earned turns

Backcountry Skiing Is Blowing Up This Winter

Skiers are heading out-of-bounds in droves this season—but all those newbies could snowball into disaster.

By Allison Williams November 25, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020 issue of Seattle Met

The joys of untracked powder.

Image: Nate Brown

Serge Baranovsky blasted through powder that coated Mission Ridge Ski Area’s famed Bomber Cliffs, the heady rush of two feet of fresh snow driving out thoughts of the burgeoning coronavirus talk that had claimed the news cycle. It was March 14. On the drive home to Woodinville, the entrepreneur heard the news that most ski resorts in the country would close indefinitely the next day, so he pulled off Highway 2 at Stevens Pass, where night skiing would run until 10pm.  Baranovsky watched latecomers jog in ski boots from parking lot to chairlifts, skis in hand, in hopes of a last run.

“I was in panic mode,” remembers Baranovsky of a discouraging spring that melted into a grim summer. With Covid still raging, the next ski season, it was clear, “was not going to be the same.” Chairlifts and comfy lodges might be hard to come by—resorts are limiting services and access for 2020–21. But one category of skiers was untouched. Backcountry ski tourers, athletes who haul themselves to the top of the hill, outside resort boundaries, kept skiing long after the resorts shut down. Baranovsky resolved that come next winter, he’d be among that group.

Amie Fehntrich, a Seattle retail manager, has planned her switch from resort runs to ski touring even longer, ever since she saw backcountry skiers fly down Mount St. Helens while she slogged through the same mashed-potato snow as a hiker. She saved money and honed her ski skills for the last few years, one goal in mind: “Have some more freedom.”

Evidence suggests that backcountry skiing is about to supernova. Are we ready?

A skin track near White Pass.

Image: Nate Brown

“The Covid situation has surged the surge,” says Martin Volken. Backcountry skiing, the mountain guide notes, has already shown skyrocketing popularity in recent years. Volken has long been recognized as the Northwest’s ultimate authority on the subject; besides an international guide service, he operates a North Bend retail gear shop and authored a Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes Washington guidebook so fundamental that users call it simply “the orange book.”

Most local backcountry enthusiasts use grippy mohair-based “skins” to walk uphill, like Nordic skiing against gravity. Once up top, they rip the skins, secure their boots to the ski, then descend turn by turn, riding the euphoria down. Twenty years ago, Volken remembers, it was mostly wiry old ski vets braving the heavy, finicky equipment for the labor-intensive trip. Today even REI sells lightweight, user-friendly kits to the masses, he says. “It’s officially a cool, almost mainstream thing to do.”

There are no designated ski runs in the terrain outside ski resorts, no signs and snow groomers, no avalanche control or ski patrol. Volken fears for beginner skiers he’s seen in the backcountry still wobbly on their boards: “It’s like someone wants to know how to surf but plans to learn how to swim while he does it.”

Backcountry avalanches kill American skiers and snowboarders every year—seven last winter. That’s despite modern detection equipment and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education that teaches students—snowshoers and snowmobilers too—how to dig up a friend. And preferably how to spot and avoid the avalanche-y spots altogether. More people seeking social distance in the backcountry could mean more accidents, a daunting prospect after a record-setting number of Search and Rescue calls for lost hikers this summer.

Volken can tell by fall ski sales that newcomer numbers have swelled, even though a new backcountry setup runs around $2,500. ProSki Seattle, a touring-first ski store tucked into a rowdy stretch of Aurora Avenue, had its best September ever. Scott Schell, executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center, which issues avalanche forecasts, hears anecdotal reports of AIARE classes filling unusually fast; one local guide service saw spots sell out twice as quickly as normal.

But not every brand-new pair of backcountry skis is headed straight into out-of-bounds snow. Thwarted resort fan Serge Baranovsky still renewed season passes to two local ski resorts, and plans to wait until his AIARE 1 certification to line up touring partners. Amie Fehntrich says she’ll first get comfortable on her new skis doing midweek laps on the closed sections of Summit at Snoqualmie, a very low- (but not zero- ) risk way to practice. And all those sold-out AIARE classes mean some of the incoming powder hounds will arrive with basic knowledge.

Schell and NWAC are braced for the big winter. A total website reboot for the nonprofit was already in the works, including a new beginner’s portal that outlines not just education but popular access points, parking restrictions, maps, and more. The right forecasts, the right gear, and the right training: “If everyone could do those three things, I think we’d manage to mitigate a lot of rescues and other accidents,” he says. Still, “I think it’s gonna be a crowded winter.”

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