Get the backcountry know-how:
- Skin and Ski Tour: Never been in the backcountry but want a taste? Check out the Vail Nordic program's introductory tour. Ski some trails with a guide, and learn how to use basic backcountry equipment.
For more information, call the Vail Snowsports Nordic School at 970-754-4370
- Backcountry access: Learn about avalanche awareness and proper gear at www.backcountryac...>
- Colorado Avalanche Information Center: Check out the area's avalanche forecast at http://avalanche....>
Vail Eagle-Vail resident Brian Enselien remembers the rush of snow that caught him while he was backcountry skiing near California's Lake Tahoe.
The avalanche was relatively small - when it settled, he was knee-high in snow - but he said he was amazed by the force of the slide.
"It's scary," he said. "It's crazy how much power is behind all that snow."
Enselien has done some backcountry skiing, and he frequently goes into the "sidecountry" - or areas that are out of ski area boundaries but easily accessible from the resort mountains.
While many, like Enselien, take advantage of the easily accessed areas in search of untracked powder, not everyone has the proper training or equipment for the terrain, said Beaver Creek ski patroller Dave Martin at a recent backcountry training class.
"We watch people who leave the gates, and (a majority) of the people who go back there have no equipment," he said, adding that everyone who goes out-of-bounds should carry a beacon, probe and shovel.
Ready or not?
After attending the training class, Eagle-Vail resident Bogdon Pastor said he definitely will think about investing a beacon and some training.
He usually skis the out-of-bound areas near the ski resort - without any equipment, he admitted.
Avon resident Ryan Ellis said he has ventured out to some of the popular out-of-bounds spots, such as the Alta Chutes behind Beaver Creek.
"I usually just make sure it's been skied before," he said.
He would like to go out further, after getting the proper equipment and training, he said.
Others say that they never go without equipment and that experience with the local terrain is one of the surest ways to be safe.
Vail ski patroller Chris "Mongo" Reeder agreed, saying that even though he has skied the backcountry for years, it wasn't until he joined the patrol that he was confident making his own backcountry decisions.
He also added that he never ventures past the ropes without a pack of equipment.
"If we don't have the gear, that kind of makes our decision for us (whether or not to go)," he said.
The other side of the rope
Skiers should be prepared, even when in heavily skied areas right outside of resort ropes.
Some don't realize that the areas are unpatrolled and that slides occur, ski patrollers said.
In December, there was a 4-foot deep, football-field wide avalanche caused by a skier on the Bald Spot, which can get significant traffic, said Zander Kestly, Beaver Creek's mountain safety attendant supervisor.
"We do have some great backcountry access, but people need to know that we don't patrol out there and if something happens, it could be hours before we get out there," he said.
From below the Bald Spot outside of Beaver Creek's ropes, Kestly looks out over a meadow of pristine powder.
"You see why people want to come back here," he said. "But you've got to respect it."
Reeder said it's shocking how many people exit Vail Mountain's gates and blow past warning signs and ropes unprepared.
"People are under the impression that since you can view (these areas) from the lift, because you can look across at these areas that are full of tracks, that there is avalanche mitigation out there - which is not true at all," he said.
In fact, Mango's Mountain Grill staff in Red Cliff has reported that they often get skiers who wander in completely lost after having skied out of Blue Sky Basin.
A false sense of security
This has been one of the worst years for avalanches in Colorado, said Scott Toepfer, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Some popular backcountry areas, such as areas on Vail Pass, Shrine Bowl and Ptarmigan Pass have seen avalanches this season, he said.
"Some people may have a false sense of security in these heavily used areas," Toepfer said. "With places like East Vail - it's popular, we all know it. The problem is that all of your safe backcountry protocol can fly out the window with a group of people coming in behind you. It's a very complicated game. You're trying to balance risk and reward."