Beginner Guide to Backcountry Skiing from Tahoe Mountain Sports
Ready to ditch the lifts and earn your turns in the backcountry? Here is the Tahoe Mountain Sports guide for getting started backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry is an inherently dangerous activity and good safety gear and knowledge can help you manage the risk but never eliminate it completely. With that in mind, here are a few tips to make your backcountry experience safe and enjoyable.
First off is safety gear. A Shovel, probe, and beacon are mandatory for yourself and every member of your party. Together, these three items and the knowledge of how to use them allow you to locate and rescue a victim buried in an avalanche. That being said, having every piece of safety gear in existence will not do you any good without the knowledge of how to use them. Also, knowing how to use your gear is no substitute for experience and prudent decision making in the backcountry. A book like Snow Sense is a good start, but a book cannot match the value of training in the field that a certified avalanche safety course offers. We here at Tahoe Mountain Sports strongly recommend taking a course from Alpine Skills International, or another AIRE certified course provider and always checking your local avalanche report. For the northern sierras, check out The Sierra Avalanche Center.
Other than a Shovel, probe, and beacon, all of the other gear mentioned on this page is optional and can be selected by personal preference or your budget, but these three items are absolutely mandatory for anyone traveling in avalanche terrain and are the first gear you need before attempting any backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
An avalanche beacon or transceiver is a device that uses radio waves to help locate a victim of an avalanche. Most of the time beacons are transmitting a pulsed radio signal that another skilled beacon user can home in on and locate a beacon that is transmitting. In the event of an avalanche burial, everyone who is not a victim of the slide turns their beacon over to search mode to avoid being confused with a victim and commences a search. There are many brands on the market today and they all work on the same 457khz frequency, so any beacon can be used to locate any other beacon regardless of the manufacturer. The only exception are beacons that operate on the old 2.25khz frequency. These models were designed prior to the international 457khz standard being adopted in 1986 and should be retired. Tahoe Mountain Sports carries top quality transceivers from Pieps and Mammut. The Pieps DSP and Mammut Pulse Barryvox are top of the line three antenna digital beacons that are as accurate and easy to use as anything on the market. For skiers and snowboarders on a budget, the new single antenna Pieps Freeride, is a great option. However, it is limited by the single antenna, so plan on extra practice to become proficient searching with it.
Shovels and probes are used for locating and extracting an avalanche victim once you have found their approximate position using your beacon. It is important that a probe be strong, light, and easy to deploy in an emergency. Tahoe Mountain Sports carries probes from Mammut, Black Diamond, and Komperdell. Shovels also need to be light, strong and easy to deploy in the event of an avalanche rescue. Shovel blades are made of plastic or metal, usually aluminum. We recommend a metal blade for cutting through heavy avalanche debris. Tahoe Mountain Sports carries shovels from Mammut, Black Diamond, and Komperdell, all of the shovels we carry have metal blades except for the Komperdell Avalanche Shovel Carbon, which has a carbon fiber blade for those users that are counting every ounce.
Now that we have covered basic safety equipment, its time to go over transportation. There are many ways to get from the bottom of a run to the top, varying from simply bootpacking to skinning, snowshoeing, and snowmobiles. The most popular and easiest way to cover ground in the backcountry for skiers is with a set of alpine touring bindings and skins. Alpine Touring or AT bindings have a mechanism that allows the user to lift their heel like a nordic or telemark binding for climbing, and lock the heel down like an apline binding for the decent. TMS carries the Fritschi Diamir Freeride Plus AT Bindings , a binding design that has been refined over years into one of the best all around AT bindings on the market. Skins, have glue on one side to stick to ski bases and a special fabric on the other that has all the fibers running the same way. This makes them glide forward easily, but prevents the ski from slipping backwards. Together, skins and AT or Telemark bindings are the most efficient way of ascending moderately steep slopes in the backcountry. Apline Touring bindings can be mounted on any ski, but an ideal backcountry ski is lightweight while still being stiff enough to handle a variety of conditions. The Black Diamond Verdict is a great choice for a do it all backcountry ski. It is light enough to allow you to skin long distances while still being wide enough to float in powder and stiff enough to not get knocked around in variable conditions. For snowboarders, your options are either MSR Snowshoes, or better yet, a splitboard.
After you have all your gear in order and have taken your avalanche safety course from Alpine Skills International, or another AIRE certified course provider and have checked your local avalanche report, its time to get out and do some skiing. There are many ways to find backcountry spots to ski, and part of the fun is exploring and finding new spots on your own, but there are several books and websites that can give you an idea where to start. Our own Lake Tahoe Backcountry page has the basics for a few of our local spots here in the Tahoe basin. Also, check out the new book Backcountry Skiing California’s Eastern Sierra for in depth information on hundreds of lines in the Eastern Sierra. Most of the routes in this book are going to be above the skill level of someone just getting into backcountry skiing, but will give you a lot of ideas of what to work up to. Do your homework, but don’t forget that there is no substitute for experience and knowledge of local weather and snowpack conditions and above all else stay safe out there!
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