GET IN THE KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The common backcountry skiing thread is a desire to get away from crowds, infrastructure, amenities, and the general safety net of resorts. It’s getting back to skiing as a natural means of travel and exploration, to efficiently move through wild winter landscapes and interact with nature in its element. Many skiers and riders are choosing to leave the prospects of limited base lodge access, reservation systems, and extended lift lines behind in favor of socially distant backcountry experiences.
Words by Jake Risch, Photography by Alexandra Roberts Photography
All signs are pointing to busy trailheads, full parking lots, and lots of new users exploring the backcountry for the first time. The backcountry demands self-reliance, preparedness, and good judgment. Whether you’re taking your first steps off the groomers or your next steps up into high country, we offer the following information and resources to help you along your way.
This is the year that Backcountry Skiing goes mainstream. National publications, the New York Times and Forbes published backcountry “how-to” articles. Local shops are reporting record sales of alpine touring and splitboarding equipment. According to Andrew Drummond at Ski The Whites, “Business has been incredibly busy–starting in August–as we saw an unprecedented spike in sales. I’ve heard there’s anywhere as high as a 30 percent COVID push in the market.” Similarly, Coert Hansen, co-owner of Ragged Mountain Equipmentreports, “…demand has definitely exploded, and our worry is that demand will exceed the supply for the first time in years.”
So, now that you have that fancy new kit, where do you start? What are the hazards and risks? What about avalanches?
IF YOU DON’T KNOW, START LOW
Start with lower elevations, low angle slopes, and low avalanche danger days. Lower elevation options in the White Mountains included staying out of the above-treeline, open alpine terrain, keeping slope angles lower than 30 degrees to stay out of avalanche terrain—and when you do start pushing up into the higher presidential range—starting with days when the avalanche forecast is low.
Here in the Mt. Washington Valley, there are three broad levels of uphill ski touring options with increasing requirements for self-sufficiency and risk management.
LOCAL SKI RESORTS
If you aren’t sure of your commitment level just yet and want the lowest risk option to get a taste for uphilling, figure out the equipment, and gain fitness, try some ski touring at one of the local resorts that have an uphill policy. In the avalanche context, all of the trails at the MWV resorts are considered low angle. Black Mountain, Bretton Woods, Cranmore, King Pine, Shawnee Peak, and Wildcat allow uphill travel with the purchase of an uphill ticket. Attitash does not allow uphill travel at this time and encourages customers to try uphilling at partner Wildcat. Ski areas are a great place to learn and practice the basic touring skills without leaving the safety net of the resort behind. The uphill ticket pays for snowmaking, grooming, and ski patrol. Conditions are predictable and rescue is just a phone call away. Plus it’s a great way to get in a quick workout … with the reward at the end.
UPHILL TRAVEL POLICIES AT VALLEY ALPINE AREAS
Stepping away from the resort, folks can dip their toes into true backcountry skiing by exploring the glades created by the Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA) and the historic Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) ski trails around the Valley. With a few exceptions, these areas are low elevation/below treeline and low angle (less than 30 degrees) allowing users to gain experience backcountry skiing while avoiding the risk of being caught in an avalanche.
Once skiers leave the resort, they are faced with new challenges. Rescue will be hours away, hazards are unmarked, and conditions are dependent on the weather and traffic.
Parties should be prepared with skills and equipment to stabilize an injury and self-rescue or keep warm until search and rescue crews respond. Individuals and parties should carry extra layers, a first aid kit, and simple means for building a rescue sled from the patient’s equipment. Taking a wilderness first aid course will provide the skills necessary to stabilize an injury and plan a rescue.
The GBA glades in the region include Maple Villa in Intervale, Baldface in Chatham, Bill Hill in Gorham, and Crescent Ridge in Randolph. The crown jewels for backcountry skiers in the Mt. Washington Valley are the snowfields, chutes, and gullies of the Presidential Range.
There are four historic CCC trails: the Sherburne and Gulf of Slides trails (GOST) on Mount Washington and Black Mountain and Doublehead trails in Jackson. The Mount Washington Cog Railway allows skiing on the ski trail cut along the tracks with a day-use fee. All of these options—except the very top of the GOST and the snowfields above the glades on Baldface Knob and South Baldface—are out of avalanche terrain. The slopes directly adjacent to the Cog Railway are below 30 degrees, so not considered avalanche terrain; however, once you leave the Cog Railway property, you enter the high-alpine, avalanche-prone terrain of the Presidential Range.
BACKCOUNTRY GEAR OPTIONS
The crown jewels for backcountry skiers in the Mt. Washington Valley are the snowfields, chutes, and gullies of the Presidential Range. Intrepid skiers and riders are scouring Google Earth to identify remote rockslide paths across the White Mountain National Forest. South Baldface and the Baldface Knob offer above-treeline skiing on exposed rock slabs accessible from the GBA glade. All of these options are considered avalanche terrain and deserve proper respect, training, and equipment to avoid being injured, or even killed, in an avalanche; and to be able to rescue a partner if they are caught, carried, and buried.
NOTE: For immediate additional information, visit www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center publishes a daily avalanche advisory with route-specific forecasts, usually by 8 a.m..
In addition to the first aid and self-rescue gear, parties pushing up into avalanche terrain should have an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel as a minimum; and consider crampons, a short mountaineering ice axe or whippet (ice axe/ski pole hybrid), and other mountaineering equipment appropriate for the objectives and routes.
Finding a mentor, taking avalanche education and rescue courses, and dedication to keeping up to date on the weather and avalanche forecasts are the tickets for entry into the high alpine.
This article was taken with permission from The Mount Washington Valley Vibe.