"People have to really suffer before they can risk doing what they love..." Chuck Palahniuk, American freelance journalist and novelist, describes the back country ski experience better than just about anyone. While we are on the mountains, slogging up thousands of vertical feet, through thick punchy snow our legs burn with an intensity reserved for Olympic sprinters. We are headed to the alpine terrains of the San Juans mountains and we call it "character building". My friend, and ski companion also said it well: you've got to burn, before you can turn!
Back country skiing takes the best of skiing, the powder, and eliminates the chair lift while adding in some serious risk - avalanche danger. As with all things, the risk is worth the reward, as long as you're smart. And smart doesn't just mean avoiding avalanches, it means finding the glorious powder runs tucked away in the San Juans mountains.
Before there were any chairlifts around these parts, there were Telemark (free heal) skis. And it was all back country! From these humble beginnings, comes more advanced ski technology and, well, climbing skins. If you're not a back country skier, the likely part that has you confused is how the heck do we get UPHILL!?!?! The answer is a unique blend of nylon plush fibers that are aligned like the hair of a dog's back that glide easily along the snow on the uphill slog and grip the snow when the skins are weighted. With skins on there is no slipping back down! The skins are backed with a special glue that allows repeated application without leaving any residue on the bottom of the skis. Personally, I still call them my hero! Without them, I wouldn't have experience any of the peaks of the San Juans.
And that's what the back country experience is all about: getting to the remote places in the winter! Personally, I've had the best conversations and memories while hiking through the snow with friends, some yerba mate, a few chocolate bars and the growing excitement of hitting untouched high-elevation powder! Imagine it with me... Close your eyes... Instead of crowds, lift lines and noise, you have clear and clean powder, a light breeze on your face and a thousand vertical feet of skiing to do. This is the back country ski experience, yet it does come with some risk.
The San Juan mountains are notoriously dangerous! Let's be clear, we live in the heart of avalanche country! More avalanches happen in the San Juans than just about anywhere else in the world. And just this last week, near Vail, CO, a skier died on a 200 foot slope. Carrying an avalanche beacon, shovel, probe and overnight gear are critical tools for any outing. With tools also comes knowledge, an avalanche safety course is also a big recommendation. In the course, you'll learn avalanche lessons that could save your life. Finally, Colorado is fortunate to have some of the best snow scientists around. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) using advanced technology and techniques to try to forecast the avalanche conditions in Colorado. Using color-coded avalanche rose image, the CAIC details conditions and presents cautionary warnings and advice to any skier looking to hit the big lines. If you're going to get out for the first time, take a class or go with a very experienced skier on low-angle lines.
Again, with all risk comes great reward, so get out and have fun on our beautiful mountains!