Tag Archive for: backcountry safety

What Gear Do I Need to Come to Bluebird Backcountry?

There are ski patrollers but no lifts? Gear rentals but no heated cafeterias? As the first backcountry-only ski area in the US, Bluebird Backcountry kind of created its own category of outdoor adventure zone. So, if you have some questions on what exactly you need to bring to ski or ride at Bluebird, you’re not alone. 

To help you prepare, we created the ultimate Bluebird Backcountry packing list.

 

Opt for a 25-35 liter pack with a good hipbelt. How else are you going to carry all those dog treats? Photo: Kathryn Ciamaichelo 

A Good Backpack

Your packing list starts with a good backpack. Backcountry safety is all about winter self-sufficiency, and that means having a system to carry the essentials with you. We recommend a pack with a wide, sturdy hipbelt to take the load and keep your shoulders from getting sore. A good hiking pack will do, but most backcountry skiers and splitboarders strongly prefer a backcountry touring pack with dedicated compartments for avalanche gear. 

  • A 25- to 35-liter pack 

Avalanche Safety Equipment 

Bluebird Backcountry is patrolled by some of the best snow safety experts in the biz. We close slopes that we evaluate to have high avalanche risk. However, Bluebird still sits somewhere between resorts and wilderness on the spectrum of avalanche safety. Whenever there’s even the slightest concern about snow conditions, it’s best practice to bring a full avy safety kit. To ski or ride at Bluebird, you must bring the following gear (avalanche safety gear is also available for rent at our base area): 

  • Avalanche beacon (required)
  • Avalanche probe (required)
  • Avalanche shovel (required) 

Avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel are required at Bluebird. Plus you’ll need them to win cool prizes in our rescue drill contests! Photo: Doug McLennan

The Big Essentials 

Now for the fun stuff. You can rent the following gear at Bluebird or bring your own.

  • Boots (make sure any ski boots have a walk mode; regular snowboard boots are compatible with splitboard bindings) 
  • Skis or splitboard with AT bindings 
  • Collapsible poles
  • Skins 

Warm Layers

A big part of having fun and learning effectively in the backcountry is knowing how to stay comfortable in cold and variable weather. That all comes down to smart layering. We recommend wearing and/or packing the following. 

  • Wool or synthetic baselayer bottoms
  • Wool or synthetic baselayer top 
  • Ski socks
  • Wool or synthetic undies
  • Neck gaiter
  • Warm hat
  • Lightweight touring gloves
  • Warm mittens or downhill gloves
  • Wool or synthetic midlayer
  • Softshell pants (or hardshell pants with zippers for venting)
  • A waterproof shell jacket
  • A warm puffy jacket for stops and emergencies
  • An insulated vest or lightweight puffy

A good hardshell jacket, like the Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell, pictured, blocks wind and keeps out snow while you shred. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Other Essentials 

Stay comfortable over a full day outdoors by packing these important odds and ends. 

  • Face mask
  • Sunhat
  • Chapstick
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Goggles

Food and Water

Bluebird Backcountry has lots of great food offerings at our base area this year. Think giant s’mores, chili, and breakfast burritos. However, it’s always good practice to throw a few things in your pack to keep you fueled on the skintrack. (If you forget, you can stop by the Bluebird Base Area, where we offer snacks from local brands like Patter Bars, Kate’s Real Food Bars, Upqua Oats, Mike’s Mighty Ramen, and Honeystinger.) We also recommend bringing warm beverages—they make it easier to stay hydrated in the cold. 

Fuel up between runs with giant s’mores at the Bluebird base area. Photo: Doug McLennan

Emergency Safety Gear 

We also recommend getting into the habit of packing these backcountry essentials, too, which will give you an extra layer of security in the true backcountry. (However, thanks to our staff of trained patrollers, this gear is less critical at Bluebird Backcountry and isn’t required.) 

  • Extra batteries for your beacon
  • Headlamp 
  • First-aid kit
  • Repair kit 
  • Satellite beacon (PLB)
  • Backcountry radios 
  • Emergency shelter or safety blanket 
  • Spare socks
  • Spare gloves
  • A helmet (not required at Bluebird, but recommended)

Softshell pants, lightweight gloves, and a synthetic midlayer are usually perfect for skinning in Colorado’s typical dry snow conditions. Photo: Doug McLennan

 

Lessons from a Lifetime Spent in the Colorado Snowpack

Picture it: it’s the mid-1990s, and Summit County is getting yet another record-setting storm. There’s relatively little traffic on I-70, so getting up to Breckenridge, Keystone, or Copper Mountain is an easy trip. If you’re a snow-loving kid growing up in Denver, things are as good as it gets. 

For Lucas Mouttet, that was reality. He spent those snow-heavy La Niña years ripping laps at the Summit County ski areas, and when it was time to head off to college, Lucas wasn’t ready to leave the Colorado mountains behind. So he enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he studied microbiology and immunology. 

With the ski areas along the I-70 corridor now 90 minutes farther away, Lucas started looking for a closer mountain fix for his weekends. That’s how he discovered backcountry skiing at Cameron Pass.

“I would bootpack up by myself,” he recalls. “Then I read an article in the local paper where someone made a comment about the ‘idiots’ doing exactly that.” When two people were killed in separate avalanches in the very spot where Lucas had been skiing solo, he realized he needed to learn more about how to travel safely in the backcountry. 

The Bluebird Avalanche Education Director, Lucas Mouttet, in action.

Though backcountry skiing was on the rise, it hadn’t yet gained the level of popularity we see today, so Lucas had to get creative to get an avalanche education. He chatted up brand reps at the local gear shop to learn more. In 2006, he started working with the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol, which acts as a search-and-rescue group and teaches avalanche courses in the Cameron Pass area. 

The following season, Lucas completed his Instructor Training Course with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the industry standard for avalanche education curriculum. But he didn’t stop at completing the certification—he continued checking out snowpacks around the world, climbing and skiing across the United States, South America, and Europe. (His favorite place to ski, aside from his home state, is British Columbia.) In 2016, Lucas launched Never Summer Outdoor School, which conducts avalanche and wilderness medicine courses in Colorado and Wyoming. 

Today, Lucas is the Bluebird Avalanche Program Director, and he oversees each of the AIARE courses offered at Bear Mountain. In addition to managing Bluebird’s staff of qualified AIARE instructors and communicating with students, this also means honing avalanche curriculum, scouting out the best spots for courses to bring students to teach them as much as possible about the snow, and sometimes acting as course leader. (And, since Bluebird is a startup, it also means plenty of “other duties as assigned.”) 

When he’s not playing in the snow with his students, Lucas is likely playing in the snow with his family. He, his wife, and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10 (the older of whom has already skied West Bowl at Bluebird this season), live just down the road from Bluebird Backcountry in Steamboat Springs, where they spend as much time as possible together on the slopes. 

Lucas’ best tip for spending long days outside? “A hot drink in a thermos,” he says, without hesitation. “I probably go through 10 boxes of Yogi Egyptian Licorice tea every winter.” 

Lucas and his family spend as much time as possible on the slopes together.

Sign up for your AIARE course at Bluebird

Keep an eye out for a future post on Lucas’ tips for showing up fully prepared to your AIARE avalanche course!

Quiz: Which Backcountry Lesson Is Right For You?

At Bluebird Backcountry, our philosophy is that it’s easier to learn about avalanche safety—a crucial component of backcountry education—when you already know the basics. That theory is rooted in a core tenet of experiential education called the hierarchy of needs. This idea was developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, and posits that our basic needs (food, shelter, water) must be met before humans can move onto more complex endeavors (in this case, snow science). 

That’s why Bluebird introduced the backcountry lesson during our first season in February 2020. After the huge success of that lesson, our education team decided to expand. Now, you can sign up for all kinds of Bluebird educational offerings, all of which are designed to help get you ready for an avalanche course by giving you a strong foundation of both technical skills and backcountry confidence.

Take this quiz to figure out which Bluebird Backcountry lesson is right for you.

First, tell us about yourself.

How many times have you been backcountry skiing or splitboarding? 

A – Zero! This will be my first time.

B – Just once. 

C – A handful of times.

D – I’ve been quite a few times, but never taken an avalanche course.

E – I’ve been touring for 1+ years and have taken my Rec 1 avalanche course.

 

How familiar are you with your touring gear? 

A – Not at all. If something went wrong, I’m not sure I’d know!

B – A little. I can transition without help. 

C – Pretty familiar. I know what everything’s called and what it does, but I couldn’t fix anything if it broke.

D – Very. But I could probably be more efficient at using it. 

E – Very. I am ready to learn more about the gear needed for more technical or multi-day tours.

 

How long are you comfortable being outside in the winter backcountry? 

A – I have no idea! I’ve been snowshoeing or skiing at a resort, but I know this is different. I’m not sure what to expect. 

B – Most of a day, especially since I know there are warming huts on the mountain.

C – I know how to stay warm and hydrated, so I’m mostly confident for a full day outside.

D – I’m a seasoned winter athlete. I’ll stay out as long as it takes to get in a bunch of laps!

E – I’m very comfortable with long single day tours and looking to plan multi-day trips.

 

Quick: Moguls, groomers, or steep couloirs?

A – I’m still working on tackling ungroomed terrain—my comfort zone is that sweet, sweet corduroy.

B – I’m ready for some medium-sized bumps, but I’m not sure about icy spots or obstacles. 

C – I’m comfortable on just about anything at the resort.

D – I’m ready for whatever conditions the backcountry can throw at me. 

E – I’m a strong rider, comfortable in backcountry snow conditions on slopes 35º or steeper.

 

Are you comfortable using maps to plan a route and follow it? 

A – Maybe, if I’ll be on trails the whole time.

B – I think I can identify avalanche terrain, but I’m not super confident yet.

C – Most of the time. I can even set a decent skin track! 

D – Oh yeah. I’m a pro at using my Gaia GPS app

E – I’m great at using mapping applications and want to learn more about translating the map to in-person terrain and navigation.

If you got…

 

Mostly As

Backcountry 1: Intro to Backcountry

Our classic Intro to Backcountry lesson is geared toward brand-new backcountry skiers and riders and folks who have only clicked into their AT bindings a handful of times. You’ll get to know your touring and rescue gear and learn basic skinning techniques, backcountry etiquette, Leave No Trace best practices, and how to transition from uphill to downhill. 

You’ll leave this course acquainted with your gear and ready to hone your backcountry skills. At the end of the three-hour (half-day) lesson, your instructor will make a personalized recommendation for the next step in your backcountry journey. Then you can decide whether to take another lap or head back to the base area for a s’more.

Book Your Backcountry 1 Lesson

 

Mostly Bs

Backcountry 2: Backcountry Skills

This lesson is geared toward skiers and splitboarders who have spent several days on touring gear and are comfortable with their equipment and basic skinning techniques. In Backcountry 2,  you’ll learn best practices for staying comfortable in the remote backcountry (including basic equipment troubleshooting), develop more efficient skinning techniques for varying terrain, and improve your downhill technique in variable conditions, which requires very different movement skills  from typical in-bounds skiing or snowboarding. 

You’ll leave this course knowing how to prepare for a day in the backcountry, and with better uphill and downhill technique. At the end of this lesson, your instructor will make a personalized recommendation for the next step in your backcountry journey.

Book Your Backcountry 2 Lesson

 

Mostly Cs

Backcountry 3: Navigation & Avalanche Prep

You’re so close! The final installment in our three-lesson Backcountry Progression is the bridge between the skills you’ve already learned and your avalanche education. This lesson is geared towards folks who are familiar with their touring gear, can skin uphill in terrain of varying steepness, and can comfortably ski or splitboard most of the terrain at Bluebird Backcountry. It covers mapping, navigation, and trip planning basics and introduces how to make useful observations about current conditions, as well as more advanced skinning and downhill movement. 

You’ll leave this course feeling prepared to learn about avalanches and how to avoid them. Most importantly, you’ll know enough about backcountry travel that you’ll be able to focus on what matters in your AIARE course.

Book Your Backcountry 3 Lesson

 

Mostly Ds

Continuing Ed

Sounds like you’ve got some backcountry experience under your belt, and you’re ready to sign up for an AIARE avalanche course. If you’ve got some time before your AIARE 1 sign on for a Ski with a Mentor session, which is basically a short private lesson where you can pick your mentor’s brain on the skills you’re looking to improve. 

 

Mostly Es

Advanced Courses

You’ve taken your AIARE Rec 1 avalanche course and are ready to keep building your toolbox of backcountry skills. Refresh your knowledge at the beginning of the season by joining an Avy Refresher Course. Once you’ve brushed up on avy skills, keep practicing by taking one of our new advanced courses like Ski Mountaineering 1 or Winter Emergency Skills! We recommend starting with Backcountry 4 – Reading Terrain and Leadership and Communication, then pick from any of the other exciting advanced courses that interest you. 

 

Use this handy flowchart to help you choose the best backcountry lesson or advanced course for you.

Why You Should Take a Backcountry Lesson Before Your Avalanche Course

For years, newcomers to the backcountry have faced a chicken-or-egg conundrum: Should I take a backcountry lesson to learn to backcountry ski or splitboard, then take an avalanche course? Or do I need to have an avalanche course under my belt before I go off piste? 

They’re good questions—you’re certainly more equipped to make smart decisions in the backcountry once you’ve taken an avalanche course, but it’s a daunting proposition (and a big investment) to sign on for a three-day course when you’ve never been in the backcountry before. 

So Which Comes First: Avy Course or Backcountry Lesson?

At Bluebird Backcountry, our philosophy is that it’s easier to learn about avalanches when you’re not figuring out your gear for the first time or working hard to keep up with the group. That’s why our team of education experts has developed a progression of backcountry lessons geared toward folks who are new to the backcountry and preparing for their first avalanche courses.

The bottom line? You’ll get more out of your course once you get the basics down. 

Here’s what you should know before you take your avalanche course. 

How to Use Your Backcountry Gear

A backcountry skier performs a beacon check on a snowy hillside

Knowing some basics (like a beacon check) will go a long way when you’re trying to learn about avalanche safety.  Photo: Patrick Woods

Where do I carry my transceiver? How do these bindings work? Wait, my boots have a “walk mode”? 

You’ll want to make sure you know the answers by the first day of your AIARE course. That way you can focus on the curriculum—backcountry decision-making, identifying hazardous terrain, and snow science basics. 

Bluebird’s Backcountry 1 course covers all the basics of gear and backcountry transitions. At Bluebird, you can either rent gear or get to know your own on your backcountry lesson.  

How to Tour (and Ski or Ride) Efficiently

Two backcountry skiers move quickly along a frozen skin track during a lesson

Learning efficient skinning techniques before the first day of your AIARE course means you’ll have an easier time keeping up with your group.

Getting to the top is a little (okay, very) different when you’re getting there under your own power rather than on a lift. Once you’ve learned the basics, it’s a lot like hiking. But it takes some getting used to, and the technique is easier to learn when there’s a pro showing you the ropes.

The same goes for skiing or riding downhill. There’s no grooming in the backcountry, which means the terrain is a lot more variable. That, too, takes some getting used to—it’s not like skiing groomers or even moguls. You’ll have a much easier time keeping up with the rest of your AIARE cohort if you’re already familiar with good technique and backcountry snow conditions

How to Be Self-Sufficient in Winter Weather

A skier on a backcountry skiing lesson drinks water from a nalgene water bottle in winter

Self-care in the backcountry is a skill, too.  Photo: John LaGuardia

At a traditional ski area, you can head into the lodge to warm up, grab a snack, or hydrate. While there are warming huts (and delicious snacks) available at Bluebird Backcountry, you can think of Bluebird like a transition zone. None of those amenities will be available once you head into the backcountry proper.

You’ll want to know how to take care of yourself (and what snacks to pack) in the winter wilderness by the time you embark on your AIARE course. That’s why Bluebird instructors spend time covering self-care and backcountry tips and tricks in our backcountry lessons

This season, Bluebird Backcountry is offering Backcountry 1, 2, and 3 lessons to move students from never-ever to AIARE-ready (keep an eye out for a future post to help you determine which lesson is right for you). Ready to get started? Book your backcountry lesson here.

A group of backcountry skiers enjoy their backcountry skiing lesson

Backcountry 101 students hit the skintrack.  Photo: John LaGuardia

 

Is it Safe to Snowboard or Ski in a Pandemic?

As ski areas open and COVID-19 cases continue to rise, even the most diehard snowsports fans among us are starting to ask: Is it responsible, or even safe, to snowboard or ski in a pandemic? What’s safer—ski resorts, or the backcountry? Or, for that matter, a backcountry ski area like Bluebird, which is a hybrid between the two? 

Competing Safety Concerns: Avalanches and COVID-19

From an avalanche perspective, it’s hard to beat the thorough mitigation and avalanche bombing that a traditional ski resort can provide. And crowding at popular backcountry trailheads is certainly a concern, says Anna DeBattiste with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. That’s one reason that resorts—and their mandatory reservation systems—could look particularly appealing to skiers and snowboarders this year.

“We have last March as a barometer [for the way this ski season could look],” DeBattiste explains. “We saw a lot of crowding and lack of basic etiquette at trailheads.”

 

Backcountry skiers follow a popular skin track in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

Colorado’s popular beginner areas in particular can see a number of parties all at once.

 

She also notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a surge in interest in backcountry skiing and splitboarding this year. That could exacerbate crowding problems. It’s also possible that more users could result in more human-triggered avalanches. This is especially true in a state as notorious for its unstable snowpack as Colorado.

“The number of human-triggered avalanches we have is based on the avalanche conditions and the number of people out there,” explains Ethan Greene. Greene is the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, or CAIC. “If we have normal conditions [for Colorado], and we have more people in the backcountry, you’d logically expect that we’d have more human-triggered avalanches than we do in a typical year,” he says.

 

A backcountry skier hikes up a remote snow chute in the Rocky Mountains.

When expert skiers hike deeper into avalanche terrain to escape crowds, that can also lead to more accidents.

 

Why Resorts Might Not Be Safer in a Pandemic

Even the resort solution isn’t a COVID-19 failsafe, says Bob Tierney, a patroller with over 20 years of experience at resorts. He currently manages avalanche mitigation at Bluebird Backcountry.

“At the resort, people are used to restrooms and getting a hot meal,” he notes. Because of that, Tierney predicts that there won’t be much change in the way people congregate at traditional ski areas, even with resort reservation systems in place.  

“Even if you make the choice to avoid the lodge and ride the lifts only with members of your household, you can’t escape the lift lines,” DeBattiste adds. “We’ve been promoting uphilling at ski resorts [as an alternative], though some resorts have made their uphill policies more restrictive this year.” (You can find more information about specific resorts’ policies on their websites.) 

 

Skiers crowd around a ski lift at a ski resort.

“You can’t escape the lift line.”

 

How to Safely Backcountry Ski in a Pandemic

 The third option: heading to a controlled backcountry ski area. At these locations, avalanche professionals help mitigate natural hazards, and reservation systems and spaced-out bathrooms prevent crowding bottlenecks. Plus, no lifts means no waiting in lift lines. (As of writing, Bluebird Backcountry is the only backcountry-specific ski area in the US.) 

 “We have it set up so you just don’t have a lot of people breathing down your neck,” Tierney says of Bluebird’s base layout. “‘Space not speed’ is our mantra here.”

More experienced skiers and splitboarders can also escape the crowds in the unpatrolled backcountry by opting for weekday laps, driving to more remote trailheads, or skinning deeper into the wilderness.

Greene urges these users to keep in mind that, though it might be COVID-safer, the backcountry poses the same issues this year as it does every year.

“The people who are more experienced are just as susceptible, or in some cases more susceptible than beginners. because these are people who tend to go into avalanche terrain a lot,” Greene adds. “On top of that, they’re just as susceptible as other people when it comes to making decisions in high-stress environments. That could mean whiteout conditions, or getting into an argument with your significant other as you walked out the door that day.”

Pile on the stresses that come from living during the COVID-19 pandemic, and you’re dealing with a lot more human factors in your decision-making. 

 

Two backcountry skiers climb to the top of a remote mountain ridge.

The deep backcountry offers valuable solitude, but more objective hazards.

 

Backcountry skiers and splitboarders need to have their winter navigation skills, avalanche awareness, and outdoor self-sufficiency dialed before venturing out on their own.

“The first thing you need to do is get the education,” DeBattiste recommends, urging backcountry skiers and splitboarders to take an AIARE course (or at minimum an avalanche awareness course) and practice beacon drills until they’re rote memory.

Gaining Backcountry Experience

However, education alone isn’t enough to make you a backcountry expert. The other critical piece is getting out and accruing backcountry experience under the supervision of an experienced mentor, says DeBattiste. She adds that skiers and splitboarders should make sure their mentor understands the particular hazards of the local snowpack. (Snowpack hazards can vary widely between states and regions of the US.) 

You can hire a professional backcountry skiing guide through your local guide service, or, at Bluebird, sign up for a guided day or lesson with backcountry experts.

If any year is the year to invest in your education and play it safe, this is it, says DeBattiste.

“It’s great for people to get out into the backcountry as long as they’re doing it responsibly,” she says. “This year, be part of the solution.”