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27 things I learned while back country skiing in America

Written by Fiona

February 13 2016

My latest skiing trip has taken me to the American states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. As well as downhill skiing in some amazing American resorts, including Park City, Deer Valley, Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, Brighton, Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee, I have tried a few back country skiing outings.

I am a new comer to back country skiing and only recently bought the skis and boots that allow you to “skin”(walk) uphill, as well as ski downhill. We are fortunate that we have friends who can expertly guide us into the back country.

This is what I have learned during a back country outing in Utah, in the Cottonwoods area, and two outings in the Teton Mountains, a range of the Rocky Mountains that are mostly located on Wyoming’s eastern side of the Idaho state line.

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Our first American back country skiing outing close to Alta ski resort, Utah.

1) Back country skiing is a steep learning curve. There is a lot to take in and you need to be a quick thinker to take it all on board.

2) Sometimes I am not quick thinking enough. However, through repetition and over just one or two outings I have learned to be faster and slicker at back country skiing.

3) Safety is paramount. It’s vital that you back country ski with people who know what they are doing. It is important to check the status of avalanches via on-line services, assess avalanche risk as you go about the skiing and always carry – and know how to use – avalanche scanner/transceivers.

4) “Skins” are the fabric that stick to the bottom of the skis to allow you to “skin” uphill.

5) Skins should be smooth and tautly attached to the base of the skis to allow for a slicker style of uphill walking-gliding.

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6) Back country ski bindings allow the heel of the ski boot to be free so you can walk-glide uphill. When you want to ski downhill (with the skins removed) the heel of the boots can be fixed to the ski like traditional downhill ski boots and skis.

7) Skins usually work and allow for an effective mode of uphill travel but when the snowy trail becomes steep you need to make sure the skins stick otherwise you slip backwards.

8) Standing upright and keeping your heels back helps with effective uphill skinning. Sometimes, when very steep, you need to lean on your poles to help with the “push” uphill.

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Eidelweiss Bowl, Wyoming.

Eildelwiss Bowl, Wyoming.

Eidelweiss Bowl, Wyoming.

9) Back country ski poles have a lot of uses. They help with skinning momentum and balance. They also help you to push up steep ascents and ski proficiently downhill. The handles of the skis can be used to adjust the heel platform height on the skis and to release the boot binding when you transition from uphill to downhill.

10) When the skis slip backwards it’s very easy to panic. I had a few scary moments on a steep ascent of Mt Taylor in Wyoming. My skis slipped backwards and I fell down flat on to my front. A backward glance made me cry in fright because I could only see blue sky and no mountain. I confess I panicked.

Stunning views from the Teton Pass.

Stunning views from the Teton Pass.

11) When you feel like you are out of control, good back country skiing friends will be your saviour. The calming words of Greig and the G-Force when I started to panic after a bad slip gave me the confidence to carry on.

12) I kept saying to myself when the terrain became steeper: “Stomp in the skis, stand upright on the heels and lean on the poles…”

13) Listen to advice and tips. Experienced back country skiers know their stuff and the more you listen and learn the easier it is to master the sport.

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14) When you get it right, skinning is a very pleasing process that allows you to gain ground and ascent quickly. The smooth sliding-walking is fairly easy to master, especially on flatter terrain, and once you get into a rhythm with skinning it feels amazing.

15) It feels uplifting, freeing and exhilarating to be able to ski off into the countryside and away from busy ski resorts.

16) Back country skiing in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming is very popular. There are seemingly limitless numbers of trails to follow and we met with lots of other skiers, who were really friendly. (One group even shared their picnic with us!)

Heading up Mt Taylor, Wyoming.

Heading up Mt Taylor, Wyoming.

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Jannine, Scott and Lander the dog.

17) Back country skiing is very, very tiring (especially if you are new to it and at an altitude way above your normal level). The skiing up offers a superb cardio workout and, for me, the skiing back down again is challenging because of the unpredictable terrain.

18) I have discovered many under-used muscles in my arms, shoulders and abs thanks to back country skiing.

19) Take plenty to eat. On my first big outing in Wyoming in the Eidelweiss Bowl, just off the Teton Pass, I did not have enough food to keep me going. By the end of the trip of around five hours I could hardly put one foot in front of the other due to lack of fuel.

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Looking back over the skinning trail up Mt Taylor. With Greig.

Mount Taylor

Mount Taylor, the steep route ahead.

20) Back country skiing transitions feels a lot like triathlon transitions. There is a routine that you need to follow and the more you do it the quicker it becomes. To transition to skiing:

  • Unattach your boots from the skis.
  • Remove the skins and fold them away into your pack.
  • Turn the back binding from walk mode to ski mode.
  • Tighten ski boot fastenings and change from walk mode to ski mode.
  • Clip boots to ski bindings.
  • Head off to ski downhill.

To transition to skinning:

  • Unattach your boots from the skis.
  • Attach skins to the underside of the skis
  • Turn the back binding from ski mode to walk mode.
  • Choose the heel height.
  • Loosen ski boot fastenings and change from ski mode to walk mode.
  • Clip boots to ski bindings.
  • Head off to skin uphill.

21) Sometimes you need to boot pack, instead of skinning, when the trail becomes really steep. This involves walking uphill with your rucksack laden with skis. I found this really hard work.

Boot packing higher up Mt Taylor.

Boot packing higher up Mt Taylor.

22) Back country snow is very different from on-piste skiing at resorts. The snow is deep, fluffy, powdery and sometimes layered with a crust of harder snow.

23) Skiing on back country snow is harder to learn because it is more unpredictable but when you “get it” skiing on powder is fantastic. It is amazingly awesome and I can’t explain why. You just have to try it!

Mount Taylor.

Mount Taylor.

24) Skiing back country gives you the biggest thrills and the highest highs.

25) Back country skiing in Utah and Wyoming has opened my eyes to an amazing sport. I have relished the challenge, overcome beginner’s frustrations, loved the spectacular views, felt free and happy and enjoyed the company of like-minded people.

Utter exhaustion.

Utter exhaustion.

26) It is worth being realistic when planning a back country route. We were fortunate to have friends to guide us but I definitely took on more than I maybe should when we skinned and skied Mount Taylor (3155m) in Wyoming. I am gutsy and fairly fit so I made it but I was scared at points, daunted by the unpredictable snow, out of breath due to the altitude and totally fatigued by the finish. I could hardly even walk across the car park carrying my skis at the end of the outing.

Joy after the challenge.

Joy after the challenge.

27) Looking at it another way, I have discovered a sport that gives me a whole new challenge and I really like that.

Crashed out by 9.15pm. Scott and the G-Force post Mt Taylor!

Crashed out by 9.15pm. Scott and the G-Force post Mt Taylor!

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