Backcountry Ski Touring
Watch this page as we await the beginning of the 2020-2021 backcountry skiing season. As soon as the snow cover permits, we will being to schedule outings.
On our backcountry trips, we typically carpool up to Rabbit Ears Pass and park at one of the usual trailheads. But then we head off on our own instead of sticking to the marked trails. Over the years, we have found a lot of beautiful routes and destinations, and we enjoy sharing them.
It is important to understand that this is backcountry touring. We do not hunt for big, steep downhills. We seek out rolling terrain with moderate climbs and moderate downhills. Avid backcountry downhillers would be bored by the places we go. In contrast, cross-country skiers on narrow, lightweight gear designed for groomed trails and tracks would be frustrated by the terrain and the deep, soft snow.
When and where: Every other Saturday, beginning (subject to snowfall) on Saturday, December 7. (A complete calendar—subject to change—is below.)
Meet at 9:15 am, at the Safeway parking lot. We will organize ridesharing, check equipment, and leave for Rabbit Ears Pass at 9:30.
Return to Safeway parking lot typically by 3:00 pm.
Conditions permitting, we typically ski 1½-3 miles, partly on marked trails and partly off-trail.
What to bring:
Backcountry touring skis, boots, poles, and layered clothing that lets you adjust to changing conditions and changing exertion levels.
At least 16 oz. (1/2 liter) of drinking water in a container that will not freeze up.
A generous supply of easy-to-carry food—energy bars, protein bars, nuts, dried fruit, dried meat, etc. Bring twice as much as you think you need, just in case we are caught out longer than expected.
A rescue whistle, an inexpensive compass, and a little toilet paper.
An extra layer of protection for emergencies. An “all-weather thermal blanket” or an emergency “breathable bivy” is best, but they are expensive and bulky. So-called “space blankets” are the bare minimum—they are small, lightweight, and inexpensive, but they tear easily, and they do not breathe. Wrapping up in a space blanket is a lot like wrapping up in a big plastic bag—before long, condensation gets you wet.
2019-2020 Calendar (subject to change)
Experience: To participate, you do not need to be an expert, but you should have some experience with non-resort type skiing, and you should be comfortable skiing 1½-3 miles of moderate up-and-down terrain at a leisurely pace. If you have successfully skied any of the Rabbit Ears Pass winter loop trails, you will be comfortable on these trips.
First timers: If you are new to backcountry ski touring and uneasy about joining the group, please contact Harry (firstname.lastname@example.org, or 970-819-8479). If there is interest, he would be happy to organize one or more “first-timer” trips.
Equipment: Backcountry touring skis are wider (with side-cut and metal edges) than the skis used on groomed cross-country trails and tracks—and the boots and bindings are stouter. At the same time, backcountry touring skis are narrower than modern downhill skis—and the boots and bindings are lighter. OTHG BC touring participants use a wide variety of equipment: 1) Some use traditional 3-pin bindings and boots on wide metal-edge cross-country skis. 2) Some use modern NNN (New Nordic Norm) bindings and boots on wide metal-edge cross-country skis. 3) Some use modern AT (Alpine Touring) bindings and boots on wide metal-edge cross-country skis or on lightweight downhill skis with fish-scales. 4) Finally, some use lightweight or mid-weight Telemark gear. Each style has its pros and cons. (If you are thinking about buying equipment, Harry recommends that you try out all four styles before you buy.)
Nearly all the OTHG BC skiers use “wax-less” skis with fish-scale bottoms, and the fish-scales are adequate for the climbing we do. (Oddly enough, “wax-less” skis work better when waxed. Sometimes the snow is “sticky” and clumps up on the ski bottoms. Waxing can prevent or reduce this. Several members of the group carry wax and can help others if we encounter sticky conditions.)
One can ski in the backcountry with one-piece, resort-style poles, but adjustable-length backcountry poles are more versatile and comfortable. Backcountry poles are fitted with large diameter “powder baskets,” which are very helpful in soft snow. Furthermore, on the flats and the climbs, adjusting your pole length to fit the snow conditions sometimes makes your work easier.
Equipment rental: At least three shops in town rent backcountry touring gear. Backdoor Sports (downtown on Yampa) rents both traditional 3-pin cross-country gear and modern AT gear. Straightline Sports (downtown on Lincoln) rents modern NNN cross-country gear. Ski Haus (at the corner of Lincoln and Pine Grove Road) rents both modern NNN cross-country gear and modern AT gear. At all three shops, you can ask to rent a ski package for the Rabbit Ears trails, and they will know what you mean.
Safety: Even though our trips are introductory in nature, safety is our first concern. At high elevation in winter and away from roads and packed trails, getting lost, breaking a piece of equipment, getting injured, or experiencing a medical emergency presents immediate, serious problems. Rescue times are not measured in minutes—they are measured in hours—and it is possible to find yourself stuck out overnight.
As trip organizer, Harry carries spare equipment, extra clothing, a small tarp for shelter, fire-making tools, extra food and water. Although he carries a lot of safety and survival gear, he cannot carry enough for the entire group. Each person on these trips needs to carry at least the basics, as listed above in the “What to bring” list.
Harry is an experienced backcountry navigator (he is a forester by training). In addition to maps and compass, he carries a modern satellite communicator that can contact search and rescue services, even where there is no cell service. (The satellite communicator contacts the same Iridium Network satellites used by the emergency beacons on aircraft and ships.)
A note about avalanche danger: For many of us, avalanche danger is the first backcountry skiing safety concern that comes to mind. We do not ski in areas that are subject to avalanches.