Tips for a professional backcountry ascent
Story and photos by Ben Werner Explore Big Sky Contributor
The allure of untracked powder turns cannot be ignored. This pinnacle of the skiing and snowboarding experience drives many of us into the backcountry to seek solitude away from resorts, and to venture into pristine wild places. While the downhill aspect of the adventure is usually the driving force to get out there, the uphill portion of the journey is also beautiful in its own way. Aside from the high elevation and the bath of endorphins your brain enjoys while you huff and puff to break trail, the skin track serves as a gateway to new and higher terrain, and is worthy of respect.
Many of us have had the pleasure of following an expertly broken skin track – it is a thing of beauty, seamlessly following the contours of the mountain. It sometimes becomes a part of the mountain itself, calling skiers and riders to follow its line to where the spirit of the mountain lives – at the summit. When I find a skin track in this condition, I’m always reminded to be on my best behavior and preserve the experience for others to enjoy. Here are some tips to keep in mind during “the up.”
A skin track requires skins. Are you on snowshoes, boot packing, or on a snowmobile? Other skiers and riders will greatly appreciate it if you find a different way up the mountain. Our skins don’t stick well once the track gets disturbed.
Find the natural flow of the mountain. The best skin tracks are not too steep or too shallow. Once you pick an angle of ascent, stick to it like religion. Switchback as needed to avoid risky terrain features, but don’t adjust your angle.
Space yourself! Make sure you’re not putting multiple folks on the slope at once. This puts everyone at risk if an avalanche occurs. Try to make sure your skin track creates some safe resting places where folks can stop to watch others in your group as they cross more dangerous terrain.
Have your pooch under control. Sharp metal edges and soft dog feet don’t mix well.
Respect private property. For the most part this is easy – if you see a “No Trespassing” sign, you know what to do.
Avoid cutting across choice descent lines. Make sure to be aware of where the nice descent lines are. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid them for safety reasons, but at least make informed decisions about when to do it.
Fill in your snowpit. It might not seem like it matters, but a deep snow pit does leaves a scar in the snowpack that can take months to heal. Do Mother Nature a favor and fill it in so it disappears quickly.
Urinating on the skin track. This should go without saying, but step off the skin track and make sure to cover up your wet spots.
Say hello! It surprises me how some backcountry enthusiasts get grumpy when they see others during their adventure. That other party might be the same one that digs you out if you get buried in an avalanche. Besides, this is Montana. We’re friendly people here.
Thanks for being a good backcountry citizen – now go enjoy some turns!
Ben Werner is originally from Jackson, Wyo. and has lived in Bozeman since 2007. He’s the author of “Backcountry Skiing Bozeman and Big Sky” and father of Liliana, 6, and Ruby, 3. Visit bozemanskiguide.com for more information on his book.