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Ski mountaineering, often called backcountry skiing, alpine touring or ski touring, is a great way to dodge lift lines and get out in Breckenridge’s large swaths of National Forest in the winter. Strap on your skins, put your skis and boots in uphill mode and get ready to head up and up and up and, eventually, down.
(Snowboarders, we’re talking to you, too. The burgeoning splitboarding scene has opened all of Breckenridge’s backcountry options to snowboarders, as well).
Whether you want an alternative way to ramp up your aerobic fitness or want to expand your knowledge of the backcountry, Breckenridge is quickly becoming a Colorado hub for the growing sport of ski mountaineering.
What exactly is Ski Mountaineering?
Ski mountaineering can be separated into two categories: fitness skinning, and backcountry skiing. Fitness skinning takes place at your local ski area and has a general focus on uphill efficiency, whereas backcountry skiing takes place in the solitude of the mountains and has a focus on earning an epic, downhill run off-piste. Here’s how to get started.
Fitness skinning has become a staple in the realm of ski mountaineering, and people of all skill levels and fitness levels can take part. Breckenridge Ski Area has been extremely accommodating in allowing uphill access over the past several years, helping this sport grow and flourish. This makes it easy for beginners to learn, and for experts to test their lungs and fitness. Using the ski resort as your personal gym and training ground has a lot of benefits including becoming more comfortable with your gear, and improving your fitness level. If you’re the competitive type, sign up for one of the many uphill races in the Breckenridge Ascent Series put on by the Breckenridge Ski Resort and Breckenridge Recreation Department. Before you head out to the slopes, be sure to contact your local ski area regarding uphill policies and rules before heading out.
For those of you who are looking for a little more adventure than what can be found at the ski resort, backcountry skiing might be the perfect thing for you. If you’ve dreamed of skiing deep – really deep – powder or skiing off the summit of a mountain high above Breckenridge with not a soul in sight, check out backcountry skiing. These are just some of the rewards that backcountry skiing has to offer.
Like fitness skinning, backcountry skiing still tests your fitness level going uphill, but offers greater rewards on the way back down. Backcountry skiing requires a higher skill level due to ever-changing snow conditions and dangers involved with skiing outside of the ski areas including avalanches, and lack of medical professionals. The best way to get out into the backcountry is to go out with a knowledgeable friend (and for you to take an avalanche course), or to hire a guide who will educate you every step of the way.
So, where do you go backcountry skiing in Breckenridge? Just look around. Because almost all of Breckenridge’s high alpine land is National Forest Service land, nearly every mountain you see and every valley you look up, is an option.
Use free online mapping tools such as Google Earth and the slope shading options on CalTopo’s web-based software to scope out the terrain and plan your ascent and descent.
If you’re not 100% comfortable selecting terrain on your own, consider getting into the backcountry with a professional. Contact Colorado Adventure Guides at 970-668-8900.
Don’t have gear? Specialty stores like Mountain Outfitters offer a variety of different gear for you to rent or purchase to get you started. The staff at Mountain Outfitters can also point you to local guidebooks with route suggestions and even offer you some of their personal favorites tailored to the current conditions.
Before you go, it’s important to consider a few things for your safety and the safety of others, especially when you’re heading into the backcountry. Here are a few tips:
Know Before You Go
Know where you’re going. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the area. Know the terrain well enough to navigate it safely, and to pinpoint your location in case of an emergency. Lastly, always tell someone where you are going, and what time you expect to be back–better yet, go with a buddy. Having another person along could be the saving grace in an emergency situation.
Educate yourself. Breckenridge has lots of opportunities for you to get involved in classes and learning seminars involving avalanche safety, as well backcountry first aid. Groups such as Backcountry Babes and Colorado Adventure Guides offer formal avalanche training through The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education as well as hands-on, intro-style seminars aimed at introducing newbies to the backcountry. Also, be sure to refer often to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which provides daily reports designed to help you travel safely in the backcountry.
Train. Having a good base fitness level plays an important role in your safety when it comes to backcountry skiing. Hone your skills and lungs at the gym and by skinning up the ski resort, get familiar with all of your gear, and dial in your water and nutrition levels in a controlled environment before heading out into the backcountry. The more you know about yourself, and your gear, the safer you will be while traveling around in the mountains.
Be Prepared. Be ready for anything. Pack your bag as if you were spending the night out in the middle of the winter. Make sure you have plenty of extra layers, gloves, hats, buffs, and an emergency medical kit in case anything were to happen while you are in the backcountry. Pack plenty of food and water, and don’t forget your headlamp. It may seem like you are bringing way too much, but that little bit of extra weight could end up saving you, or someone else’s life in case of an emergency. Be safe and pack smart.