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Sidecountry and Slackcountry Skiing Thoughts

skier getting air in the powdery trees

It is a growing trend in skiing from my perspective to see people out sidecountry and slackcountry skiing. I will simply use side country from here on out as I cant quite figure out the difference between the two. When I look up the definition on the internet you access both from a resort, but in slack country you don’t hike for your turns, or is it don’t use skins? Some day I will figure it out. For now I am sticking with Sidecountry. The thoughts I would like to explore are what should we carry, what is our responsibility to our partners and others, and what are the expectations of other skiers and ski patrol. I am also going to look at the simple fact of touring bindings and skins vs. regular alpine gear and no skins.

I have been skiing a fair amount in the East Vail Chutes over the past few years as my son Oz is in the DEVO (Development Race Program) at Vail and I seem to find myself there more than the backcountry these days. I have noticed an increase in numbers heading out to the chutes as well as a larger number of solo skiers or groups with no avy gear. A common phrase I hear when inquiring if there are skiing without a partner or gear is, “We’ll be safe and ski something not too dangerous”. This makes me think. I am all for people having their own adventure and going off on their own to make some turns. It is the individuals decision and they can be responsible for themselves. It is great if they have a backcountry kit (skins, beacon, shovel, probe, and perhaps even a floatation pack) on them, but this would be to help others and not necessarily themselves.

The group of skiers with no avalanche gear is easier to discuss and think about. What are they thinking? Is it they see so many others going out it must be safe? Is it they have been back there so often and no slides happened it must be safe? Do they even have any avalanche training? I have heard people say they have skied it before, they will be safe, it is only the Mushroom Bowl, or simply they thought it was still the area and they wanted to ski powder. I made a resolution to myself a few years ago to always at least talk to people who were in my opinion doing something dangerous. People can make their own decisions about safety and self preservation, but I would like them to at least have an understanding there is a danger and they may die. Can the ski areas, in this case Vail, do a better job of education as to the hazards and where people are going? I am not sure. There is a sign, but it is a ways up the trail and there is no beacon tester or official gate to go through. Another version is the lone person or friend who wants to come along, but has no avalanche gear. To this I simply say no. I do not ever want the responsibility of telling anyone I agreed to let a person come along who did not have avalanche gear. 

It is my opinion that there should at least be a sign that states what gear is recommended if you are going to the sidecountry and perhaps even that the terrain may take you to East Vail. Perhaps this would discourage a few from getting into something they will regret.

Both groups (the soloists and the avalanche equipment less) should at least not simply follow those in front of them. I assume they believe the group in front of them knows where they are going and it is safe. It is not, and you never know how big a cliff others are willing to go over, or a big cornice they are willing to ski under.

So there scenarios are pretty clear cut in my mind. It is all about choices. Something I have been struggling with is the decision to go into the sidecountry with standard alpine gear and no touring bindings or skins. It appears pretty easy, you hike up in your boots, and then click in and ski  down. What happens if you have skied down and the second person, and only other in your group, triggers an avalanche. How will you get up to them? Bootpack? It would take an eternity, and in reality we have about 20 minutes. There could be a smaller problem like your buddy looses a ski. How are you going to help them? With the advent of new touring bindings (Fritschi, Marker, and the new MFD) it is simpler than ever to have a good downhill binding that can also tour. If you have touring bindings, you can help your buddy find a ski, or save his or her life in an avalanche.

What do you think?

Any thoughts on the best bindings?

Mike Alkaitis
Colorado Mountain School Senior Guide

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