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The Winter in Aspen & Snowmass Guide to Backcountry Basics

Interest in off-resort skiing is surging. Local pros explain how to safely seek your new adventure.

Austin Colbert
For Winter in Aspen & Snowmass
Independence Pass Foundation executive director Karin Teague skins up the road towards the summit on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen’s backcountry skiing possibilities are endless and easily accessible, which is terrific and terrible all at the same time. With the pandemic possibly limiting access to traditional ski mountains, the backcountry is expected to see a lot more traffic this winter.

“It seems to be an overwhelming sentiment that everyone is concerned about the lifts and what that may look like this year, so they wanted to have the freedom of an Alpine touring setup,” said Dirk Bockelman, the general manager at Aspen Expeditions. “A large portion of people buying gear are hoping and wanting to skin on the front sides of the mountains, and they do have an awareness and the wherewithal of the danger in the backcountry in midwinter, and they just want exercise.”

Sales on backcountry gear have reached all-time highs since the March shutdown, with people dropping big money on new touring setups and splitboards that allow them to skip the lift lines and seek out the often unspoiled off-piste terrain. However, the concern is in keeping everyone safe, as even with all the tools and experience, the backcountry can be a very dangerous place.



Colorado has long led the country in avalanche deaths, and Aspen’s Elk Mountains are often a reason why this remains so. The local snowpack is notoriously unstable and the terrain is steep, and as previously stated, so accessible that it’s easy to find trouble.

“Pitkin County by and large leads avalanche fatalities in our country year in and year out,” Bockelman said. “That’s not a great award to have. It’s coupled with the fact that we have so many strong skiers with so much easy access to the backcountry and very steep, committing terrain.”



Aspen’s Colter Hinchliffe, a professional skier who spends an immense amount of time in the backcountry, understands the risks as much as anyone. He expects to have a lot more company in the backcountry this winter and isn’t about to try and deter anyone away. But he does suggest they head in knowing what is at stake.

“Just take it very seriously, because we live in one of the most dangerous places in the world,” Hinchliffe said. “Everyone is preparing for a busy backcountry, which is going to come along with a lot more injuries and probably deaths.”

Still, the backcountry offers opportunities most in-bound terrain cannot, so how does one go about preparing for a journey past the ropes? It all starts with education.


on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

STEP 1: GO TO SNOW SCHOOL

A Level 1 avalanche course is the bare minimum requirement before heading into the backcountry, and Bockelman said pre-bookings for those courses are at an all-time high this year, something he is thankful for as it means people are taking the risks seriously.

“The whole idea behind a Level 1 is to partially scare you to death and partially give you the information you need to not get caught in an avalanche,” Bockelman said. “Certainly more and more people are seeking avalanche education, which is wonderful.”

STEP 2: GEAR UP

After education, it’s about getting the right equipment. A beacon, probe and shovel are essential, and an airbag can save lives. Thirdly, having a knowledgeable and trustworthy partner is crucial to staying safe.

“Get the training, get the gear, and then get experience by treading slowly,” Bockelman said. “It’s not about jumping into the biggest, deepest lines that you can maybe ski based on your ability. That can be better left for the spring, when we have a different snowpack and things stabilize and become safer.”

STEP 3: HAVE FUN

To book a guided backcountry tour, contact local outfits like Aspen Alpine Guides (970-925-6618; aspenalpine.com) and Aspen Expeditions (970-925-7625; aspenexpeditions.com).


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