Tag Archive for: backcountry touring

Where to Find Summer Backcountry Turns in North America

If skinning in a t-shirt, and wearing running shoes for half of the approach to your objective sounds like an ideal day in the mountains, then plan a summer backcountry ski/snowboard tour immediately. For the diehard snow lovers, and those who prefer warm weather turns, the on-snow season never ends in North America — put in a little extra effort and you can find yourself exploring the mountains on your skis or snowboard in the middle of summer. Here are six lines to consider for your next backcountry skiing/snowboarding tour:

1. Saint Mary’s Glacier, Colorado

Looking for a proper summer ski adventure? Look no further than Saint Mary’s Glacier. This area conveniently sits north of I-70 in Colorado and requires a long approach and steep hike to earn your turns. Saint Mary’s ‘Glacier’ is not a true glacier, but rather a semi-permanent snowfield that, on a good year, holds snow well into the summer season.

2. Skyscraper Glacier, Colorado

One of the best things about Colorado is how easy it is to access high elevation lines. The Skyscraper Glacier is one of those lines. Located in the Front Range of Colorado, west of Nederland, this 700-foot line usually holds snow all year. While you’ll need to time the descent correctly (it’s South-South East facing with lots of sun exposure), you can get in multiple laps if you plan the day wisely.

Skyscraper Glacier is steep, spicy and well worth the uphill work. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

3. Grizzly Peak’s North Couloir, Colorado

If you’re in search of a less crowded backcountry adventure in Colorado that includes sliding downhill on whatever board you fancy, Grizzly Peak is the right choice. Colorado’s highest 13er provides less people than the 14,000 foot peaks, and still gives you the feeling of being on top of the world. This couloir typically holds snow into the summer, and offers around 1,300 vertical feet of steep riding for your descent.

4. Lamb’s Slide, Colorado

Located on the flanks of what some may call the crown jewel of Colorado, Longs Peak, sits Lamb’s Slide: a couloir arm that runs off the Mills Glacier with 1,200 vertical feet of rideable snow (depending on conditions). The 9-mile excursion offers some of the best views of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, plus a steep and fun ascent of the Lamb’s Slide line that you’ll descend back down.

Even in the summer, Mount Shasta typically has wide open, snow-filled bowls. Photo: Jimmy Howe on Mount Shasta in 2017.

5. Mount Shasta, California

The snowfield between the Hotlum and Wintun Glaciers on Mount Shasta’s east face typically holds snow well into the summer and provides a sustained, steep ride back down. If it’s been a good winter and the weather cooperates, you can have some of the best turns of the whole season with three to four thousand vertical feet of corn snow. Shasta’s summit is 14,162 feet – and while that easily compares to many Colorado peaks, you start at a significantly lower elevation; so it’s a great place to prepare for bigger mountain objectives.

6. Mount Rainier, Washington

Washington state’s highest peak, whose summit sits at 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier requires good navigation skills to select the best route and avoid the numerous cravasses on Paradise Glacier. Consider finding a guide service for this climb if you don’t have experience with ski mountaineering. Once you summit, there’s multiple options for riding down, all of which will likely deliver an awesome adventure and opportunity to explore the alpine and use your boards during the peak of summer.

All smiles and stoke as fellow Bluebird, Kat Chiamaichelo and her partner summit Torreys Peak in June. Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

If your backcountry setup is packed away, or your boots are too worn out from a winter of human-powered turns, there’s a few great lift operations in North America that stay open into the summer season. Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon is open June – September, with a lift taking you up to the Palmer Glacier. Mammoth Mountain in California is another good option for a multi-sport adventure including summer snow shredding. They close June 5th for the regular season of on-snow operations, but plan to be open the weekend of July 4th for boarding/skiing and a general fun time on snow mid-summer. You can even explore some backcountry tours outside Mammoth before or after taking advantage of the ski lifts.

The Bluebird crew enjoys aprés drinks and summer costumes post tour. Photo: Ti Eversole

Summer touring can be some of the most fun days of the whole season, and the hours you have to enjoy a beverage with friends post-tour typically get longer and sillier (as pictured above). It may feel like all fun and games, but don’t forget to stay aware if you venture onto the snow this summer. While snowpack conditions generally stabilize in the warmer months, timing is everything and avalanches still happen. Make sure your have avalanche training, an understanding of the current snowpack conditions, and are aware that the snow is ever-changing — particularly when exposed to sun and wind.

 

Check out the photos below of our team gettin’ after some mid-summer turns.

Photos courtesy of team members: Jimmy Howe, Cat Owensby, Karen Ranieri, Justin Wilhelm, and Jeff Woodward

The Best Spring Skiing Spots in Northern Colorado

Some say spring is when true skiing starts in Colorado. While chasing powder in the winter is great, as the weather warms the snow generally stabilizes, providing access to bigger lines and long days full of exciting backcountry turns. Whether you’re new to the touring world or wrapping up your 36th month in a row of skiing/riding, we’ve compiled seven Northern Colorado spots worthy of exploring this spring.

Torreys Peak looming over a few creek crossings and mostly dry ascent to the base of the mountain. Photo: Kyle Judson

Get Up High

Perhaps you’ve set a goal to ski your first 14,000 foot mountain, or are on track to ride all of Colorado’s 14ers – regardless of the long-term goal, spring is the time to start checking off high mountain descents.

Torreys Peak

This peak has multiple routes and is frequently skied, but all the ascents and descents are worthy of the time and effort. With relatively easy access off of I-70, this is a great spring tour.

Mt. Elbert

Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert presents several fun couloirs to pick from. Plus you’ll gain bragging rights once you’ve stood on the summit then strapped boards to your feet and slid down, hopefully getting in good turns.

Quandary Peak

If steep ascents and tight shoots are not your jam, Quandary Peak is the right 14er for you. This is one of the easiest 14ers – there is almost always a set skin track up to help and a wide open ridge takes you back down.

Nokhu Crags is a hidden gem of fun couloirs and great views in the northern region of Colorado. Photo: Erika Lee

Explore More Complex Terrain

It’s important to still be aware of potential avalanches, and feel confident with route finding and advanced ski mountaineering skills before taking on bigger objects. That said, as the snowpack settles, spring generally delivers ideal conditions for heading into more complex backcountry terrain. Here are two great zones to put your ski mountaineering skills to the test.

Rocky Mountain National Park

With majestic views, steep couloirs, technical approaches, and options for wide open bowl riding, the park is a great spot to explore complex lines and practice ski mountaineering on some of the most iconic routes in the US.

Cameron Pass

Sitting between Fort Collins and Walden, Cameron Pass is an often overlooked Front Range zone. While a bit farther than Rocky Mountain National Park, there are fewer people and more fresh tracks to be had. The Nokhu Crags area has multiple versatile couloirs with an easy approach, and certain aspects off of Diamond Pass hold snow through May.

Riding laps next to friends on stable slopes is one of the best parts of spring backcountry touring. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Keep It Simple

One of the best parts of spring skiing is the long days in the backcountry complemented by riding with all your best buds. If you’re looking for simple terrain out of avalanche danger to party lap, here are some of the best locations.

Loveland Pass

Sitting at a higher elevation than Berthoud Pass, Loveland is an easily accessible zone to lap with friends and family in the spring. You can find mellow bowls and steeper options for all levels.

Indian & James Peak Wilderness Areas

Roosevelt National Forest encompasses these two wilderness areas that are about 1 hour north of Boulder. Often overlooked by backcountry enthusiasts, these zones offer hidden powder stashes in the trees and long ascents to alpine lakes. You’ll find less people and more space to explore with plenty of options for both simple terrain and bigger lines.

 

Looking for tools to start planning your next spring adventure? OnX Backcountry has awesome resources on how to start trip planning for touring along with a snow-specific GPS navigation application to help you complete your spring backcountry objectives.

Backcountry Planning : How Bluebird’s Education Team Uses onX

I track my routes and monitor the elevation gain, time, and mileage so I can guesstimate how a group might handle that route based on their experience. I also love the offline use feature. ” – Karen R. 

“The ability to easily plan routes on onX Backcountry and have all the tools I need for finding avalanche forecasts, weather, established trails, and access points makes my job as an avalanche educator far more simple.” – Erika L. 

“The elevation profile and tracking option for distance traveled while in the backcountry is great with onX.” – Aidan G.

“Even as a professional, it’s easy to get lost. onX is a reliable tool to help me figure out where I am in the backcountry.” – Jeff W.

These are just a few of the reasons why Bluebird’s education team loves using onX Backcountry for both work and personal days in the mountains. We’ve broken down how this team of professionals uses onX to gather information and prepare for backcountry tours, both small and large. Plus, we discuss the important skills and how to gain them. Let’s dive in!

A Bluebird staff member uses onX to spot good terrain to ride off the top of Bear Mountain. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Initial Planning Steps

One of the best parts of onX Backcountry’s snow mode is that all the resources needed to plan a backcountry tour are integrated into the digital map — this simplifies the planning process and cuts out the need to dig through multiple tabs to find the right resources.

1. Avalanche forecast

The first step of planning a tour is reading the avalanche forecast. Through onX Backcountry we simply pick a general touring zone and click the colored overlay on the map to see what the avalanche forecast is for the day. Bluebird’s education team always makes sure to read the full forecast — including the general summary and detailed summary — by clicking the external link to the avalanche forecasting center’s website.

2. Weather forecast

onX Backcountry has an integrated weather forecast for wherever we’re planning an adventure. When the application is open, there’s a green dot in the top right corner; this takes us to the specific weather for our current GPS location. We can also get point-specific weather by clicking any trail head or established route on the map. Gathering weather data helps determine what location is best for a tour and the general conditions we’ll be managing when in the backcountry.

The ease of finding both the avalanche and weather forecasts through onX snow mode makes this step of planning much easier. Photo: Erika Lee

3. Choosing an area

There are many tools on this mapping software that help us decide the best backcountry touring location based on the avalanche danger, avalanche problem, and weather for the day. Here’s what Bluebird’s team likes to use.

Slope angle shading overlay — Perhaps our group decided that due to considerable avalanche danger, we’re avoiding all terrain above 30º in slope steepness — this is where the slope angle shading tool comes in handy. We can find areas that are below 30º or out of avalanche terrain and set an uphill and downhill route options based on the slope-angle shading. This tool is not a substitute for the observations made while in the field. It’s still critical to pay attention to surrounding terrain when following a set skin track or route. Bonus, there’s now a slope aspect overlay that helps us establish which aspects are facing what direction and what we’d like to ride based on the slopes aspect. 

3D map mode – We’re always looking for terrain traps and subtle topographic features that should be avoided when traveling in and around avalanche terrain. The 3D map mode is super helpful for spotting creeks, gullies, or benches, and identifying what type of terrain we may be traveling through — trees, open bowls, or a complex mixture of both.

Combining slope angle and 3D map mode allows us to investigate terrain and understand what our route options may be. Photo: Erika Lee

Pre-established trails – With information from Beacon Guide Routes and Powder Project pre-loaded onto the snow mode, onX Backcountry offers beta and pictures including where to start a tour, parking lots, established trails and common lines to ski or ride. Bluebird’s team loves this tool when exploring a new zone.

4. Mapping route options

Now it’s time to actually set a plan A, B, and C for the day. It’s always good to have multiple uptrack and downtrack options on a tour in case the snow or weather is different than expected. Using the route planning tool allows us to actually lay out a route on the map and add in waypoints as markers for locations to assess the snowpack, discuss options, and transition. We can calculate total distance and elevation profiles by creating a route, then average out travel time based on the elevation and distance profile. Using the slope angle shading and 3D modes are critical when planning our descent routes, as this helps us see what is skiable, what is within the acceptable slope angle, and what areas to avoid. Some experts like to mark the areas to avoid by using the shape drawing tool — this way we can visually see zones to stay out of when in the backcountry.

Easily build a route on a computer, while in service, or when offline in the backcountry. Photo: Erika Lee

Final Planning Steps

Once we’ve established a plan, it’s time to double check the weather, avalanche conditions, and snowpack in that zone. onX Backcountry enables us to do all of that directly from the phone or computer.

1. Check past & present conditions

With built-in SnoTel data points, we can find the snow depth, windspeed, and new snow totals, temperature, and other information by clicking the black and white snowflake icon in a location close to the zone we’re planning to visit. By gathering these details, we build a history of the snowpack and correlate the avalanche forecast to the specific zone we’re planning to visit.

2. Add notes & waypoints for reference

It’s a good idea to highlight specific spots that we’ll stop at, gather information, or check in with the group. Bluebird’s team likes to add waypoints and name the point based on location and purpose — for example “transition point” or “option A descent”. onX provides pre-loaded titles for waypoints, like “camp spot” or “pit location”, making it quick and simple to add these waypoints when we’re scouting for future courses, winter camp locations, or good snow data collection points.

Don’t forget to label waypoints. onX makes this simple with built-in types of waypoints and the option to name each point. Photo: Erika Lee

3. Download maps

Once we’ve established a plan and built route options, we can easily download the routes, waypoints, and full map (including slope overlay and 3D mode) for offline use. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use digital maps for navigation, check out Bluebird’s Backcountry 3 lesson where you’ll learn all things maps and navigation.

4. Share routes

It is easy to share routes, waypoints, and any notes with a touring group through onX. We quickly send a shareable link from a computer or phone via a text or email, and our friends can open it on their onX Backcountry application. When a file is shared, it automatically saves on their account (but the user must still download the map for offline use). Don’t forget to always share your route and general tour plan with someone outside of your touring group in case of an emergency.

Continuing to assess the terrain and snowpack when in the backcountry is critical to having a successful and fun day in the mountains. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Important Skills to Aquire

While GPS navigation tools and online resources make it relatively easy to plan a backcountry tour, there are critical skills that must be acquired before entering the backcountry. Here are the important things for you to know, and opportunities to learn these skills. 

1. Know how to recognize avalanche terrain

Take an AIARE avalanche course, then practice with a Backcountry 3 lesson to build an understanding for navigation and identifying avalanche terrain. In these courses, you’ll start to learn how to know what’s underneath the surface of the snow — developing a history of the snowpack helps you recognize the potential avalanche danger.

2. Practice with avalanche rescue techniques and gear

While avoiding avalanche terrain all together is a solid plan for backcountry travel, accidents happen. It’s necessary for any form of backcountry travel in the winter to both carry avalanche rescue gear and know how to use it. Taking an Avalanche Rescue course every season is a critical part of responsible backcountry travel.

3. Obtain basic emergency skills

Preparing for the unexpected is a critical step in responsible backcountry travel. Understanding what to do in case of a winter emergency and carrying the proper equipment are two more steps in building your backcountry tool kit. Check out Bluebird’s Winter Emergency Skills blog to learn all about these skills.

4. Know how to move through backcountry terrain

If you’re new to the sport of touring, consider taking an introduction to backcountry touring course, and building upon those skills with other lessons to understand how to use your gear and move through winter environments.

5. Learn group management and decision making skills

Touring alone is never a good idea. And when traveling with multiple people, group dynamics always pop up. Develop group management skills and understand how to move a group and yourself through terrain by taking an AIARE 1 or 2 avalanche course.