Access Granted: Recreation in Routt County’s backcountry becoming a big trend
February 10, 2013
"Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis …"
It's the under-the-breath chatter that keeps skier Aryeh Copa going while he's hiking through the desolate mountains above Steamboat Springs, a cadence to keep the pace when the conversation has died down and the morning's enthusiasm is just a memory.
Copa gets poetic when he describes his love for skiing, a magnetic attraction that drew him to Steamboat 23 years ago.
"It's the easiest way to be a superhero," he said. "You're flying down the mountain, floating on a cushion of air and water vapor. The speeds we can go, the size of air we can catch … nothing compares."
The best kind of skiing is in the powder, the untouched fields of postcard-pristine snow so light to the touch it starts to fly up around the ankles, knees or even the waist on good days. On great days, it flies over the head, embracing a skier in an envelope of brilliance.
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"Skis are like wings in the powder," Copa said. "It's a miracle."
And the best powder often is in the backcountry, away from the resort, its maps and its lifts. Getting to powder typically requires hiking. And the hiking, for Copa at least, sometimes requires counting in Spanish. "Uno, dos, tres …"
Neither the wonder of the powder nor the glory of a remote slope has changed for Copa since he first hoofed it into the Routt County backcountry, but throughout the years, he's had a front-row seat to what's been nothing short of a revolution in snowsports equipment. Fat skis make powder easier to navigate. Google Earth helps gauge hidden pitches. New bindings open that world of powder to Alpine skiers, and splitboards pave the way for snowboarders. A great increase in the power of snowmobiles has turned daylong hikes into back-for-lunch adventures.
The ski and snowboard industry can't endure such a shift without going through change itself, and everything from retail shops to search and rescue crews to ski resorts are searching for the best ways to confront new equipment, new interest and what's nothing short of a new reality.
"Times have definitely changed," Copa said.
At first, they laughed
The SnowSports Industries of America retailers convention last week in Denver — the Snow Show — buzzed around Mark "Wally" Wariakois as he dug into history.
There were DJs and trampolines, guys in banana suits and women in bikinis.
When he brought his first splitboard to a mid-1990s snowsports convention, it was not taken seriously.
"They all laughed at first," Wariakois said, comfortable in his corner of the 2013 show's madness, the Voile line of splitboards arrayed behind him.
He didn't have the smallest booth at this year's show, which featured more than 550 retailers hoping to get their wares picked up by ski and snowboard shops from across the country. He didn't have the largest booth, either. Many of the largest booths, though, prominently featured the splitboard idea he helped pioneer more than two decades ago.
The concept was simple.
"We sawed some boards in half and started working on kits to put the board back together," Wariakois said. "We wanted to be able to convert from skis to snowboard."
And it almost immediately made sense at Voile, a company that already was heavily focused on backcountry skiing.
The backcountry hadn't been off limits to snowboards, but it was close. Skiers had long turned to Telemark setups to get away from it all. Snowboarders often were left hiking in snowshoes with their boards strapped across their backs.
"I'd come home from a long tour on snowshoes and I couldn't walk," said Matt Wood, an avid powder hound.
A carpenter by trade, Wood became a splitboarder by choice when he first tried out a do-it-yourself kit from Voile five years ago. It changed everything, and now he uses his skills with a saw to help free other riders, sawing their boards down the middle as part of his burgeoning business, Glide Inc. Custom Snowboards, based out of Oak Creek.
"I resisted it at first because I didn't think the technology was there, but I made the switch, and I'll never go back," he said. "It's a much more efficient way to access the backcountry. It's made extended trips a lot easier with heavy loads. You can just ride so much more without destroying yourself physically."
The market has agreed. Although Voile's booth was modest by Snow Show standards, the company's fingerprints were everywhere. It licensed its inventions and sparked what now is a major trend in the industry.
Figuring it out
Backcountry is the biggest trend in snowsports, according to SIA sales numbers. Nearly 5 million skiers and riders get away from groomed ski resort trails each year, with that number peaking during winter 2010-11 before falling slightly last season as a result of poor snow conditions across much of the country. From the 2008-09 season to 2010-11, backcountry and sidecountry use grew by nearly 750,000 skiers and riders.
Splitboard sales more than doubled from 2009-10 to 2010-11, and then more than doubled again by 2011-12, jumping from about 400 units sold to more than 3,000 in that span. Splitboard sales are on track to potentially double again this winter.
Sales of Alpine touring boots, bindings and backcountry skis, meanwhile, have climbed 57 percent in five years. That comes while numbers from late 2012 show a decline of 8 percent in overall sales in the industry and a 14 percent decrease in Alpine skiing equipment sales.
It's a trend of which Steamboat Springs retailer Pete Van De Carr is well aware. His store, Backdoor Sports, oozes that backcountry feel with an unfinished look and old ski posters hanging from the walls. A small plug-in heater warms the rear of the store, where Van De Carr worked earlier this week tuning skis.
His shop long has been one of Steamboat's go-to spots for the gnarliest of outdoor equipment, and business has been getting better.
"Sales have increased about 20 percent per year for that equipment for each of the last five years," he said.
Across town, Christy Sports' Clock Tower Square location also has borne witness to the power of backcountry gear. The store is geographically close to Steamboat Ski Area but still proves out of the way of foot traffic. The location struggled for years until, inspired by a similar effort in Telluride, owners decided to emphasize backcountry gear and dived in completely before the 2011-12 season.
"The shop isn't off the beaten path, but it was just far enough that it needed something to stimulate it somehow," said Kenny Loose, the shop's hard goods sales supervisor.
Other Christy Sports locations in Steamboat didn't carry backcountry gear, but other Christy shops across the state did, so there was a blueprint for how to stock.
"We figured we'd at least expand into this backcountry thing and see what happened," Loose said.
It turned out to be an immediate hit. The store sells Telemark, Alpine touring and backcountry gear, including avalanche probes, beacons and shovels. Loose said sales numbers for equipment nearly tripled. Comparing boot sales, the location sold about 25 the year before the switch, then 70 in the first year of its backcountry focus.
"It just went crazy," he said. "It's been nothing but great for us."
Van De Carr still peddles plenty of Telemark gear. He said Telemark setups are the best option for Steamboat and Routt County, where a backcountry adventure often consists of long stretches across generally flat terrain. Still, Alpine touring gear, which he said is better for uphill traffic, slowly has grown its presence in his shop and eaten deeply into Telemark sales nationally.
It's improvements in Alpine touring gear in recent seasons that has helped revolutionize the backcountry experience. Alpine touring, or AT, binding setups aim to combine the free-heel freedom of Telemark gear with the stable platform of Alpine ski bindings. It's a great idea, but early examples never were sturdy enough for the hardest-skiing customers.
That's begun to change in recent years with bindings like the Marker Duke, and skiers have noticed.
"I would always ski the backcountry on Tele skis," Copa said. "You can charge harder on Alpine skis when your heel is locked down, but the AT gear wasn't designed for aggressive skiing like dropping cliffs. Then Marker came out with the Duke, and they couldn't keep them on the shelves. That opened up Alpine touring to pro-level skiers."
Colorado Mountain College professor Mike Martin runs the Steamboat Springs campus's ski industry program and hits the Routt County backcountry whenever he can. He's kept a close eye on the trend of innovations not only to help his students, but also to improve his own experiences in the powder.
He pointed to an ongoing battle among equipment makers that's leaving skiers as the big winners. He expects the next major offensive to come from the longtime AT binding masters at Dynafit, which had a display model of its upcoming Beast binding on display at the Snow Show in Denver earlier this month.
One of its biggest features is a DIN setting that reaches 16. The DIN is a tension-release setting that determines the amount of pressure required before a binding will release the ski boot locked inside it. It also doesn't have a plate linking the front of the binding to the back, like other companies' AT setups do, making for a light but powerful piece of equipment.
It could be one of the first bindings capable of matching traditional Alpine bindings.
The call for and creation of better touring bindings followed a great improvement in ski technology that, in its own way, shepherded in a new age of backcountry skiing.
The rise of the fat ski — an enormous departure from what people were skiing even a decade ago — drastically has changed what a day at the resort looks like for even average skiers.
Martin said his "wow" moment came from a 1996 Powder magazine cover with a skier ripping down the face of an Alaskan mountain in four turns as compared to the dozens it took with skinny skis.
"You had this whole new mindset. It just kind of clicked that you could ski differently," he said. "Because of the fat ski revolution, you had people elevating their abilities to a much greater degree."
Fatter skis ride on top of snow instead of down in it, making traversing as well as turning and charging downhill through the powder much easier.
The concept has evolved from designs built exclusively for powder with rocker tips (think of skis with tips that curve up like the bottom of a rocking chair) to, in about the past five years, skis that are excellent on groomed runs and in the powder.
Those who looked ahead helped define the industry.
A decade ago, Armada Skis was a fledging company with a reputation mostly among terrain park skiers. Inspired by designs from other big backcountry names like Shane McConkey, Armada began to reach out to that segment of the market, as well, chasing McConkey's idea of a ski that more resembled a wide, surfing water ski than a traditional snow ski.
Armada found success there but really hit it big when it released a version of its JJ ski in 2008 that combined the water ski idea with a more traditional snow ski design, blending the rocker innovation in the ski's tip and tail with camber under the foot, allowing much more contact with the snow and a smoother ride on groomed terrain.
Now it's a favorite even more so among those pursuing powdery lines at ski areas or just out of bounds, in what's referred to as sidecountry terrain.
"It made powder more accessible to more people," said JP Auclair, a Canadian freestyle skier and one of the company's founders.
"It was a pretty easy idea in the first place. We got lucky and got it right," he said. "We didn't know it would be a hit. We were working on something we wanted to try ourselves, and we didn't know if people would buy it. The first year, we only produced a couple hundred, and that only created demand. The second year, we doubled it, and then it really caught on."
Ski and snowboard innovations haven't occurred in a vacuum, and in short order, they have ushered in changes across the winter sports industry.
The growth of backcountry and sidecountry skiing along with AT gear and splitboards is evident every day at Steamboat Ski Area, from sunup to sundown.
Hiking up Steamboat's Mount Werner to ski back down is nothing new, but the sheer number of skiers who now ascend the mountain — going the opposite direction of traditional downhill ski traffic — certainly is.
It was enough to force resort officials to search for an answer, and Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen said the company found one in a new uphill policy it enacted this winter.
The ski area began asking — not requiring — uphill adventurers to sign a form that detailed some of the possible risks they could encounter during an after-hours hike. Those risks include resort snowmobiles rushing up trails, snowmaking equipment strewn across runs, and grooming machines, including winch-assisted snowcats that rely on a taut steel cable that could be fatal if struck by a high-speed skier.
"We were wrestling with how to communicate those hazards to that community, and now it's working great," Allen said about the policy.
A signed form gets a hiker a free reflective armband to help improve his or her visibility to crews working on the mountain. The ski area burned through an initial order of 200 armbands and recently had to restock. Allen said about 240 people have registered during the program's first season. Those skiers and riders also have provided email addresses, making it easy for the resort to reach out to them with warnings about new or changing on-mountain dangers.
Search and rescue crews and ski patrollers also have had to learn to adjust to the new normal. Unfortunately, skiers and snowboarders haven't always used their newfound powers responsibly.
The quest for powder has led an ever-increasing group of skiers heading out the always-open access gates on the flanks of Steamboat Ski Area, and that creates an inherently awkward situation for ski patrollers.
Fish Creek Canyon, far to skiers' right at the exit of the ski area's northwestern boundary, is the most popular destination. That popularity breeds trouble.
Terrain outside the resort's boundaries isn't avalanche controlled by patrollers, but a massive slide a year ago — no one was injured — reminded sidecountry skiers and riders just how dangerous their quest can be.
There are no signs pointing the way to some of the best skiing outside the resort's access gates, but there usually are enough tracks from previous skiers to convince the less-skilled and less-knowledgeable ones that they'll be able to figure it out.
Often, they don't figure it out, and rarely do they have the avalanche probes, shovels, beacons or other gear that can help save a life if the worst were to happen.
Without the detailed knowledge of the terrain that many out-of-bounds regulars possess, the inexperienced often find themselves stuck atop the cliffs that dot Fish Creek Canyon and call for help. The most recent rescue operation in the canyon took place Wednesday night.
Even though it's out of bounds, ski area patrollers regularly respond to those rescue efforts.
"We're picking people up off cliffs two, three times a week," said Kyle Lawton, a ski patroller and regular backcountry skier. "We have to rappel them down. We have to come in with ropes, and we don't know how dangerous the conditions are. We don't want to be pushing snow down on them and pushing them off. But we get there, and we have to use a makeshift harness and belay them off the cliff, then belay ourselves because, by that point, we're also at the point of no return."
For now, it's a frustrating reality for patrollers who are eager to help but dismayed by the assumption that "everything will be OK" from those who followed tracks into unknown terrain.
Martin has taken a role in helping curb the problem. He rallied CMC's Backcountry Club and Ski Business program to partner with Steamboat Ski Area to build access gates that make it even more clear that the terrain ahead isn't to be toyed with.
The sign on a swinging gate blocking the path now warns, "This is your decision point" as a figure of a skull and crossbones looks on nearby.
"I was back there last year and ran into some college students," Martin said. "They were equipped with Mountain Dew — they assured me it was all they needed to make it through anything — and they were totally lost, five of them. They got into the canyon and thought because there was a wooden gate, it was a part of the ski area. They were totally oblivious, but I led them out. It got to be a recurring thing.
"Now you have to physically go through a structure."
That may add safety, but it remains to be seen whether it will resolve the problem.
Routt County Search and Rescue, meanwhile, has not reported a surge in calls in recent years, but it has noticed a jump in the danger. Kristia Check-Hill, a 12-year veteran of the squad, said 2012 was an abnormally slow year, with just 25 calls. She said that the average for her 12 years has been about 45 calls and that 2010 and 2011 both came in very close to that number.
"Still, it's a very popular sport, and as more people get involved the potential for danger is definitely there," she said.
Search and Rescue's Darrel Levingston said there's been a big jump in avalanche danger even though the terrain obviously hasn't changed.
The 2001 avalanche death of a skier at Farwell Mountain in the northern part of the county was the first in nearly 30 years. A local skier was killed by a slide at Soda Mountain in 2005. A snowmobiler was killed in the Park Range last year, just over the county line in Jackson County.
"Snowmobiles being more powerful than they were a decade ago, they're getting people into places they couldn't before," Levingston said. "We've seen a huge increase in avalanche accidents and deaths that we didn't see 20 or 30 years ago. Twenty years ago, avalanche incidents involving skiers and snowmobilers were almost nonexistent."
No one is quite sure what lies ahead for the ski and snowboard industry.
Is the enthusiasm for backcountry and sidecountry a trend? Not likely, or at least not entirely.
Some speculate backcountry gates from a ski area eventually could be opened only by a working avalanche beacon, though that would have little impact for those willing to duck a rope and avoid the gate.
The influx of people into the backcountry already has changed how many of Steamboat's most experienced skiers and riders approach a day in the mountains. Another major development that's changed the game is snowmobiles. Two decades ago, snowmobiles were meant to go fast on groomed trails. Now, they are much more powerful and popular for plowing through open powder fields.
"People are just looking for more of an experience," said Kent Foster, of the U.S. Forest Service. "You can now get into different areas than you used to be able to, and you get there faster. People are realizing the backcountry is a great place to be."
He's in the midst of working on a study about how best to handle what's become a jaw-dropping traffic problem atop Rabbit Ears Pass just outside Steamboat Springs. On one recent sunny Saturday, the aftermath of a weeklong storm drew more than 200 snowmobile-towing trucks to the pass. They crammed into parking lots not meant for such a crowd, overflowing onto the shoulders of an already accident-prone section of a major highway.
Someday soon, Foster said the highway over the pass could have more parking and extra lanes to allow trucks time to get up to speed before merging with traffic.
Similar crowds also have become the norm at nearby Buffalo Pass, which, thanks to localized weather patterns, is one of snowiest spots in Colorado.
"Everybody and their brother has a sled now," said Eric Deering, who runs Steamboat Powdercats, a longtime snowcat ski touring service that offers trips up Buffalo Pass.
On one hand, the increased interest in backcountry skiing has kept his client base strong. On the other, he's been a witness to the growth of the sport since getting into the business in 2000. It's all Forest Service land, so Powdercats shares its terrain with everyone. The more snowmobilers and other backcountry skiers and snowboarders who show up, the fewer fresh runs he has for high-paying clients.
"There were certainly sleds up there when I started, but they weren't as prevalent," he said. "Now, people see backcountry skiing in the media, in films and on the Internet, and they think, 'Oh, wow. I'm just going to go in with some buddies on a sled instead of getting a season pass.'"
He said it's cut into his bottom line, but it hasn't ruined the business. Steamboat Powdercats regularly operates three snowcats a day. In 2000, that number often was just one.
Steamboat Ski Area officials also have been left to consider what the new interest in extreme terrain means for its business model.
Their bread and butter always will remain green, blue and black lift-served trails loved by visitors and the less-adventurous majority. Marked resort trails still draw about 75 percent of skiers. Still, Doug Allen said that an addition to the ski area might be only four or five years out and that the new terrain definitely would be for the fat-ski inclined.
Opening up more terrain on Pioneer Ridge, now accessed by the Pony Express chairlift, long has been in the ski area's plans. At one point, it even expected to put in another large lift in the area. Now, Allen said the terrain likely will be expanded north from Middle Rib across the next ridge into the out-of-bounds area now known as the "golf course."
A bridge would be installed over Burgess Creek to allow access back to the ski area.
"It's not really backcountry if you fix it up and put ski lifts back there and do control work," he said. "We do have plans in our master plan to develop that area. It won't be fully developed with a lift or groomed trails, but it will provide easier access and an easier regress out of that area."
Copa said he's seen many of his favorite spots fall to the backcountry charge.
"We used to ski and snowmobile up on Buff Pass, and there was virtually no one up there," he said. "Now, we don't even go there anymore. It's a madhouse."
Instead, he and his buddies have new spots, ones they eyeball from a distance, return home to study on Google Earth and other topographic mapping programs and, on the right day, capture.
If the added efficiency of new skis, bindings, splitboards, snowmobiles and everything else has allowed more skiers access to the backcountry, it also has allowed Copa and his crew to venture deeper into the mountains, and they've taken advantage, finding serenity on new slopes and tackling new challenges.
"Routt County has all sorts of really amazing, rowdy backcountry lines. Other places, nearly every skiable line has already been skied, but here — up in the Zirkels or down in the Flat Tops — there are all kinds of things that have never been skied before," he said.
Steamboat Springs isn't known for its backcountry terrain, but Copa said it's a treasure to behold and that it is packed with the best powder he's found.
"You can't always see them from town or the road," he said about those lines. "You have to explore and poke around to find the good stuff."
He said a knee injury eventually will require more medical attention and now adds an element of pain that didn't used to be there with his trips. Make no mistake, though, he'll ski as long as he possibly can, practicing his Spanish under his breath while hiking the high country because that's where the powder is, and when he's in powder, he feels like a superhero.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com