop back down the inbounds chutes on the avalanche-controlled side of the ridgeline.

But I met a guy named Chad at the top. He was surprised to see a 22-year-old girl alone at the summit. We started chatting and when he learned I’d been ditched by my posse so they could tour without me, he charitably offered to take me into Silver Fork. Since I had a beacon and avy danger was low, he was confident it was a safe and reasonable undertaking.

Having now been friends for ten minutes, we took a leap of faith in each other—I trusted he’d keep me safe and he trusted I was a competent enough skier to not ruin his day. The following lap we took down the upper and lower slopes of Silver Fork Canyon was enough to convert me forever to the beauty of breaking away from resort rope lines. There was nary a person in sight—just thousands of feet of untracked snow through wide-spaced evergreens. By the end of the day, I was exhausted but giddy. I had a new friend and a new favorite thing.

Over the coming months and years I slowly built a respectable getup with good alpine touring bindings, quality skins, a beacon, shovel, probe, and touring-specific pack. Getting all that stuff—and learning how to use it—took quite a while.

Now, when folks ask me about how to get into backcountry skiing, I’m glad to be of service—it doesn’t have to be as hard as it was for me. It’s work, but it can be accomplished through a few approachable steps.

 1. Have an understanding of what you’re getting into.

First, you need to get a sense of the risks and decision-making required to earn perfect powder turns. Attend one of the Utah Avalanche Center’s free beginner-oriented Know Before You Go seminars, and read Bruce Tremper’s classic, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain .

2. Take the next Steps: gear and education.

If you’re still in, rent or buy backcountry gear you can use in a multi-day Avalanche 1 class. Buying all-new ski touring gear comes with an epic price tag, but that’s why rentals and classifieds exist. The University of Utah’s Outdoor Rec Center rents basically everything you need, on the cheap . Or you can find inexpensive alpine-touring bindings (or splitboard, if you’re so inclined), skins, beacon, pack, snow shovel, and probe in the classifieds or on eBay. You’ll need to bring your own (or borrowed/rented) gear to your avalanche course.

3. Make friends.

Touring is a social sport; going on your own is strongly discouraged. Don’t let your head get too inflated by your Avalanche 1 course knowledge—you can learn a lot from people who have been doing it (and have not gotten munched by avalanches) for years.

Perhaps you already know some people who go regularly and you can talk them into letting your rookie self tag along for the low price of an après pale ale. Or maybe you made some new friends in your Avy course. You can also ask around on online forums or join the venerable Wasatch Mountain Club, which organizes regular outings for its members (always guided by a knowledgeable person, so it’s a great chance to learn from your elders).

 4. Learn where to go.

Once you know how to go, you need to learn where to go and what the best skinning/descending routes are. Hopefully you’ve found a buddy who’s savvy. Another option: Purchase a copy of the Backcountry Skiing Utah guidebook. Then download the handy Wasatch Backcountry Skiing app , which tells you exactly where you are in relation to the ski terrain around you. (Unfortunately, it can’t tell you how to practice safe route-finding and decision-making, so you’ll have to use your smarts on that front. But knowing where you are is an awesome start.)

5. Venture safely into the wild white yonder.

Beth Lopez

Hooray! You’re equipped with gear, knowledge, books, a map, and maybe even friends. (What else could one need?) Now you can go out and venture cautiously and humbly. Remember that no powder turn is worth getting buried over, and one foolhardy slip of judgment can endanger both you and others.

That being said, you can gain experience in our canyons’ more conservative terrain. Soon, you’ll be quick at transitioning from uphill to downhill mode. You’ll have a few select routes up your sleeve to recommend to others when conditions are tricky. You’ll stop forgetting little lifesavers like duct tape, moleskin patches, extra batteries, and salted-almond chocolate bars.

Soon, you won’t be the bumbling liability like I was that day 10 years ago on top of Fantasy Ridge, when a new friend took a chance on me and sparked a lifetime of ski tours, hut trips, powder whoops, and deep sleeps at the end of long chilly days in the backcountry.

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