Friday, November 23, 2012

Backcountry skiing: Back to basics

You, too, can ‘earn your turns’ in pristine powder

Express Staff Writer

Express file photo by Chris Pilaro A backcountry skier enjoys some hard-earned fresh powder in the central Idaho mountains.

Backcountry skiing has been an integral aspect of local skiing since Sun Valley opened in the 1930s. The first ski school had two sections, the first similar to the one today on Bald and Dollar mountains and the second, an alpine touring center headed by Austrian Florian Haemmerle, whose son Fritz is the current mayor of Hailey.

In 1948, the very first guidebook for North American high-mountain ski touring was written and published by Andy Henning, a member of the Sun Valley ski touring center. The book is a complete guide to ski touring in the Smoky and Pioneer Mountains at that time. No comparable guide is available for the modern Sun Valley backcountry skier.

Backcountry skiing is, among other things, a return to the basics—pre-ski lift, pre-grooming, pre-ski resort—of moving both up and down snow-covered mountains on a pair of skis powered by one’s own body, intelligence, experience and will.

Historically, the first and most basic turn on a pair of skis was the telemark turn. named for a region in Norway and popularized in the 19th century by Norwegian skier Sondre Norheim, in which the heel of the boot is not attached to the ski. Telemark, as well as the more modern randonnee equipment and technique, where the boot heel is unattached for the ascent and firmly secured for the descent, are both widely used. 

Backcountry skiing is often described as “earn your turns.” It is a self-sufficient way for skiers to venture off the well-traveled roads and into the mountains for the sake of the journey itself or to make some turns and tracks where none existed before.

That local tradition is still alive and well on an enormous range of terrain stretching from Hailey to Banner Summit. On any given good (and sometimes not so good) snow-condition day, fresh tracks can be seen in many places along state Highway 75 from Galena Summit south to Hailey. 

For a variety of reasons, including easy access, relatively few participants compared to other areas, superb terrain, several well-placed huts and yurts, local guide services and a state-of-the -art avalanche center that issues daily advisories, many knowledgeable high-mountain aficionados consider the Wood River Valley backcountry skiing experience to be among the best in America.

Venturing into the backcountry, even ski touring on relatively gentle terrain, is not risk-free. Personal responsibility is a necessary tool for the backcountry skier, and there are always obvious and unexpected dangers that go with the freedoms of adventure in areas lacking the amenities of civilization.

For that reason it is prudent for the uninitiated to seek out an experienced local backcountry skier for information, advice and, ideally, accompaniment into the local mountains.

There are two excellent professional guide services available: Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Sun Valley Trekking, each offering qualified guides, instruction and trips. Both companies offer courses in backcountry education, avalanche awareness and rescue techniques, as well as access to several yurts and huts in the backcountry of the Smoky, Sawtooth and Pioneer Mountains. The huts include stoves, beds, fully equipped kitchens and even saunas or hot tubs. Backcountry skiing need not be totally cut off from civilized creature comforts.

The Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center also offers several free or minimal-cost avalanche awareness classes throughout the winter for both backcountry skiers and snowmobilers. The Avalanche Center also maintains an avalanche training park on Sun Valley Road where backcountry users can learn how to use and test their skills with avalanche beacons.

Those prospective local backcountry skiers unable to connect with the experienced or afford the professional can always pick up useful information from the avalanche center or from the knowledgeable staff at any of the local ski shops that sell backcountry gear. Any skier who wants to experience backcountry skiing can find a way.

In addition to all the normal ski gear, backcountry skiing requires specific equipment, starting with an avalanche beacon, probe, shovel and a pack. Both telemark and randonnee skis need skins fitted to the bottom of the particular ski for climbing up. Skins are removed for skiing down.

For the uninitiated who wish to give the backcountry a try, appropriate ski gear is available for rent at some of the local ski shops. After the uninitiated becomes hooked and wants to own his or her gear, those same shops are in the business of selling all the latest, most modern backcountry equipment.

Skiers looking for used gear have some options, the best being the ski equipment section of the Idaho Mountain Express classified ads. Ketchum’s Gold Mine, which supports The Community Library, is a good place to search for ski equipment of all kinds. There are also ski swaps and ski shop sales and chatting up one of those experienced locals who often have or know someone who does have used backcountry gear for sale.


Know before you go

For information on backcountry snow conditions and avalanche danger, call the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center at 622-8027.

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