When Oregon’s Ski Resorts Start Feeling Claustrophobic, Blaze a Trail to the Backcountry

Heading outside resort areas, into the backcountry, riders can find sought-after solitude.

By Nicole Vulcan

After a lifetime of riding T-bars and chairlifts, spending untold amounts of money on lift tickets and, in ever more populated Oregon, battling ski resort crowds, l've long wanted to access more remote areas to get my snow sports fix.

I'm not the only one.

In Bend as well as Portland, conversations about the overuse of recreational zones are ubiquitous. Heading outside resort areas, into the backcountry, riders can find sought-after solitude.

"I think [people] get sick of the crowds and the traffic at the ski area, and they're seeking untracked snow," says Pete Keane, director of Timberline Mountain Guides and a member of the instructor pool of the American Mountain Guides Association. "I find two or three runs in the backcountry to be pretty satisfying compared to a day on the hill."

By "backcountry," we're talking about any lands—public or private—not serviced by traditional ski resorts. Though some also use snowmobiles, many backcountry skiers and snowboarders hike, usually uphill, to destinations that offer the coveted fresh powder.

While Keane says he can set up a backcountry experience for people of almost any skill, experience and fitness level, he outlines a fairly standard progression for going from the resort to the backcountry.

STEP 1: Learn the gear.

This includes how to put on skins—the straps that attach to the bottom of skis for the ascent—and how to adjust Alpine touring or telemark bindings. Keane says for snowboarders who have splitboards, "it's even a more complex transition because you have to put the board together." He recommends practicing at home first, before the pressure of doing it on the mountain.

From there, Keane stresses learning both how to layer gear and taking off layers for walking uphill, which is not intuitive for downhill-only riders. Also, wear sunglasses—not goggles—on the uphill to avoid fogging.

STEP 2: Practice.

Ski resorts can be starting points for practicing backcountry skills. At Mount Bachelor, for example, Keane suggests treed runs between the Outback and Northwest runs, as well as Cow's Face. At Mt. Hood Meadows, Keane suggests non-groomed runs in the upper bowls.

"We like to have people have skiing experience off the groomers," he says. "They don't have to be like a steep, gnarly, crazy skier; they just have to have some experience in non-groomed snow. Go off the groomers at the ski area as much as possible."

STEP 3: Learn to tour.

The next step is to actually spend some time in the backcountry, ideally with an experienced guide who can create a route and help you adjust gear, and who knows how to look for dangers like avalanches—something Keane recommends later as part of the process of becoming a responsible backcountry rider.

"A little bit of touring experience with someone who's more knowledgeable than you is really important as a prerequisite to taking an avalanche course," Keane says.

A typical backcountry skills course is one day and covers tips on how to climb uphill, find good snow and use your gear.

Pete Alport, an Oregon photographer and videographer who just shot and edited the first all-Oregon backcountry snowboarding film, Low Pressure, agrees there's no substitute for experience.

"I can take all the online courses in the world about how to be a mechanic," Alport says. "Until I get under the hood and work on a car regularly, it's always going to seem somewhat foreign to me, and my sense of awareness is not going to be innate."

STEP 4: Take an avalanche course.

Avalanche skills and gear—including an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe—are key to moving on with this adventure.

With dozens of fatalities every year in the U.S., avalanche danger is real. The 2017-18 season saw 24 deaths in the U.S., according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Several of those were snowmobilers, but one of last season's deaths was a backcountry rider at Setting Sun Mountain in Washington state. The most recent deaths in Oregon were during the 2015-16 season, including the death of one "backcountry tourer" in the Wallowa Mountains.

That's why Keane highly recommends an avalanche course early on—but not before some time spent on Step 3.

"The public's perception is, they need to take the avalanche course first," he says, "but if you don't know how to tour, you're going to be struggling with all that stuff."

Taking the three-day, Level 1 courses through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education can cost around $450—a significant investment when combined with gear, which Keane estimates can cost "thousands." For those with sticker shock, Keane recommends renting gear from Mountain Shop in Portland, or Pine Mountain Sports or Mountain Supply in Bend.

If you really get into it, Keane says, the next steps are an AIARE Level 2 course, giving riders "the tools they need to start learning about it and being an active participant in a tour group."

STEP 5: Find your spot.

Heading out with experienced guides or friends will help you start learning where to go. A vital resource for any backcountry rider, the Northwest Avalanche Center website's "Observations" page gives an indication of the wilderness areas monitored and reported on by other backcountry enthusiasts in the region—as well as giving you important information about where not to go on a particular date.

When in doubt, wilderness areas on the home mountain can be a start.

"Most of the overuse on Mount Hood is on the south side," Keane says, "but once you're off of that, it's really quite remote."

Still, because of avalanche danger, he stresses that route-finding is one of the most complex aspects of this—all the more reason to ride with experienced friends.

If it seems like an involved process, that's because it is. Still, it can soon become an addiction that eclipses other pursuits. As Alport puts it, "The city, TV, food, partying—none of that even comes remotely close to when I'm outside, removed from all of that stuff. I don't know how to explain it other than that."

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