Tag Archives: Backcountry skiing

Project Zero: An initiative to reduce avalanche fatalities


projzerologoProject Zero, a collaborative effort by premiere avalanche forecasters and professionals in North America, is on a mission to reduce avalanche fatalities. Through crafting an effective safety message and a straightforward method for decision-making, they hope to educate all backcountry users to understand the risks in the backcountry and make better decisions to mitigate those risks.

This season, Project Zero launched Know the Snowa social media campaign that included a video contest aimed at engaging the lift-served backcountry skier and rider. You can find out more about the contest winners here

Crystal Mountain SouthbackLocal videographer Jacob Hase won fifth place for his video based at Crystal Mountain. On his vimeo page, Jacob describes the video as, “a day trip into the Crystal Mountain Washington back country with additional avalanche beacon training. Video is narrated by Crystal Mountain ski patroller Kim Kircher.”

As many of you know, Crystal Mountain is a great launching pad for backcountry terrain. Not only do we have the hike-to controlled Southback, but numerous true backcountry lines nearby as well.

Many of those lines can be accessed from the lifts. With the current phase of Project Zero focussing on lift-served backcountry, Crystal terrain is a perfect fit for Project Zero’s first initiative, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

Congratulations Jacob!


So You Think You Can Avoid Avalanches


This ski season was a deadly one for avalanches in North America. With the shallow snowpack of much of the West and the deep snowpack of the PNW and Alaska, conditions were all too ripe. Included in anybody’s backcountry arsenal should be good practices and plenty of avalanche awareness. “Safe” route finding in avalanche terrain isn’t easy. Many factors come into play–including weather, snowpack, and human factors. Here’s the thing about avalanches: they are avoidable. Well, obviously. If you don’t ski in the backcountry, chances are pretty good you won’t run into an avalanche.

But the backcountry holds some sweet rewards for those that can safely navigate it. All the latest ski industry trends point toward releasable heels and slackcountry gear that allows skiers and riders to ski inbounds or backcountry or a combination of the two on any given day. In other words, the Holy Grail of your own private skiing Idaho has never been closer. The difference between playing at a ski area and playing in the backcountry is more than the light fluffiness of the snow. In addition to explosive control at ski areas, the snow is also work hardened, compacted day after day by skiers and snowboarders breaking up the slabs and reducing avalanche hazard. While this might be one reason skiers are heading for the off-piste, it keeps the pistes dummy-proof.

Can you find the safe route from the green point to the red point? Click on the photo to get started.

In the backcountry, however, you are on your own. Backcountry travelers must know not only the daily conditions, but preferably track the last few weeks of weather to truly understand the snowpack. They should also dig pits and follow safe route finding techniques. Even experienced backcountry users can be surprised by avalanches. So the more you know, the better off you will be.

The Canadian Avalanche Center wants to test you on your route finding. They offer an online avalanche course meant to hone backcountry user’s skills. Here is one of the route finding exercises in which you can track your route from point A to point B. When you veer into dangerous territory, the tutorial alerts you and you must start over again.

This is worth your time. Just click on the photo to start your test.

The Ski Industry: Caught between inbounds and out-of-bounds


The Holy Grail

Crystal’s Hike to the King

It’s no secret. Untracked stashes are the Holy Grail of skiing and riding. People want their own private powder, dawn patrol sessions and access to the soon-to-be-shunned term “sidecountry” (see below). The ski industry is changing—AT gear is hot, split board sales are on the rise and “freeing the heel” is going mainstream. Seems everyone has a transceiver and skins these days.

Whether skinning up the ski area in the morning or using chairlifts to access terrain outside of the ski area boundary, those taking up this new trend in the sport are forcing the hand of ski area operators.

As a skier, I say this is great. I love to ski uncrowded and untracked slopes as much as the next gal. As a ski patroller, I wonder a little if some might venture out when they probably shouldn’t. At Crystal, I’ll be the one to go out with a headlamp after hours to look for them. As a ski area owner, I wonder what it means for the industry.

The ski industry has historically been about uphill transportation. From ropetows to Funitels, one way or another ski areas are in business to get you to the top of the mountain. Say what you will about the present state of the industry—if it weren’t for a need for people to get to the top of the mountain, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

What’s in a Name?

Uphill transportation is the name of the ski industry game

With more people venturing out of bounds, the ski industry (namely NSAA) is taking note and asking questions. Number one, they want to know what to call it. What’s been increasingly referred to as “sidecountry” can be misleading. Does that mean controlled backcountry? Gate-accessed true backcountry? Unmarked, explosive-controlled terrain? Hike to? Chairlift accessed?

Soon the term “sidecountry” will need to be more fully defined. We probably won’t even use the term anymore, returning to the more clear inbounds vs. out of bounds nomenclature. And yet, ski area marketing people love this term because it’s catchy, it’s cool and it’s embodies the zeitgeist of today’s ski consumer.

Number two, the industry wants to know how to let skiers and riders access this Holy Grail of terrain without either ruining the experience or breaking the bank. More chairlifts would obviously ruin the backcountry feel. But purchasing land or adding into a ski area’s current boundary permit might be impossible at worst or very expensive at best. Questions of public land use and wilderness designation also come into play in much of the West. In Telluride a local land owner/real estate developer, Tom Chapman, has forced the ski area to close it’s backcountry access gates into Bear Creek because skiers must cross Chapman’s 30-acre strip at the bottom of the run. Obviously this didn’t sit well with local skiers.

Off-Piste, On-Piste

Europe manages terrain much differently. It starts with land use in the Alps, where the land is owned individually or cooperatively by farmers and ranchers. In the Swiss Alps, for example, cow owners are Kings. The ski company owns the lifts, the grooming machines and many of the restaurants. Some ski areas, such as Val Thorens in France, are actually run by two separate companies—one that runs the lifts and another that runs the ski patrol and grooming. This system lends itself to their On-Piste/Off-Piste terrain management. The named pistes are inbounds. Everything else—including the moguled edges of the pistes—are all “off-piste”. If you get hurt “off-piste” you pay extra for rescue.

Patrol marks everything on the pistes—even putting large pads around the trunks of trees that lie between the piste-markers. Everything else—whether a 1,000-foot drop off at Crans-Montana or gaping crevasse in Argentiere—is unmarked. I guess they figure if you’re stupid enough to go off-piste and kill yourself, then it’s your own damn fault.

In North America, we manage terrain very specifically. Named runs are marked, avalanche hazard is mitigated through explosives and ski-cutting, and expert terrain is signed and often gated. Chances are if you find yourself atop an expert run, you passed by several signs letting you know where you were headed. We mark major hazards, put ropes around big drop offs, use signs and pigtails and reflective tape to make sure skiers and riders don’t accidentally go over a big drop. We pad every tower, whether on a named trail or on a double-black diamond run.

Crystal’s Terrain Management

At Crystal we have compartments of terrain (I wish I could think of a better term than “compartments” which seems like a selling feature of luggage, not a ski area, so I’m open to suggestions). We have our main area—including everything that isn’t accessed through a gate. Then we have Bear Pits, which is surrounded by a rope. The warning signs are all the entrance to the gate, and once you enter, you won’t see any further signage. In Northway we also post signs at the entrance gates, however you will also encounter Cliff signs and Caution signs. Southback is managed differently, with very little “improvement”. We don’t mark much out there other than a few key spots. But we do use avalanche mitigation and we also sweep it at the end of the day. So it isn’t true backcountry, nor does it fall under the suddenly ubiquitous “sidecountry” term either. It is inbounds terrain. But it feels like out-of-bounds, which is increasingly rare these days.

More and more ski areas are offering gate-accessed backcountry, such as Jackson Hole and Brighton. Once you leave the ski area boundary through a gate, you are on your own. Crystal’s “Far North” gates, marked A, B, C and D are signed and managed this way.

Where Do We Go From Here?

These questions remain:

Crystal’s Holy Grail

  1. What to call the terrain. Do we call inbounds, gated, expert terrain such as Bear Pits the same term as Southback? How does the industry keep the caché of the “sidecountry” terminology and lose the liability?
  2. How do we as an industry embrace this evolution in our sport while still keeping in mind that this is a business and needs to turn some kind of a profit to continue? In other words, if we’re in the business to provide uphill transportation and people don’t want that anymore, what the hell are we doing here plowing our parking lots and roads and paying employees?
  3. What can skiers and riders do to ensure their Holy Grail of terrain remains open and accessible?

What do you think? Is this just navel-gazing from an industry insider or questions that apply to everyone? I’d welcome comments, suggestions and discussion.

Weekly High-Five Report: Random Acts of Kindness on the King


Topping out on the King

At the start of every season, we patrollers carry emergency equipment to the top of the King (Crystal’s Southback peak), tie it to a tree and hope no one ever needs it. The toboggan is propped on its end in plain view, along with a backboard, sled pack and several probe poles as a constant reminder that this is dangerous business out here. While Southback isn’t true backcountry, much of the adjacent terrain is, and when rescue is possible, it could be long and even costly.

Last weekend was busy for ski patrollers, and the King’s toboggan got more use in one weekend than it normally does in an entire season. The weekend started with a backside rescue in Crystal Lake’s Basin, when a skier didn’t arrive home that evening. Several patrollers scoured the boundary that night, finally finding the missing and injured skier early Saturday morning far off the backside of the ski area. The sled at the top of the King was used to bring him out the heavily-treed drainage to the closed highway below.

It takes a village

The weather and wind didn’t allow us to bring the toboggan back up on Saturday. Only an hour after South had reopened Sunday morning, even before we’d had the chance to hike all that equipment back to the top, we received a cell phone call–a skier was injured on the North side of the King, and the only way to get to her was up and over.

Seven of us headed towards the King, each carrying a piece of the bulky and heavy equipment, listening for radio updates from the first patroller on the scene. Two patrollers battled with the toboggan, each carrying a part of it up the 1st and 2nd steps of the hike. In order to be more efficient, patroller Paul left his skis beside the trail, figuring he’d come back for them once the sled reached the top.

At one point on the hike, with a mental clock ticking in my head, wondering about the condition of our patient, a skier looked at Shannon and I with–dare I say it–a look of awe. He said he was impressed by how quickly we were getting the equipment out there. I nodded and continued on.

I suspect it is to this man that my weekly high-five goes to. Because someone, I’m not sure who, picked up Paul’s pair of skis and carried them to the top of the King. When Paul arrived at the top with the toboggan, his skis did as well, and he was able to bring the sled to the injured skier more quickly.

Shannon posted a note on Facebook, applauding the “unknown skier”:

Yesterday’s serious injury on the North side of the king required at least 7 patrollers to hike from chair 6 and arrive on scene with backboard, oxygen, belay equipment and a sled. The two patrollers with the sled, in their haste, left a pair of skis at the base of the hike to be retrieved after the sled made it to the summit…
Cheers to the unknown skier that pitched in and hiked those skis to the summit for us. That’s why we all love Crystal.

So here’s a shout-out to the “unknown skier” that helped out on Sunday. Bravo man. Thanks for pitching in. So, if you want to be like the unknown skier and start spreading kindness around, please do. Then the whole world would be a better place.

Oh, and later that day, the toboggan made it back to the top of the King, thanks to patroller Rich. Let’s hope it stays there.