Access Granted: The backcountry skier’s omerta
February 10, 2013
By the numbers
Dollar growth for Alpine touring skiing equipment
Telemark ski equipment
Source: SIA Snow Sports RetailTRAK
Don't read this story, because there's nothing in it. No secrets. No directions.
Then again, that's part of the fun.
It's about the best backcountry terrain — the "where to go" and "how to get there."
Or at least it's supposed to be about that.
You know what would be great? A list of the five or 10 best backcountry runs in Routt County. Or maybe a collection of the best backcountry stories from around Steamboat Springs, the kind of runs they talked about in cheesy 1980s and '90s ski movies. They'd have names like Dead Man's Bluff or Slippery Pete's Escape.
There's only one big problem. Slippery Pete is quite content taking his escape to his grave. Turns out, silence is as much a defining characteristic of backcountry skiers as beards and Duct-taped equipment.
"I don't even know what to say," skier Kyle Lawton said when pressed about his best day skiing in Routt County's backcountry.
He started vague: "Up in the Park Range," he said, eliminating a good portion of Routt County's 2,368 square miles in one fell swoop. He got marginally more precise: "In the Zirkels," he said, narrowing it down to the 159,935 acres of Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. But then he thought better of it and walked back: "We have the Flat Tops Wilderness, Zirkel Wilderness, Hahn's Peak and Sand Mountain. … I don't want to get specific."
Mission accomplished, as we're back to the entirety of Routt County. To summarize, Lawton's best day backcountry skiing in Routt County took place in Routt County, presumably on snow.
He is, of course, not alone. Aryeh Copa opted not to elaborate on one of his favorites, a stash he accessed with a buddy by rappelling into a couloir. The feat was even written up in a magazine, but now? "We probably shouldn't talk about that anymore," he said.
So, what's with the omerta?
It's multifaceted, local powder hounds explained.
They promise it's not all about greed but about the soul of the sport, what has them out there in the first place.
"My favorite day," Lawton said, starting again, "is a day spent touring around, looking at maps and knowing which lines I want to ski, then picking them off."
The message is that the best backcountry line is not picked out of a book or a magazine or even a newspaper list.
Copa's been prowling Steamboat's high country for more than two decades, and he said there are descents he's been eyeing and craving for nearly that long. Most of them are visible far from any parking lot, usually en route to another descent, and maybe that's part of what makes Routt County's backcountry different. In areas better known for extreme steep terrain, the peaks dominate the landscape and serve as a siren song to skiers or, once someone sets a track down it, a towering piece of bravado.
No matter if it's a run overlooking Telluride or one hidden above Steamboat, however, the best backcountry lines are lived and not read, discovered and not pointed out.
"There are lines I've looked at for years. I knew they'd take a long time to get to and to get back from," Copa said. "They eat you up, and you just have to find a way to ski them."
And it's not just about taking the turns, either. It's about earning them by learning how to dig pits and assess avalanche danger, by overcoming the hurdles they take to reach and by being mature enough to wait, wait and wait for the right snow, the right sun and the right season for a safe but epic payoff.
"I know if it's a south-face area up in the Zirkels, I need to be off that by 10 a.m.," Lawton said. "If we go and tell people about a run like that, if we print that, now we're telling them they can go.
"An amazing day," he said, "is checking out new terrain and knowing those areas and knowing that this is the prime time for those lines."
And it doesn't matter if you're in the Zirkels or the Flat Tops, the canyon or Hahn's Peak — you can have your best day anywhere in Routt County's 2,368 square miles. Just ask Lawton. He'll tell you all about it.