by Megan Bach
Many Coloradans—and some foolish tourists, the ones from flat places that think they know how to ski from watching the Scooby Doo winter specials(*cough* *cough* my cousin)— will be hitting the slopes soon, with both the Loveland and Arapahoe Basin ski areas being open as of November 10th. With Colorado’s usually cold and snowy winter fast approaching, many people here at Watershed are excited to break out the gear and hit the slopes.
One interesting aspect of skiing is the Backcountry, which is when you ski outside of a maintained ski resort. Without ski lifts you trek up the mountain–using snowshoes or skins–then ski back down.
Not everyone has the necessary gear or confidence for a productive backcountry expedition. Backcountry skiing is often perceived as an extreme challenge that only the most advanced skiers undertake. However, one can find a large variety of terrain difficulty, simply without snow grooming and structured trails cut into the forests. The challenge comes from trekking up the mountain to then ski back down. “It’s fun, but hard to get up,” Watershed student Eloise Howell informs me. She told me about a time when doing a winter backpacking trip, she used snowshoes to carry all of her gear, including skis and other necessary gear, for many miles, atop many feet of snow.
Side-country is similar to the backcountry in the idea that it is not patrolled by ski patrol and not in the confines of a roped off ski area, but you can access side country by using the ski lift at some ski resorts. Side-country is NOT ducking the rope, but an access point near the top of a lift where you can ski down to what is usually a road. To use the lift, you would still need to pay a lift ticket.
In both backcountry and side-country situations, if you were to injure yourself, there is no Ski Patrol to assist you. To prevent this sort of situation from becoming worse, it’s advised to not ski alone and to have a member of your group have with some sort of first aid training. Avalanches are also a major risk, because Ski Patrol, among their other duties, mitigate the risk within their respective ski areas by using explosives to prematurely initiate a more controlled avalanche away from recreational users. To avoid being in an avalanche prone situation, check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (http://avalanche.state.co.us/) (CAIC) website or Avalanche.org before you head out. The CAIC provides valuable information about different regions of Colorado that can help you to determine if it is a safe day to ski the backcountry. It would also be very valuable to attend an avalanche safety course—resources are included with the links at the bottom— so that you can learn to keep yourself safe, and how to use the proper gear if a situation were to arise.
Please be safe when exploring Colorado’s winter recreation resources. Make good decisions, but also have some fun!