Many names, one great experience
By Linda Freeman
CORRESPONDENT | December 09,2012
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo
Kevin Thompson drops into Airplane Gully while backcountry skiing on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington last winter.
There was a time, not all that many years ago, when Alpine skiers who left groomed trails to sneak away for some clandestine “woods skiing” were considered reckless rule-breakers. Such aberrant behavior was rewarded, at best, with frowns from pious pass-holders or at worst, a clipped pass and an escort off the mountain by an overzealous ski patroller. (Never mind that the patroller had probably made first tracks in a similar area before he or she went on duty.)
The allure of fresh snow, the woods, the hushed, natural setting was not diminished by acts of discouragement. Rather, the sport of backcountry skiing has flourished and is now a rising star in the heavens of snow sports.
Defining the sport has proven to be a blogger’s picnic. Rec.skiing.backcountry, calls it “the sport (and art) of skiing in places and terrain that have not been altered by people, and away from snow that has been groomed for skiing.”
Interestingly, attempting to distinguish the fine lines between backcountry, slackcountry, sidecountry and frontcountry can cause some controversy between the purists and those more relaxed in classification.
Kip Roberts of Montpelier, General Manager of Onion River Sports, did not grow up on skis as some Vermont kids do. Coming from the farm country of Lexington, Mich., Roberts played basketball and ran. He was, after all, “living in the meat and potatoes of the Midwest.” Eleven years ago he moved to Central Vermont where he quickly experienced a number of snow sports from alpine skiing to snowboarding. Early on he met Jen Lamphere who introduced Roberts to telemark skiing while both served as rangers at the bottom of the Monroe Trail at Camel’s Hump.
“Backcountry grew out of all the different types of skiing,” Roberts said. The influence of Nordic skiing can be seen in the more narrow skis with bindings that allow free heels. Touring is an essential aspect of both Nordic and the related form of backcountry: seeing the sights, covering terrain.
Alpine touring, or AT, is influenced by the sport of downhill skiing. A backcountry skier will climb up and ski down without the use of chair lifts. Skis are heavier and stiffer and often have fixed heel bindings and hard boots to better enable Alpine-type carved turns.
Then there’s telemark skiing with equipment that is so similar to backcountry it is hard to tell the difference unless you look at the bottom of the ski and find either an unwaxed surface structured to grip the snow on a trek up the hill and slide over the same snow on a glide back down, or a smooth surface with a need for skins (strips of synthetic materials attached to the bottoms of skis to help grip the snow when climbing) for the same purpose.
Then there are the differences between a backcountry ski and a Nordic ski: metal edges (a happy discovery for any former Alpine skier who has attempted to switch to Nordic and sorely missed the edges when descending a trail) and camber. “Backcountry skis,” Roberts said, “actually have less camber than their Nordic brethren which makes them easier to turn since you don’t have to overcome the camber height when weighting the ski during the turn. The tradeoff is less glide than a touring or race classic ski.”
Equipment is a big topic. Here are the basics: you need a pair of skis, boots, bindings to connect the boots to the skis, adjustable poles (longer for uphill, shorter for downhill) and, if you’d like, a lightweight helmet. You probably already know how to dress in layers and could cobble together appropriate clothes from what you own. Skins are needed for climbing and a comfortable backpack to put your gear in when you shed it is a must.
Skis range in size, shape and construction from the nearly Nordic skinny ski (about 55 mm underfoot) to the wide telemark look-a-likes (as much as 110 mm underfoot). There’s even a funky little black plastic-looking ski that claims to be 30 percent snowshoe and 70 percent ski and is short, maneuverable and easy on the wallet.
Boots come in a variety of materials and are usually better-insulated and more roomy than comparable performance boots. Bindings are available in price ranges that offer everything from a simple toe attachment to something that looks like an update of the old fashioned 3-pin system.
If you’re at all interested, your best bet is to visit your local sporting good store where you’ll find people who actually ski and use what they are selling.
“Definitely suggesting that people come to the shop to clear things up and narrow the plethora of choices is great,” Roberts said. “At ORS we ask where people want to go and what they want to get out of their backcountry experience and then recommend gear based on that.”
Backcountry skiing may be more about recreation than about performance. Though there are certainly many levels of backcountry (extending all the way up to jumping out of a helicopter and spending the better part of a day making one’s way down a mammoth mountain, harrowingly fast trips through woods and demanding pitches and surfaces that test nerves as well as muscles), there is also room for the moderately fit athlete who simply loves to be outdoors and can’t quite validate the budget to bankroll a larger Alpine expenditure.
“The ‘backcountry’ is a destination,” Roberts said. “It’s about enjoying a scenic time in Vermont and yet is more exhilarating than snowshoeing and gets the heart pumping.” There’s really no built-in fear factor. While some novices find Alpine slopes intimidating — getting on and off the lifts, the steeps and the other skiers and boarders flying by — backcountry is only “as challenging as you make it,” Roberts said. “Learning to do tele and Alpine turns and going downhill requires skill and practice. But you can go out without turns. A pizza wedge still works.”
Whether you call it backcountry (simply skiing under your own power in natural conditions) or slackcountry (ride the lift up and head for the woods doing so without hiking or skinning), sidecountry (use the lift and access the area from long traverses) or front country (skin up/ski down) is more a matter of semantics that anything else. The rise in popularity is undeniable. Perhaps people are “tired of inbound skiing and are in search of fresh snow,” Roberts said.
Perhaps they want more comfortable boots, a slower- or faster-paced day, a more modest line item in their recreational budget or a closer connection with family and friends. Perhaps backcountry enthusiasts are new to snow sports or have converted from another. In any event, they seem to want to enjoy what Vermont does best – the outdoors.