If we were in a ski resort, the first big powder dump of the season would be scoured by groomers or tracked out in minutes. But here, far from a formal in-bounds area, this Central Cascades mountainside is unadulterated nature—pure white fluff.
It’s early December, the final run of Cascade Powder Guides’ weekend avalanche course. After three days of safety talk and snow science, we’re desperate for backcountry schussing.
We carve turns on a gentle plain as wide as CenturyLink; powder this deep isn’t easy to ski, but you hardly ever get this much at once. Here our skis split the pristine snow like razor blades through silk, the vista unbroken by roads, power lines, or anything not tree green and powder white.
Three CPG owner-guides and eight backcountry students have 1,900 acres of undulating hillside to themselves, on land logged by a timber company in summer. A few miles away, Stevens Pass Ski Area has half the acreage and a parking lot for 3,000.
Backcountry is both old-school (skiing predates chairlifts) and trendy; Snowsports Industries America calculated that almost six million Americans tried it two winters ago, up from four million six years prior. Skiers want the downhill thrills minus the crowds, bad pizza, and lift-line pot stench.
But before anyone can showboat down a hill, they have to ascend it. Outside packed resorts, that means hoofing it, riding a snowcat or snowmobile, or borrowing a helicopter from the nearest Bond villain. Cascade Powder Guides inched us up from Highway 2 in a fogged-up eight-ton snowcat; it’s the state’s only cat-skiing operation. But in this weekend course, we’re achieving each run with human power.
This mode of backcountry skiing is called alpine touring, and it’s completely counterintuitive: skis use gravity. Yet touring skis go up. Their bottoms are coated with a sticky nylon or mohair layer called a skin, with tiny hairs that grip the frozen hillside as the skier glides with boot toes attached. Picture a Nordic ski stride, but uphill—it’s less tiring than it looks. (Snowboarders follow a similar routine with a splitboard.) At the top of their “run,” skiers secure the boot at the heel (or assemble their splitboards) and peel off the skins. After that, the downhill part is pretty much the same as bombing runs at Crystal or Whistler.
The same, except for the slides. Slopes can collapse into avalanches at any time, and there’s no ski patrol.
Last winter only 14 people died by avalanche in the United States while skiing or snowboarding, but the specter looms large. Rescue gear is a last resort: beacons and sticklike probes to find one another if buried, shovels to dig one another out. Our CPG class “rescues” backpacks buried with beacons pinging inside while we eye the guides’ wearable airbags, newly popular gear meant to carry victims above a deadly slide.
It’s infinitely better to not trigger an avalanche at all, and that means crunching data. Classes like this one, prescribed by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, involve endless calculations; risk a 40-degree slope or stick with the 35s? How many layers of unstable snow are underfoot? When did the westerly slopes last get sun? Parsing the avalanche forecast requires a ruler, protractor, thermometer, and compass, at minimum—plus the guts to back away when a slope just doesn’t feel right.
Hiring guides, for a ski day or class, is exponentially safer than going alone. Still, says owner-guide Austin Shannon, every client participates in the go/no-go call: “Everyone here is a smart grown individual with two eyes, two ears, and a mouth—and veto power.”
Inside the double-decker yurt, we pour over case studies of backcountry trips gone bad. Outside we skin up the hillside to dig pits in the powder, analyzing frozen layers like snow geologists. Brains full, we trek up a windy ridge, a 90-minute slog to earn one blissful run through shoulder-high pine.
At night we chill in a wood-fired sauna cabin as guides tell tales of epic runs and close calls. Untethered by resort boundaries, they’ve skied Mexican volcanoes and Alaskan peaks. All know at least one friend who’s died in the snow.
Backcountry skiing is pure nature with no hand-holding. On that final run of the weekend, a guide shouts over his shoulder that since this knoll was only logged last summer, we might be the very first to ride it. It’s all ours; our rubbery legs and overworked brains are merely proof that we earned it.