Words & Pictures By: Kristina Ciari
Alpine ski touring (AT), most commonly known as backcountry skiing, is the love child of winter hiking and downhill skiing. Using specialized equipment, you hike uphill – all with your boots and skis on – then glide downhill to your heart’s content. Even though the hiking to skiing ratio is not favorable, earning your turns is significantly more rewarding and we promise you’ll love it.
Let us help you plan your backcountry adventure — Miyar Adventures offers Intro to Backcountry Skiing courses with classroom instruction and skills-based day-trips as well as Guided Alpine Touring Trips for all skill levels.
Here’s our definitive guide to help you get started on your ski touring journey.
Booming in popularity, it’s easy to see why so many people are flocking to alpine touring. Backcountry ski (and snowboard!) enthusiasts love the ability to see new places, venture off the beaten path, find fresh tracks, and get a great workout. You also join a community of winter enthusiasts, some of whom ski every month of the year. Volcano season, offering glorious spring corn skiing from April-June, will soon become your favorite time of year. Plus, when it’s raining in town, you have a reason to be optimistic: snow in the mountains.
The Pacific Northwest enjoys a maritime snowpack, which is largely more stable than continental snowpack due to the high water content. Mountains of all sizes and difficulty abound, and it’s easy to find an adventure no matter the scale. We have a number of glaciated peaks in this area, offering opportunities to ski year round (check out Turns All Year to learn more). Depending on your tolerance for suffering, you can ski the Muir Snowfield, in Mount Rainier National Park, any month of the year.
Alpine Touring comes with a whole set of new gear that’s transformable to allow for range of motion on the uphill and locked-in performance on the down. Assuming you already have the basics (coat, gloves, goggles, helmet, etc), you will need AT boots, bindings, and skis to get started. If you’re a snowboarder, you can use the boots you have with a splitboard and touring bindings, plus you’ll need a pair of collapsible ski poles. Everyone needs skins. Sticky on one side and hairy on the other side, skins give you purchase on the snow, offering a smooth glide in one direction and high-friction on the other. Everyone also needs a beacon, shovel, and probe (and a class to know how to use them, more on that below). You’ll also want a backpack big enough to carry all of this stuff, plus your extra layers, snacks, and emergency gear designed around your objective.
Rent all the ski touring gear you need at our sister shop in Ballard, Ascent Outdoors!
In addition to being super fun, alpine touring in the backcountry is also dangerous. Twice as many people died last winter in avalanches than in the previous year. Before you jump into the backcountry, you need to complete AIARE I, a three-day, 24-hour introductory course to avalanche hazard management. In this course you’ll learn about terrain selection, how to read different snow conditions and understand what weather patterns are most likely to lead to an avalanche, and how to mitigate for heuristic traps with your partners.
And before you venture off-piste, you should be reasonably competent on the slopes. Experienced backcountry enthusiasts generally agree that you should be a solid black diamond skier in bounds before venturing out, at least in winter. It’s surprisingly easy to find yourself in a tricky place, and you need to be confident skiing and transitioning in variable conditions. The good news is: our area offers lots of safe places to practice touring during ski season and beyond.
The Pacific Northwest is a smorgasbord of delectable slopes, many reasonably close to Seattle. For the safest tour, and for a great place to try out your gear if you’re new to the sport, we recommend a trip up to Snoqualmie Pass. When the ski resorts are closed, you can easily tour around Summit or Hyak right from the parking lot. Stay in bounds for safe skiing conditions at easy to intermediate levels.
Once you’ve mastered the black diamond runs and are ready to venture off-piste, check out the many side-country options available from Alpental. From Chair 2 you can access a huge, unpatrolled area called Black Bowls. As with any backcountry trip, keep your wits about you and your partner(s) close in this black to double black diamond terrain.
For fun backcountry terrain further afield, head to Mt. Baker and check out the Blueberry Chutes in winter. You can visit this terrain either by chairlift or by hiking from the parking lot. The chutes are short laps, offering great practice for transitions and the opportunity to get as much vert as you want in relatively easy terrain.
In the spring and summer, visit Mt. Baker to ski laps at Artist Point. When the road opens, you can do a car shuttle to the top, then take a short walk to ski back down. You’ll make instant friends if you show up with a pickup truck. Keep in mind that difficulty is variable depending on your slope selection and weather patterns – one day you might find easy blue runs and the next challenging double black diamonds.
And lastly, the classic standby any time of year is the Muir Snowfield. In winter you can ski from the parking lot, and in the summer you may have to hike more than 2,000 vertical feet before you get to the snow, but there’s always snow somewhere. Drive to the Paradise parking lot and follow the standard climbing route up. If you go all the way to Camp Muir you’ll cover 5,400 vertical feet in 4.5 miles (9 miles roundtrip). But, you don’t have to go all the way. Go as far as you want then turn around, or lap a particularly delightful patch of snow. The biggest hazard here is weather, particularly disorienting whiteout conditions, so always double check the cloud level and weather conditions before you go. The skiing is generally blue square, but keep in mid that you pass through Panorama Point to get to the snowfield, which is considered advanced.
RESOURCES: For more information on the best places to go, check out Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: Washington. You can also find a number of resources, trip reports, and a partner finder at Turns All Year. Should you find yourself in need of advice on how to dress regardless of the season, check out these tips for backcountry layering.