Transport in, to and out of the backcountry
The human factor and gear
The ski lift is the most common way to get higher on the mountain when you want to go skiing or snowboarding off-piste. You get on the lift, and where the ‘regular’ skiers and snowboarders stay on the groomers, you go to the other side. If you plan this right you will end up at a ski lift again. But if you want to move further into the backcountry, the ski lift will no longer suffice. You have to depend on yourself. Ski lifts cannot bring you to every peak. In practice, the slopes for which you do not need to hike, but which are easily reached from the ski lifts are tracked relatively quickly. This especially happens in areas that are popular among freeriders, such as St. Anton am Arlberg or Verbier. You really have to put the effort in if you want to enjoy untracked slopes. Below you can read all about moving in the mountains relying on your own strength and abilities.
For the relatively short distance hiking is your best option. When hiking following an existing bootpack makes all the difference. When there is already a bootpack hiking goes a lot faster than if you are the first to set tracks. If there is nothing set, you will often sink deep into the snow.
If you want to head deeper into the backcountry, you need to bring the right gear and it needs to be in optimal condition. Remember you are high in the mountains where everything takes more energy. Use a proper backpack that you can fasten your board or skis to, or telescopic poles which you can use for balance. It is also advisable to wear several layers of clothing so you can shed a layer when you get warm. And, very important, when you are a skier you will need boots with Vibram soles.
Often a skier will start a hike wearing ski boots with regular smooth soles. This might seem to suffice for the first few meters, but often you will have to hike on loose or exposed rocks. In those cases you will need ski boots with Vibram soles, which offer much more grip. In some cases you will even need crampons. Not only is your gear important but also your physical condition.
Keep in mind: the moment you decide to hike, with or without gear, you often find yourself in the mountains for much longer than you had anticipated. As was said before, it is better to stay as short as possible in avalanche dangerous terrain. Hiking means you are facing possible threats for longer.
Hiking with help
In some cases the hike is too long, too icy or the snow too deep to go without gear to help you. There are several ways and equipment to help make hiking easier. Think about:
- Snow shoes
- Skis with a climbing ascent system
- Split boards
- Skis with skins and touring bindings
Longer hikes are called tours. This name is derived from the term ski tour. For decades skiers went into the mountains on climbing skins (so called because they were originally made of animal skins). They bind special skins to the bases of their skis which allows them to walk up on the snow using their skis. When touring everything you have learned will come together. You making your way into the backcountry and touring requires special techniques.
The skins are only used to climb. You will remove them before going down. With the introduction of the snowboard, snowboarders were faced with a problem: How could they make it to the peak as efficiently? These days there are basically three ways for a snowboarder to head deeper into the backcountry, just like skiers. They can do this using ski boots, using skis with a climbing ascent system and splitboards. We will discuss this later in this chapter.
Aside from nice and easy tours, you will also have the option to go for some more extreme tours. Think of icy and rocky passages, steeper slopes and glaciers. When you will need crampons, a technique called the kickturn (with runs steeper than 38 degrees) and a rope, we can call that extreme touring.
In this second course we will stick to hikes and simple tours. If you will need a rope or other climbing gear, the tours fall outside the scope of this course.