No lift lines, no expensive lift tickets and miles of un-tracked powder.
If that sounds like no ski resort you’ve ever heard of, that’s because it’s not a ski resort.
It’s backcountry “skinning” – a type of skiing that combines the intense physical conditioning of running, the beauty of hiking and the adrenaline of downhill skiing.
As a downhill, or Alpine, skier, I’ve done almost all of my skiing at resorts and have only visited the backcountry on a few occasions. But I decided to give it a go while I was in Wyoming for the holidays this year.
It’s not an easy activity to do – given the risk of avalanches in the backcountry, going with an experienced guide is highly recommended (you shouldn’t even consider going backcountry on your own if you don’t know what you’re doing). And you need to be in good enough shape to be able to get yourself up the mountain without the benefit of a chairlift.
I’m not exactly in exemplary shape, so – aside from the fear of an avalanche – my biggest concern was whether I’d be capable of completing the journey.
The climb was even more gruelling and exhausting than I expected. But the great thing about backcountry skinning is that the experience is so amazing, you keep pushing yourself. And the payoff is unforgettable.
My backcountry journey began in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a gorgeous area located at the base of the Teton mountains.
The Jackson Hole Airport is located inside the Grand Teton National Park. It’s the only commercial airport in the U.S. located directly inside a national park, and it’s a stunning place to fly into.
The town of Jackson is a liberal enclave in the heart of heavily Republican Wyoming, and the contrasts are everywhere.
In June 2017, Jackson Mayor Pete Muldoon (pictured above) made national news when he removed a portrait of President Donald Trump from town hall, arguing that Trump is a divisive President whose portrait would offend some residents. The city council later reversed his decision.
Besides its cowboys and politics, Jackson is famous for the nearby Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, considered one of the top ski destinations in the country.
But my ski adventure on this day was miles away from the resort, in the backcountry of the rugged Teton mountain range.
That’s an old “homesteader’s” log cabin in the foreground.
Our adventure started off on the side of a highway.
If not for the parking lot with other backcountry skiers and snowshoers, it would have been tough to find this spot. There are no ski rental shops, parking attendants, or restaurants here!
My companions Ted (a Jackson Hole local), Kyle, and our guide Christian are all eager to get going.
Before we can set out, there’s a few important things to take care of.
Putting the “skins” on the bottom of our skis is job number one. Skins are a felt-like, adhesive layer that prevent your skis from slipping backwards in the snow, an essential feature for climbing up a mountain in skis. Putting skins on your skis is a bit like applying packing tape to the bottom of your skis.
Here’s what the bottom of your ski looks like after attaching the skin.
The other critical items for backcountry skiing is avalanche equipment.
Everyone carried a backpack with a shovel and a collapsible “probe” pole for poking into the snow to find someone should they get buried in a slide.
We each needed to carry an electronic “beacon” device strapped to our chests.
Each beacon sends out a signal that the other beacons can detect. The device tells you how close you are to the other beacon, allowing you to home in on someone if they were buried under an avalanche.
We spent a few minutes in the parking lot testing our devices to make sure they all worked properly, before heading out.
Finally, after clambering over a big snowbank on the side of the highway, we’re ready to go!
Dressing light is key.
The temperature was a brisk 9 degrees Farenheit that morning, but the last thing you want to do is pile on a heavy down coat and layers of clothes the way you might for a day of Alpine skiing. That’s because you’ll almost immediately start working up a sweat as you begin “skinning” up the mountain.
“Be bold, start cold,” was the sage advice proffered by our guide as we set off, shivering.
The first leg of the journey is a pleasant glide through a snowy wonderland.
A creek dammed by beavers presents us with our first challenge.
Crossing the creek on skis is tougher than it sounds. Luckily no one fell in the icy drink.
The trail soon got steeper and this is where the special nature of backcountry skis come into play.
Backcountry skis are a clever combination of cross-country skis (which allow you to raise your back heel as you propel yourself along a trail) and Alpine skis (which lock your heel into place and are designed for going downhill).
If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see that the back heels of each skier lift off the back of the ski, similar to a cross-country ski. That makes it possible to walk lengthy flat or uphill distances on your skis. When you reach the top of the hill, you twist the binding and push your heel down to lock it into place – at that point your ski set-up is the same as a regular downhill ski.
After about an hour and a half we’ve covered about 2 miles and we’re ready for our first rest.
Our guide is Christian Santelices, a veteran mountaineer who works with Exum Mountain Guides.
A native of Chile, Christian has led expeditions to Patagonia, the Alps, Alaska and the Atlas mountains of Morocco, among other places. As a guide at Jackson-based Exum, he spends a lot of time in the Teton backcountry.
Throughout the journey, Christian constantly checks the snowpack for avalanche conditions.
The U.S. and Canada use a five-level scale to rate avalanche conditions.
Avalanche risk on this day was rated “considerable” – not a very comforting thought. I was glad to have all the proper equipment and an experienced guide.
After the short break, it’s time to begin the real climb.
This is where the skins on the bottom of your skis really help you get traction.
We’ve gained about 2,000 feet of elevation on the ascent, and even in my light clothing I’m drenched in sweat.
I have to stop to take a break and catch my breath after every 20 strides or so. My heart is pounding so hard I can feel the reverberations shoot up through my neck and rattle inside my ears and skull.
After another hour of climbing, the summit is in sight — and the wide, rolling expanses of untouched powder look absolutely amazing!
By the time I finally make it to the top, Christian is already hard at work digging a pit to test the snowpack conditions and gauge the avalanche risk.
But I’m so tired all I can do is collapse in the snow.
After all that climbing, we’re all itching to go downhill and to carve up all those fresh powder runs.
Before we can ski downhill though, we need to remove the skins from our skis, packing them up carefully, since we’ll be using them again.
Now the fun begins. My friend Kyle goes first and lays down some fresh tracks.
The snow is so light and dry it shrouds us in “cold smoke.”
After another short climb back up, we find another nice stash.
This was one of my favourite runs.
By the time we make it back to the car, the sun is just about ready to set.
The entire trip took six hours, during which we trekked more than 8 miles, and ascended a total of 3,219 feet in cumulative elevation gain.
It was an amazing experience that’s completely different than the ski resort experience most people are used to.
I loved discovering new terrain and all the fresh powder without all the crowds of a resort.
Sure, the amount of downhill skiing is significantly less than what you get at a resort. But backcountry skinning makes you appreciate the other parts of the skiing experience and of the mountain – the sights, smells and tranquility that are often just a passing blur when you’re chaining together as many runs as possible on chairlifts.
Backcountry skinning is definitely not something you can just roll out of bed and do on a whim. It takes planning and serious knowledge of the mountain. And in my case, it took every ounce every strength that I had.
I can’t wait to do it again – once I’m rested.
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