Backcountry or Bust
Thanks to equipment advances and changes in resort policy, the backcountry is now more accessible than ever—but at what risk?
BY RACHEL WALKER
WHEN ANDY OLPIN opened Wilson Backcountry Sports in 1993, no one skied Mount Glory in the middle of winter. They waited until spring, after days of sun and freezing nights shellacked the snow onto the steep and open bowl that looms high above Jackson Hole. Only then did skiers hike the 1,655 vertical feet to Glory’s summit, carving turns through spring corn snow and avoiding the furious avalanches that often rip down the mountain midwinter.
Fast-forward twenty-two years, and Olpin’s business has boomed—though he won’t say by how much. Suffice it to say that he’s managed to turn a consistent profit, despite increased competition, both locally and online. Bindings and boots do particularly well for the backcountry-skiing-specific shop at the base of Teton Pass. And recently, more backcountry travelers are stopping in to check out Olpin’s array of backpack airbags—packs with inflatable airbags wearers can deploy in the case of an avalanche. The idea is that the airbags keep wearers on top of a slide. In the last several years, these bags have saved the lives of several skiers and riders swept away in a backcountry user’s worst nightmare: an avalanche.
It’s no surprise that the packs are becoming widely adopted. Unlike two decades ago, today Glory’s slopes are busy with skiers from almost the day the first snow falls in November. The skin tracks leading south of Teton Pass to bowls with names like Telemark and Edelweiss resemble rush hour on most winter weekend mornings. And popular peaks in Grand Teton National Park—once the purview of only hardy and wizened ski mountaineers—rarely offer the midwinter solitude they once did. The masses have discovered the backcountry, and their enthusiasm seems to have no limits, judging by the lucrative winter backcountry gear industry and anecdotal evidence. This isn’t just limited to Wyoming, either. Throughout ski country, more people, drawn by the promise of adventure, freedom, and fresh snow, are buying gear specific to backcountry skiing.
At first blush, it’s an invigorating trend, one that couples several American ideals: adventure in the wilderness, self-reliance, and fitness. Yet in recent years, winter backcountry avalanche deaths have spiked, highlighting the sport’s risks that are often overlooked (or not even understood) by inexperienced backcountry travelers. Given that the trend in backcountry skiing and snowboarding shows no signs of subsiding—which is great for business—gear manufacturers, retailers, professional athletes, and avalanche educators want to know: How can we continue to turn a profit and grow and help keep our consumers alive?
FOR MOST PEOPLE, skiing is synonymous with riding a chairlift or gondola up a mountain, and then sliding downhill on snow. The gear is straightforward: stiff, plastic boots that lock into bindings screwed onto skis, or softer snowboard boots locked into bindings screwed onto a snowboard. What’s constant is the fact that your feet are affixed to your board of choice, and the bindings don’t separate from the boards, except in the most severe of accidents.
It’s different for backcountry travel. Because backcountry skiing and riding usually means getting yourself up the mountain, as well as down, the gear has evolved to make uphill travel easy. Backcountry skis are mounted with special bindings that release the heel and make for easy climbing. Known as Alpine Touring (AT) bindings, they’re lightweight and can be locked down at the top of the climb so they act like a traditional downhill binding. (There are also telemark bindings, which never lock down at the heel and require a different skiing technique.) To climb, skiers use “skins,” carpet-like strips that glue on one side to the ski’s base. The skins glide uphill, but have traction to keep skiers from sliding backwards and downhill. Skiers also use adjustable-length poles—again, to help with climbing. Snow-boarders often rely on a splitboard, which is a snowboard that can come apart and has flexible bindings to facilitate climbing.
None of this is new. For as long as there’s been backcountry skiing and snowboarding, there has been this specialized gear. What is new is that today’s backcountry gear is as technologically advanced as the boards you’d use inbounds. Skis and snowboards sport the latest features—rockered tips and tails, parabolic shapes, and powder-specific fat shovels and waists—with a fraction of the weight of traditional gear. Today’s backcountry boots are an engineering accomplishment. They can be made flexible for climbing, and then can be locked down for stiffness that rivals some of the best traditional boots on the market.
“Binding and boot technology has been at the forefront of the growth of the sport,” says Eric Henderson, marketing director at Salewa North America, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, and distributes Dynafit backcountry-specific gear, including bindings, boots, skis, packs, and probes. “We’re giving the tools to the more modern, youthful skier so they have just as much fun in the backcountry as they do in the resort, creating something that works for all mountains and all elevations.”
THIS GEAR ISN’T cheap. Bindings can run upwards of $400, with backcountry-specific boots and skis costing around $600 to $800 each. Splitboards range between $600 and $1,000, and boots average about $350. Skins for skis or splitboards cost nearly $200. In addition, winter backcountry travelers carry avalanche transceivers ($200-$400), shovels with collapsible handles (in order to dig out buried avalanche victims; $30-$100), a probe to find bodies buried beneath the snow ($30-$100), and special backpacks tricked out with insulated hydration compartments and straps to carry skis or a snowboard. If you want an airbag pack, they cost roughly $1,000, although less-expensive models are apt to hit the market this season or next.
That’s money well spent since the backcountry carries a significant number of risks—the primary one being avalanches, says Dave Furman, hardgoods manager at Mammut, a high-end climbing and skiing apparel and gear company. “An airbag is not so much a rescue tool as it is a burial prevention tool,” he says. “It’s what helps, hopefully, avoid having to perform a rescue at all.”
The high costs haven’t kept consumers away. According to SnowSports Industries America, alpine touring equipment sales increased 8 percent in 2013 over previous years. Sales of backcountry boots tallied $37 million last season, up 27 percent from previous years.
GEAR INNOVATION IS largely responsible for the increased number of backcountry skiers, says Steve Jones, co-founder of Teton Gravity Research (TGR), an extreme ski film production company based in Jackson Hole. In 1996, when TGR first started, the backcountry-specific gear hardly resembled what exists today, says Jones. “It was a lot clunkier and heavier.”
More, the backcountry was the realm of seasoned mountaineers, athletes who were climbers as much as they were skiers, who didn’t mind slogging uphill for hours in the name of one lap of pristine powder. Some of those pioneers are familiar names in and around Jackson: Bill Briggs, who was the first person to ski the Grand Teton; Doug Coombs, the late freeskiing pioneer; Tom Turiano, author of several backcountry guides that cover the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; and scores more.
All of that changed around the turn of the twenty-first century when ski resorts stopped punishing those who bypassed boundary ropes and headed into the backcountry. In 1999, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was one of the first resorts in North America to open its boundaries, reversing a decades-long policy of confiscating the passes of renegades caught ducking ropes.
Suddenly skiers had easy access to expansive bowls, boot- to knee-deep powder, and awe-inspiring terrain that had previously been reserved for the few willing to risk it. “For anyone who gets into skiing, it’s about freedom, and taking it into the backcountry is a continuation and a whole other level of that sense of freedom and discovery and exploration,” says Jones. “There’s also a lot more people in the world now, so it’s harder to find that solitude at ski resorts. You’re more corralled than you used to be.”
OVER THE LAST ten winters an average of twenty-eight people, including both skiers and snowmobilers, died in avalanches every year in the United States, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which helps to collect accident reports and maintains the national avalanche database (available at avalanche.org). While avalanches cannot necessarily be prevented, skiers and snowboarders must educate themselves about snow stability before heading out, says Sarah Carpenter, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute (AAI), which is based in Victor, Idaho.
“If you go into the backcountry without taking an avalanche course, you are putting yourself into high-consequence situations without the knowledge of how to make a good decision,” she says.
In addition to Carpenter’s organization, avalanche courses are offered around Jackson Hole throughout the winter. One of the most popular schools is the Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute (JHOLI), which offers a basic avalanche awareness class and more rigorous avalanche Level 1 and 2 courses. About one-third of the participants come from out of town and the rest live in Jackson Hole. The most common characteristic of students is a mental disconnect between their skiing ability and backcountry risks.
“Skiing in avalanche terrain in its natural setting is not the same sport as downhill skiing,” says Jake Urban, co-owner of the institute. “Ultimately there is a disconnect because there are individuals who have been skiing their whole life on terrain that’s been mitigated [controlled by ski patrol]. Drop that same person outside the gates, and they may not give the mountains the respect they deserve.”
That lack of respect is not necessarily synonymous with inexperience. In February 2012, sixteen highly experienced backcountry skiers left the boundaries at Stevens Pass in Washington and were caught in an avalanche. Three in the party were killed, and two others were partially buried. This avalanche received widespread media attention, in part because of the skill and experience of the group, with experts and journalists asking how individuals who had skied all over the world could have made the mistakes that landed a large group on a risky slope in high avalanche conditions. (The New York Times received a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage.)
THAT ACCIDENT, ALONG with other high-profile avalanche deaths, some in Jackson Hole, also focused the spotlight on the snow sports industry and prompted executives to do some soul-searching. What responsibility, if any, did they—the purveyors of the gear that’s helping so many people reach the backcountry—have to their consumers? The unanimous answer seems to be “a lot.”
Of course, individuals must take personal responsibility for their own safety. But a new project called Project Zero, launched in 2013 by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, aims to reduce the number of avalanche fatalities in the U.S. to zero by 2025. Featuring a consortium of gear manufacturers, avalanche educators, professional athletes, and more, the initiative seeks to script a consistent avalanche awareness message that will be delivered via a hangtag on every piece of backcountry gear sold.
The goal of the endeavor is not to scare people away from the backcountry. Rather, says Dynafit’s Henderson, it’s to educate recreationists and encourage them to take more in-depth snow-safety courses. In Jackson Hole, such courses are offered by Exum, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, AAI, and JHOLI.
“It can be really, really fun to ski the backcountry,” says Henderson. “People move to Jackson Hole for a reason. As a company and as an industry we are very aware of the risk and are attempting to unify the messaging around that. We want to take a step backward and encourage people to learn the wave before they surf it. Don’t push their limits but, rather, enjoy the art of skiing.”
“Go out and get educated,” says Jones. “Take a course, learn about terrain and terrain traps. A lot of safe backcountry travel involves the mind. It has nothing to do with safety equipment. Yes, you need your beacon, probe, and shovel. But your most important tool is your brain.”
Use it, say the experts, and then get out there. Fresh powder, adventure, and freedom await.
Know Before You Go
Interested in learning more about the Jackson Hole backcountry? In addition to taking an avalanche education course, skiers and snowboarders can also get tours of the valley’s backcountry with the following guide services:
Exum Mountain Guides offers guided backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Prices vary, exumguides.com, 307/733-2297
Jackson Hole Mountain Guides offers avalanche education courses, and guided backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. Prices vary, jhmg.com, 307/733-4979
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort guides can take you to popular backcountry areas beyond the resort’s boundary. The resort also hosts several backcountry skiing camps each year. Prices vary, jacksonhole.com/backcountry-guides, 800/450-0477
Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center provides a daily avalanche forecast throughout the season. jhavalanche.org, 307/733-2664