THE MOMENT YOU THROW YOUR BACKPACK OVER YOUR SHOULDERS, slap your skins to the bottom of your skis, check your beacon, and head off into the backcountry for your first tour, your life changes forever. A cauldron of possibility opens up, like nuggets of gold just waiting to be discovered. It’s really easy to find impossible-looking lines that you’d like to ski. And maybe one day you will be able to. But, to get to that point, you need years of learning and experience. It’s important that beginner backcountry skiers and riders play the long game in backcountry skiing. Appreciate the steep learning curve and incrementally work your way up to bigger and more consequential lines. Backcountry skiing should be viewed as a life sport. To ensure that we are skiing for as long as we can, we must ease into it. If you know what to look for in a backcountry zone, you can choose safe, quality lines to ski. Get the knowledge. Take a class. Ask questions. But more importantly, enjoy the special experience that backcountry skiing affords you.Luckily for beginning backcountry skiers, there are world-class areas that are friendly to the less experienced, offering a myriad of possibilities and a little bit more exposure each time. Between weather, terrain, and snowpack, every peak and every mountain range is different, but you can keep some important factors in mind when looking for a backcountry destinations for the early stages of your backcountry life. Read the following for some advice on how to slowly ramp up your objectives while staying safe and having fun.
Located in the heart of the Wasatch range, 20 minutes outside of Salt Lake City, this canyon has the light, fluffy snow quality that has made this area famous. The area also has mellower terrain with perfectly spaced aspens and moderately steep but open bowl. Its neighbor, Little Cottonwood Canyon, has more steep, gnarly lines.
Located right next to the popular resort Arapahoe Basin is one of the closest backcountry skiing areas to Denver. In an hour, you can go from the urban jungle to the Rocky Mountains. A lot of people in the area try backcountry skiing for the first time at Loveland Pass, and Luke Smithwick, a big mountain skier, is one of them. “Loveland is where I experienced some of my first backcountry switchbacks up a mountain pass. A lot of people will start their day off at Arapahoe Basin until it gets skied out, and then go ski around Loveland Pass until they drive back home to Denver. The skiing around there has a lot of favorable slope angles and safe terrain, which leads back down to the road. As a matter of fact, a skier in his 60s used to own a full-size bus and would shuttle backcountry skiers and snowboarders up and down the pass as an homage to his love for skiing.”
This cirque is located on Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the northeastern United States at 6,289 feet. This notorious area has established itself as a popular backcountry skiing area among East Coasters looking to get into backcountry skiing while pushing their limits on the downhill. New England generally lacks bigger backcountry areas, but Tuckerman’s Ravine, which lies three miles from the trailhead, has about 19 ski lines with varying steepness that range from 40° to 55°. It’s a place that can test even the most seasoned steep skier, especially given its variable snow conditions and weather.
One of the best parts about the Lake Tahoe area is that there is practically 360 degrees of touring around the lake. And it’s only 200 miles northeast of San Francisco. The area, known for its many ski resorts—Northstar, Squaw Valley, Sierra at Tahoe, Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Mt. Rose—is a mecca for anybody who wants to access the backcountry via touring or snowmobiling. Carson Pass and the Mt. Rose area are a few spots that provide flowy, mellow tours all the way up to technical chutes and cliff lines.
Thirty minutes from Sun Valley, Idaho, and the area’s namesake resort is a minefield of backcountry gems at Galena Pass. It is the highest road in the northwest, sitting at an impressive 8,720 feet. From the summit you can ski lines of varying difficulty, from mellow forested glades to high alpine faces. An early-bird party often sets the skin track, and from there, you can explore the Sawtooth Mountains. Or ski back to the road and walk or hitchhike back to your car.
Both Hatcher and Turnagain passes are an hour drive from Anchorage. With easily accessible tours from the road, these two passes are a haven for new backcountry skiers. Because of the area’s geography, weather systems can be inconsistent, meaning one area is windy and cloudy while the other is calm and bluebird. Enjoy lots of low-angle terrain and super-fun skiing.