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Backcountry Ski Tours – The Different Options Available

Backcountry Ski Tours – The Different Options Available
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Fresh snow, beautiful scenery, no crowds, earning your turns (or not)…these are the rewards that come with backcountry skiing and snowboarding. As the sport becomes increasingly popular, the industry is evolving rapidly. This means that gear is getting better and more backcountry ski tours are becoming available, making it easier than ever to get started with backcountry skiing.

However, if you’re a first-timer, or just curious about getting started in the sport – things might be a bit overwhelming!

All of a sudden there are snowboards that split in two. There are bindings that convert from alpine to uphill like a chameleon (talking about you Salomon Shift ). And there are finally comfortable lightweight boots, with walk mode and switchable soles. With all these options,  what gear do you start with?

Beyond the gear, with almost endless terrain available, how do you choose where to go and pick a route to backcountry ski? And most importantly, how do you stay safe in an incredibly dangerous environment? 

While there is so much to learn about backcountry skiing, the focus of this article is to explain the different backcountry ski tour options available. I’ll outline the different backcountry tour options available, including both man and machine powered options. This way you can decide which backcountry ski tour is right for you!

In the skin track at Eulida Bowl – Schweitzer Sidecountry

 

Backcountry Ski Tours: What is Backcountry Skiing

Backcountry skiing simply involves skiing outside a traditional ski resort. When skiing inbounds, you have a complete system of avalanche monitoring and Ski Patrol who are there to assist with any injuries or problems.  On a backcountry ski tour, you are on your own.

You are also using another means to go up the mountain. This can be either self-powered, or some vehicular transportation, and are typically (hopefully) skiing  in fresh, untouched powder snow. There will be no crowds or lines that you would typically see in a ski resort.  Your safety, however, is either dependent on experts you have hired, or yourself if you are doing your own backcountry tour.

In it’s most basic form, you could do a backcountry ski tour with your current downhill ski equipment. Just add snowshoes! Check out the example below. No extra expenses, great exercise, and less stuff to buy! However, you still have to be aware of the dangers of being in the backcountry in the winter. This is something we will discuss in detail on how you can get educated.

Colin – a madman with snowshoes on his feet, and a snowboard on his back

But if you’re really looking to get into backcountry skiing, there are various other options that involve new equipment, different means of transportation, and other expenses. So let’s explore the different kinds of backcountry tours you can take!

Taking a Backcountry Tour – Different Types of Tours

I’ve broken the backcountry ski tour categories into four groups that I will be talking about:  Heli-Skiing, CAT skiing, Guided tours with Professionals, and Self Guided Backcountry tours.  In addition, I have written two other blogs that you should read if you’re doing self-guided backcountry tours:

BLOG Know Before You Go – Preparing for Risk, and Route Planning Tools

BLOG Touring Gear and what you Need for Day and Multi-Day Tours

Heli Skiing

Lauren in the Yellow coat, getting out of the helicopter at the RosaBlanche, Canton of Valais, Switzerland

I’ll reiterate that Helicopter skiing is not ski touring but is backcountry skiing.  You will be in the middle of nowhere, without the safety net that is offered by a traditional ski resort system.  You will have professionals to increase your safety factor, but it is more dangerous.

Cost

This is by far the most expensive backcountry option.  Helicopters, pilots, and lots of fuel are involved. Plus, you’ll often be staying in an all-inclusive luxury lodge.   On the low end, around $1,500 with all your own ski equipment will get you 1 backcountry tour day in a helicopter. No lodging, just skiing for a day.  On the high end, you’re looking at up to $15,500 for 7 days of catered heli-skiing in a lodge in the British Columbia – per person. These trips are truly epic so if this sounds appealing, it might be time to start saving!

Equipment Required (complete equipment guide list)

This is completely dependent on the specifics of the trip.  A 1-day backcountry heli-ski tour would usually require all of your own equipment.  Regular downhill gear will work for these, albeit very fat ones are recommended if the untouched powder is steep and deep. Generally, avalanche safety gear would be provided – shovel, probe, beacon, and a quick tutorial on use. 

For multi-day luxury tours, bring your ski or board boots, and then they typically provide the skis/boards. On the ski size, you’ll usually see a range from 105 up to 132mm underfoot – fatter means far more flotation and enjoyment in deep snow. You will also need all the appropriate clothing to ski efficiently in deep snow and cold conditions.

Pros/Cons

The big plus of heli-skiing is lots of vertical feet in amazing snow conditions.  Powderhounds want those vertical feet – they want to ski and board that cold smoke  all day long. They would prefer not having to hike back up the mountain after doing a 2000 or more vertical foot run.  Powder run after powder run, non-stop – that’s what heli skiing offers you – but at a price. 

The other advantage of backcountry heli skiing tours is there are usually thousands of acres of terrain to choose from. If one peak and exposure don’t look good, they can quickly heli over to another.  You can also quickly choose from different types of terrain. Ski glaciated high alpine terrain one day, then steep and deep tree skiing another, then off to pillow drops for a day.  You can easily ski over 100,000 vertical feet in 5 days. Some companies actually guarantee it.

Another huge plus is that you have the advantage of terrain and safety experts guiding you. These guides have the experience needed to make smart decisions in the backcountry. They’re avalanche certified with several classes under their belts. They know which areas to avoid during certain conditions, and which ones to seek out. If you’ve never skied in deep powder, many of these operations also offer packages to cater to your ability.

So what are the cons?  Well, for some of us the price is a con, as it is certainly expensive.  If the weather is bad, high winds and low visibility, the helicopters might not be able to fly  – that’s a problem. Most of the larger heli operations have that vertical guarantee, so if you’re not skiing there is a refund matrix that accounts for that. But still, the grounding of a heli is not fun. 

Additionally, safety is not guaranteed – being in big steep mountains with huge amounts of snow can lead to injuries. People have certainly died under the watchful eye of expert guides. But we should remember that avalanches can also happen inbounds at ski resorts, so skiing and boarding are inherently dangerous.

Where to do it

First, let’s talk geographically.  Obviously big mountains with lots of snow are necessary.  You’re not going to find a backcountry heli-skiing tour in Pennsylvania…

The top places are Canada (BC specifically), Alaska, Japan, Switzerland, and several other states including Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. I’ve actually heard that there are bargains heli-skiing in Russia? Who knew…

CMH skiers in their domain

So who are the big names in this space? When I think heli-skiing, the first name that comes to my mind is CMH – Canadian Mountain Holiday.  I’ve never done one of their trips, and I’m not sure the wife would approve of these in the budget right now, but oh, I can dream!  I’ve been to some of their presentations, just to get my mouth watering for the new powder season. But nope, never been on one of their trips. 

Side note: I did win a pair of K2 Pon2oons at one of their giveaways in DC years ago. Do you know what K2 Pon2oons are? They’re the water skis of skiing, some of the biggest, fattest powder skis ever. Developed by the man himself Shane McConkey. There is a great movie about McConkey – a must-watch. Back to my skis, that’s them below. Let me say 132mm underfoot makes you feel like superman in the steep and deep!  It is still one of the fattest skis that you can actually try on a CMH backcountry tour.

Read those signs, and check out my FAT K2 Pon2oons – thanks again CMH!!

Back to heli-skiing and CMH. I think of the Bugaboos when I hear that name.  Where is that, well – in Canada, British Columbia.  A “signature trip”, Bugaboos is where it all started for CMH. This is a 7 day backcountry trip – in Feb. of 2021 it looks to be around $12,500 on their site.  Everything is included, the lodges and the food look amazing. And there is no doubt based on videos I’ve watched that the skiing/boarding is a memory of a lifetime.  CMH has 12 lodges to choose from and 3.1 million acres of terrain to ski in! These trips book up a year in advance so start saving now!

Mike Wiegele tour group in their domain.

Another big Heli skiing operation is Mike Wiegele Heli-Skiing, also in Canada. Much like CMH, MW has spectacular lodge offerings, a menu to delight your taste buds at the end of the day, and 1.5 million acres of terrain to work with. Not too shabby!  Mike Wiegele also started the famous Powder 8 competitions.   Pricing for MW Heli skiing can be found here.

Heli Skiing with Selkirk Powder in Northern Idaho

I’ll give a shout out to our Local heli-skiing operation,  Selkirk Powder, who I’ll talk in more detail later for CAT skiing. Their relatively new heli-skiing operation now let’s you explore the amazing backcountry in Northern Idaho, just south of BC.  2020 pricing shows $1,320 for a single seat in their helicopter for a one day backcountry tour. I’m saving up, I’m saving up!  

CAT Skiing/Boarding

One of the CATS from the pros at Selkirk Powder

 A lower-cost backcountry tour alternative to heli-skiing is CAT skiing.  CAT skiing will get you into the backcountry in a comfortable heated cab, and to that untouched powder that you seek.  While it is unlikely that you will get close to the vertical you could get while heli-skiing, bad weather won’t stall your efforts.

Cost 

Cost for backcountry CAT (SNOWCAT) ski tours runs from $500 a day for local CAT touring, to about $5,000  for 4 days with lodge and food inclusive.  Its price is less than heli-skiing, but as you can see it can still get pricey. I refer to it as “a poor man’s heli-skiing” – and I LOVE IT.  There are far more CAT operations in the world than heli, so there is a wide range of costs depending on how luxurious you would like to get.

Equipment Required (complete equipment guide list)

As with heli skiing, you just use regular skis, boots, and snowboards. But again, you want your skis to be on the fat side underfoot so you can float like a butterfly in the deep snow.  Unlike many heli-skiing operations, there will be no K2 Pon2oons waiting for you when to get to your destination, you usually provide all your own gear. The exception to this would be that the avalanche gear is typically provided.  Again, appropriate clothing is necessary!

Pros/Cons

For starters, the cost of a backcountry CAT ski tour is certainly better than heli-skiing. Given that you still get to experience untouched deep powder runs in the wilderness, it’s great alternative! 

Additionally, you don’t need to be an expert in backcountry avalanche safety or wilderness survival first aid, as you are paying for that expertise with your guides.  You are usually accessing slightly less steep and perhaps safer terrain since the CAT has to drive you to your start destination. You are not hampered by weather conditions that would stop a heli from flying.  Big winds and snow? No problem! 12 people in the heated back cab of a CAT is actually quite comfortable.

On the negative side, there is no way you’re skiing as much vertical as heli-skiing.  Max maybe 15,000 feet a day, could be less.

You also don’t have as much control in general over the group you’re with, so there could be a wide range of skiing abilities that could slow the group down if you’re a hard charger.  I think heli operations are a bit tighter on managing group abilities, and putting similar experiences together. That’s not to say you can’t rent a whole CAT for you and your buddies (we’ll visit that in a bit).

Finally, your range of terrain is more limited than heli-skiing, you just can’t travel as fast in a snowcat.

Where to do it

Similar to heli-skiing, Canada is the leader again, followed by anywhere there are big snow ski mountains and wild terrain. Any state out west is likely to have some sort of CAT operation. Many of these are closely located to major ski resorts, so you could tie it in with a traditional ski trip.

The names are not as recognizable as the big Heli operations but there are a few I’ll mention.

Chatter Creek is located in lovely, Golden, British Columbia, ?? , home to Kicking Horse ski resort.  They have a spectacular log cabin lodge, and offer a skiable terrain of 58,000 acres, with runs as long as 4,000 vertical feet. That’s big vertical for one run!  They’re limited to 42 guests at a time, which works out to 1,380 acres per skier. The average vertical is between 12,000 and 20,000 feet per day.

Wrapping up a day at the Chatter Creek Lodge – ski in – yep!

Mustang Powder is located in the area occupied by The Revelstoke Ski Area in British Columbia.  As with Chatter Creek, you need to get helicoptered to their lodge from a specified meeting spot. You can’t just drive to the lodge. 

You do need to be fit and at a minimum a very strong intermediate skier. If they don’t feel you’re strong enough, you could be asked to skip a steeper run, so be prepared!  They advertise themselves as the most expensive CAT skiing out of 46 world wide CAT operations, justified by the quality of their product. Their highest rate for 4 days is $1,450 per day or $5,800. They indicate that 23,000 vertical feet in a day are not uncommon for them – that’s a whole lot for CAT skiing!

The Mustang Powder Lodge – the CAT is waiting.

Selkirk Powder is located in beautiful  Sandpoint, Idaho, home of Schweitzer ski resort.  No multi-night stays here. This is easy in, easy out, no helicopter rides needed. You meet in the Schweitzer ski resort, take a free chairlift ride up to the top, and walk into the main operations of Selkirk Powder where you start your journey! 

I’ve done it – a birthday present from the family – and I had an AMAZING time! Pricewise, one person is $460, and you get about 10,000-14,000 vertical feet of Idaho Cold Smoke in the Selkirk mountain range for that. Or, if you have 9 other buddies, you can rent a whole snowCAT for $4,100 for a day, so $410 per person, not bad.  You have pros that know the avalanche conditions, as well as the best powder stash locations. Amazing skiing all while in the comfort of the heated cab on the back of the CAT. It’s a backcountry ski tour that’s hard to beat!

That’s me in the orange coat on the Right, rocking my old Line Prophet 100’s with Selkirk Powder CAT skiing a few years ago.

Self powered Ski Touring with Guides

Corey – gracefully moving those G3’s through some Idaho snow

Let’s talk human-powered backcountry ski tours! This is where we’re no longer using helicopters and CATs to go up the mountain, we’re using our own legs! I’ll start by diving into ski touring with hired guides, broken into three groups: Day trips, Hut stays, and multi-day hut to hut tours.

First, off we’re now going to need some specialized equipment.  For skis, it’s all accomplished with a boot binding system that lets your foot pivot at the toe, with a free heel when you’re going up. 

What keeps you from sliding backward are the “skins” you put on the bottom of the skis. Named for how they were originally made from sealskins back in the day, they are now made with combinations of nylon and mohair. They are temporarily stuck to the bottom of the ski via a tacky glue on the other side of the skin.  Then, when you get to the top of your climb, you remove the skins, pack them away, turn the walk mode of your boot off, and prepare the binding to go into downhill skiing mode. Voila! Self-powered backcountry ski touring.

Jeff hitting some powder in the backcountry.

In a town like Denver, CO, you could easily rent some touring equipment to try it out. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in many ski towns. Luckily, there is a growing market of used equipment, and your local ski shop will always have new stuff. Here’s a plug for my hometown ski shop favorites – Perraudain sports, La Tzoumaz Switzerland, and Alpine shop, Sandpoint Idaho.

Guided Day Trips 

This is a broad category and could be as simple as contacting your local powder guides, in my case Selkirk Powder and hiring one of their guides to lead you and a buddy on a backcountry ski tour.  If you’re visiting any ski town in the West of the US or British Columbia, you will probably be able to locate a trained local guide.  The same applies to France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, and Japan, etc…

In Canada, they have some strong guide accreditation programs. If your guide is a member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, you’re working with a pro.  One of the highest standards for ski guides is the IMFGA, International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations, member associations from different countries is shown here.  You want a professional guide with proper accreditation who knows the area you want to backcountry tour in.

Cost 

Cost-wise as an example, Selkirk Powder charges $325 per person, a minimum of 2, including lunch. Not bad considering you’re getting your own private avalanche trained expert who knows where some of the good local stashes are. At Paragon in Vail, (listed below) 1 person $395 per person, 2 people $235 per person, 3 people $185 per person, 4 people $155 per person.  Significantly less expensive than CAT and heli-skiing, but YOU are the machine for these backcountry ski tours.

Equipment Required (complete equipment guide list)

For equipment, some places do offer the option to rent gear. This is a great way to see if you like the self-powered “earn your turns” part of this sport. Otherwise, you need your own touring gear – skis/boots/board/poles, appropriate clothing, lunch is often supplied.  Avalanche gear is provided by some, the more likely is that it is an option to rent.

Pros/Cons

This is a great way to dip your toes in the snow so to speak, to see if you enjoy this method of enjoying backcountry ski tours.  You will get a workout doing this. So if you enjoy the great outdoors and are looking for that extra physical activity in the wintertime, this is hard to beat.

If the conditions are good, you will have some amazing skiing.  Since it’s a small group, maybe just you and a friend, you have the potential to ask for specific terrain – we want the trees, or get us into the steep stuff.  The price is certainly less expensive than the heli-skiing and CAT skiing approach. It’s also a perfect way to learn about spots you may want to tour on your own once you have the experience and training.

What’s not to like? Well, you could be mixed in with other people of differing abilities.  This could be a big negative if you’ve got the expert with 40 years of experience skiing in your group who wants to hit some pillows, and you’re brand new to it looking for mellow powder fields.  A private tour alleviates these concerns, so make sure to ask about these options. As always, risks abound, so make sure you’ve checked into the local avalanche conditions on your own through some basic research as a backup. We’ll be discussing this a bit later.

Where to do it

Almost anywhere you have mountains and lots of snow! If you’re on a ski vacation somewhere, Google guided ski touring for that town, something should pop up. Remember, you want trained professionals, so look on their website, and ask about certification. Here are just a few examples of towns where you can easily find well certified touring guides to hire.

Nelson BC

https://kootenaybackcountryguides.com/about/guides

Golden BC

https://highcountryskiguides.com/ourguides

Whistler BC

https://www.whistlerskiguides.com/whistler-acmg-guides

Vail, Co

https://paragonguides.com

And no, the EAST COAST is not excluded, for example

Stowe, VT

https://www.sunrisemountainguides.com/winter/backcountry-skiing/

The Cabane des Dix on the Haute Route, Switzerland, accessible for small stays via Arolla – Jeff and Lauren on Right

Hut stay as base with guide

So what I mean here is you will be staying in some fixed location somewhere, with a guide to show you the ropes.  This could be a super luxurious lodge such as those owned by Canadian Mountain Holidays, or a primative hut where you might have to bring all your supplies.  It’s all about earning your turns, but with several days of localized touring, and coming back to refuel for the next day.

You’re not usually traveling great distances to go from one peak to another. It’s more about doing a few laps in the powder, while enjoying the extra security that comes with having an experienced guide.

Cost

On the high end, these backcountry ski tours could be close to $1,000 a day for a week at a luxury lodge. On the lower side, it could be a $50/night hut, where all you need is to hire a guide for the number of days you would like, and bring in all your food supplies and sleeping bags. 

Equipment Required (complete equipment guide list)

First, you need your touring gear – rent or own depending on your options.  At the luxury accommodations, you could rent everything.

If you’re staying in a primitive backcountry hut that you reserved at a minimal to no cost, you will need to bring a lot. Food, stoves, sleeping bags…it’s almost like going on a winter camping trip, but with skiing! You’ll also need a good backpack to carry it all, depending on how long a trip, it might have to be a fairly large one. Typically I recommend 30-40L as a daypack, but you may need 60L+ in this case. 

Pros/Cons

What a cool backcountry tour experience this can be – skiing for several days with your friends, in the remote backcountry somewhere.  The skiing will be awesome, any food you eat at the end of a long day of touring will taste amazing. Doesn’t matter if it’s from the luxury meal options to a freeze-dried meal of chili mac that you brought along yourself. 

You will get an amazing workout going up and down of your own power. And lastly, you should feel more secure in the hands of your guide, who will know the terrain, conditions, and be able to plan the trek for you.

On the downside, if you have to carry everything in on your own power, perhaps for miles and miles, that could be a lot of work if you’ve never carried a heavy pack on your back for a long time.  50 to 60 pounds of weight – if you don’t have all the lightest gear, would not be unheard of.

Furthermore, it could be mighty cold if it’s one of the primitive huts, so having the right sleeping gear would be critical. The good thing is you’ve hired a professional guide, or one will be there waiting for you, so they can tell you what you will need for your desired trip.

Where to do it

Almost anywhere there is wilderness, snow, people that like to ski, and a hut that someone has to rent out or cater to people.  As I mentioned earlier, CMH has a program called SKI FUSION. With this program you get helicoptered into the lodge with your gear, and then all the days are self-powered guided tours.  Almost all of the big heli operations offer something like this now, as do many of the CAT operations. 

If you’re looking in Canada, a great reference for finding huts of all varieties is the Alpine Club of Canada site.

Alpine Hut Locations in Western Canada offer lots of hut touring opportunities

In Montana, there are a few Yurts that you can stay in, and you can stay for $55/night!

In the US, the hut system that is the most well known is the 10th mountain division hut to hut in Colorado. There are 34 huts in their system set up for backcountry ski tours.  I would very much like to do a portion of this hut system. You could pick one hut to be your main base, and use a guide, like Paragon Guides that could help you get started.  Huts.org, that’s an easy one to remember!

10th mountain hut system – huts.org – 34 huts to chose from!

Your choices in Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria and Japan are also immense.

Here’s a great article in Backcountry Magazine, that’s pretty complete with numerous hut listings. Your options for huts stays are unlimited!

Our route on our  7 day hut to hut on the famed Haute Route – Chamonix France, to Zermatt Switzerland

Guided Hut to Hut Backcountry Ski Tours

The ants go marching one by one hurrah, hurrah… approaching the Serpentine area on the Haute Route between the Cabane des Dix, and the Cabane de Vignettes in 2017

Hut to Hut – for some the pinnacle of backcountry ski tours.  These trips could last several days to a week, and there is often a window of limited time during the year when a trip like this can be undertaken. You’re using an established hut system that are typically supplied with food and bedding, but for some you need to bring it all.

A guide is your best bet on this type of backcountry tour, and there are many companies that only focus on guiding these hut to hut tours. You need to be an experienced skier as you may encounter variable ski conditions. Deep pow, crusty snow, steep climbs, glaciated and crevassed fields, you could have to ski it all! Also, you want to be aerobically fit, as you could be going  uphill for 5+ hours a day.  There are often many ways to go through the hut system, and your guide can help you decide based on your interests.

Cost 

On the 10th Mountain Hut system, costs are as follows per one service

  • 1 person:  $720.00 / day
  • 2 people: $545.00 / day,
  • 3+ people: $395.00 / day
  • 8+ people:  $345.00/ day

For the Haute Route Trip, In the spring of 2017, our group paid around $2,000  per person for a group of 7 friends. This included 1 certified guide and an apprentice guide (I’ve seen much higher prices with other guiding services online).  It also included main meals and lodging in the huts, but any touring specific gear had to be rented separately.

The Wapta Traverse in Canada will run you around $1,300 for a 5-day backcountry trip and includes everything except avalanche gear.   

Equipment Required (complete equipment guide list)

This all depends on what tour you will be doing, but there could definitely be more mountaineering oriented gear than a typical day tour. For tours that will take you over glaciated terrain, boot crampons, and harnesses will be required, as you will be roped together in sections.  I chose to use my own equipment, but this can generally be rented.

My focus was on weight – keep it light. For example, when it comes to crampons, steel is considered the best, it won’t wear down, especially on rocky terrain, but it is much heavier. On the Haute Route, you can get by with Aluminum, and that was my choice. But there are entire internet threads dedicated to this discussion!

I do like Petzl mountaineering equipment. Their gear is well designed and lightweight. It’s exactly what you want on a big tour. Here’s their gear that I carried with me:

  •  The Petzl Attache is a classic screw lock carabiner
  • The Petzl Altitude harness is super light, it’s designed for glacier travel, and you can put it on easily with ski boots on!
  • My ice axe is the Petzl Ride, again designed for ski touring, aluminum shaft and steelhead.
  • I did add the anti-snow plates from Petzl to prevent snow buildup
  • The puncture-resistant Petzl Cord-Tec bag to keep my crampons from making rips in my gear!
  • And lastly, my Petzl Leopard llf aluminum crampons, designed for snow touring. 

You’d think I was sponsored by Petzl – but no, no affiliation!  

What’s in my pack – you can see I was seriously thinking weight for this epic trip.

I’ll stop now on gear, as there I have a whole blog on equipment, but for long hut to huts, you will need this additional gear.

Pros

This could be an adventure of a lifetime for many.  Amazing scenery, away from it all, bonding with a group of friends that will tie you together forever through this common experience!

Cabin life  – oh so cozy – our group on the last trek – we had two amazing guides for this group. Cabane des Dix

On top of that, these backcountry ski tours will get you to peaks that most people only ever look at in pictures. The feeling of accomplishment after completion of a long trek and see these views…amazing!  Finally, you get the opportunity to stay in huts that are in locations that are simply amazing. Cabane des Vignettes, I’m talking about you!

Cabane des Vignettes on a sketchy cliff, what a setting!

Cons

Well, again, these hut to hut trips aren’t inexpensive, some can be downright top dollar. 

On longer journeys, the risks of health issues, and other risks are serious. I was in a hut where someone had a collapsed lung… Out here, there’s no ambulance coming to get you. If possible they’ll send a helicopter so you better have helicopter insurance or some sort of coverage!  Airglaciers is a good one in Switzerland.  I use LifeFlight for the Pacific North West.  Here’s another Global Rescue Company. Look into if any of your memberships, or existing insurances will cover helicopter rescue events for medical emergencies.

Avalanche risks and weather risks are serious, and even guides can make mistakes.  Here’s a must-read on how things went bad on a 2018 Haute Route Trip in Switzerland. Outside Magazine article you should read on how things can go bad. 

You can’t do some of these big treks in January, and weather conditions can cancel a long-planned trip. Typically, these are spring trips, when the snowpack is more stabilized, and the risks are lower.

If you don’t have your own complete group and will be part of a group of other skiers whom you don’t know, you need to be cautious about differing abilities and fitness among the group.  It should be noted that on many of these longer hut to huts, when you’re going to different huts every day, there is far less skiing, and far slower and methodical uphill sliding of the skis, with lots of kick turns. So, if your goal is lots of powder skiing, then using one hut as a base might be a better option for you.

Where to do it

10th Mountain division huts

The Fowler/Hilliard hut of the 10th mountain division hut system.

So in the US, I previously mentioned the 10th mountain division huts of Colorado.  This system is comprised of 350 miles of suggested routes and is located in the area of Aspen, Leadville, and Vail Colorado.  This is by far the most complete backcountry ski tour hut system in the United States, with 34 huts. When it comes to using guides in this hut system, only a certified group of guides is allowed to support this hut system. Paragon Guides makes the list and is a good place to start. They also have backcountry touring gear to try and buy, nice! 

With this hut system, you will be hiking at altitude, up to 12,000 feet to be exact. At these heights, altitude sickness is a risk.  Acclamation in your starting town for a few days would be my recommendation if possible.

These huts are in demand, so you need to plan your trip well in advance.  Huts.org has an amazing amount of information to help with your trip planning, including a well-done video series to help prepare you.  One last resource for this is Hutski.com which also has lots of good info on this backcountry tour. 

The Wapta Traverse

The wapta traverse on a Yamnuska Mountain Adventures guided trek

The closest thing to a classic alpine trek in Canada is the Wapta Traverse.  The full trek, located in Alberta on the Wapta Icefields, is about 28 miles in length and encompasses 4 huts. Namely, the Peyto Hut, Bow Hut, Balfour Hut, and Scott Duncan Hut.  These huts are a bit simple in style, (not like the 10th mountain huts) but you have shelter! 

A good discussion on this multi-day hut to hut Canadian tour can be found at the backcountry skiing Canada site.  As with the 10th mountain backcountry tour, you could easily be hauling 35-40lb backpacks filled with your sleeping gear and food supplies.

There are many guides that will take you on this backcountry ski tour who will provide complete equipment lists of what they want you to have. An example of a sample itinerary can be found on the  Yamnuska Mountain Adventures site.  Yamnuska also gives great avalanche classes, two in my family took their avalanche class with them near Banff.

The Haute Route

Taken while standing on the Pigne D’Arolla in 1984

The  Haute Route is a multi-day backcountry ski tour through the alps of Switzerland, Italy, and France, connecting Chamonix to Zermatt.  This is a classic backcountry ski tour. End to end, the whole route is around 75 miles of touring, with 18,000 vertical feet of ascent.  This is not one people do to get powder runs all day. This is a backcountry tour for people who want to tackle an Epic Journey, featuring crazy beautiful scenery.

I’ve been fortunate enough to do this one twice. Once, in 1984, where after skiing everyday in a ski school for the season, I was in shape, yet by the end of this journey, I was worn out.  Let’s just say, that the touring equipment back then was a little bit heavier! I was so tired at the end that I didn’t really have the desire to do this one again.

The author back in 1984 tackling the Haute Route in Switzerland for the first time, Pigne D’arolla on the left

As it turns out, my daughter replicated my path and also worked in a ski school in Switzerland in 2016-2017, and you know what? She wanted to do the Haute Route, so…. I did it AGAIN. What was I thinking? Well, it turns out it was much better the 2nd time around. 

I got in shape, my equipment was orders of magnitude better, and it was a great experience. I would do it a third time! You do not have to carry breakfast or dinner with you on this trek, nor do you need sleeping bags. This makes for a lighter backpack on the trek.

My daughter Lauren and I in front of the Cabane du Trient on our 2017 Haute Route Trip, a little older and wiser than the last time.

I’ve done a  full documented blog of this trip with lots of gory details.  If you’re yearning to read more and see a well documented pictorial tale of this trek, check it out. We had one guide and one apprentice guide in our group of 7 skiers,  they were amazing. Our main guide, Martin Kimmig, is from a family guide company called Kimmig. I’d highly recommend Martin for a backcountry ski tour in Europe.  There are tons of guide services that will take you on this tour, so read the reviews, and pick the guides you will trust.

First the huts, these are amazing structures, all made out of stone, oftentimes set on the edges of cliffs, as the Cabane des Vignettes is.  The food is delicious, especially after a long day’s journey. lots of cheese and egg dishes, like a Croute au Fromage – French bread, soaked in white wine, covered in Gruyere cheese, often with a fried egg on top, and served with small onions and pickles.  You sleep in rooms with bunks, and there could be 10-20 people per room – bring earplugs!

The touring is strenuous, make sure you are in shape before this tour. Also ensure that sure you are with a group that has similar skills and fitness to your own, and if you can – use lightweight gear. You could encounter spring conditions or blizzard conditions during your trip,  so be prepared for everything. 

The Camaraderie of this backcountry tour is amazing. You will all become a bit closer from this experience, and you will not smell good at the end!  This trip has many variations, the traditional is to start in Argentiere near Chamonix, France, but you could start in Zermatt and do it in reverse.  There are many huts and paths that will take you from one end to the other, so it’s something you need to research and discuss with the guiding group you choose. If you’re coming from North America to do this, give yourself a few days if possible to acclimate to the time change, and the altitude. 

The last thing I’ll point you to is the complete video documentary on this trip that we put together. It’s in the top 10 watched winter youtube videos on the Haute Route on Youtube!

Our video documentary on our Haute Route Trek from Chamonix Fr, to Zermatt, Switzerland – April 2017

Before talking about the last tour option, self-guided tours, there are two other Blogs I’ve done that you need to read !!

BLOG Know Before You Go – Preparing for Risk, and Route Planning Tools

BLOG Touring Gear and what you Need for Day and Multi-Day Tours

Self guided backcountry ski tour in the Selkirks near Lunch Peak

How to Get to and Start Your Own Self Guided Winter Backcountry Tour 

Sidecountry – Resort Access

I will start with the easiest one first. You’ll hear this get called “sidecountry,” “slackcountry,” “resort lift-accessed backcountry,” they’re all the same.  You know what, no matter how close it is to the resort it’s Backcountry. They’re not clearing avalanche danger, no patrols are checking the run at the end of the day.   

Don’t get lured into a false sense of security because you can see a chairlift half a mile away.  You still need a partner, a shovel, a probe, a beacon, and YOUR BRAIN. The great thing about Lift Accessed Backcountry, is you don’t have to hike for 10 miles to get to a peak. You start at a peak, ski away, and just have to climb back to that peak, or maybe if you’re lucky you can ski out of bounds back to a lift. Winner winner chicken dinner.

At Schweitzer ski resort in Sandpoint, Idaho for example, let me give some examples of sidecountry skiing. You can take the Idyle T-Bar lift in the Outback bowl, and head left through the out of bounds gate (with your partner, probe, beacon, and shovel of course!). Ski gently down the road that is a cat track used by Selkirk Powder, take off your skis or snowboard, and boot pack it to the top of Big Blue.  Head down and slowly right and you can ski right back to the Cedar Park Express or to Stella. No special skis, bindings, or splitboards, needed. If you go too far down it’s a long climb back out, but it’s pretty easy to get it right. Again always check the local Avalanche bulletins first, always!

Bootpack up Big Blue – Schweitzer Sidecountry – Faster Phil, Faster!

Eulida a Bowl, Larch Park, and Solar Ecstacy, all backcountry tour zones, are accessed in the Schweitzer Bowl via the Lakeside triple.  Head left off the chair and then right through the gate. All these trips will require touring equipment. Here’s a video touring from Schweitzer to Baldy Mountain below.

Side country trip from Schweitzer, over to Baldy Mountain – Sandpoint Idaho

Backcountry Ski Tour: Self Propelled Skiing

In my mind, this means taking your car as close to the trailhead that you can safely park, unload your gear, generally doing some carrying of it for a while until you hit good snow conditions, then setting up and starting your trek. Sometimes I’ve done treks where I can park at the trailhead and you’re going up right away. But generally, at least in Northern Idaho, you will be doing a slog of some sort for a while up a Forest Service road before hitting a trailhead.

Two memorable ones for me that I’ll share.

First a tour up to Scotchmans Peak in the Spring. I did this with two other friends. We didn’t have any touring gear in Sandpoint on this date, so we carried alpine gear and boots all the way up.  It can be done…Thanks again Colin 😉 Video link below.

Backcountry ski tour to Scotchmans Peak – the hard way (who needs touring gear)!  Sandpoint, Idaho.

Another one is a backcountry tour I did up towards Caribou Lake to the unnamed peak between Mount Casey and Keokee Mountain.  My partner and I had a lovely trek in the rain for the beginning, which turned into a great snowstorm by the time we reached the summit. Video link below.

A wet backcountry tour up to the unamed peak between Mount Casey and Keokee Mountain.

Motor assisted start, self-guided

This generally means going in with a snowmobile, but it could also mean an ATV or UTV with winter tracks.  If you’re not with me, check out the guys at ATVtracks.net and some of their content.  Or a timbersled, a motorcycle with tracks!  It would be nice driving up a snowy road in a heated Polaris Ranger on tracks to your base camp…. But if you get stuck, you better have a winch and some friends to help, because 2,000lb machines are not easy to move!

Polaris Ranger with Camso 4s1 tracks

But you don’t have to own the latest and greatest snowmobile if your goal is to tow some buddies and gear 10 miles up a forest service road and start from there.  I myself am the proud owner of a 1998 Yamaha Mountain Max 700. Bought it used and cheap, but it runs fine.  Sure, I’d like to have the latest Polaris Pro-RMK 174, but I don’t need it.

Add to that an Otter Pro Sled in the size you need, and you can haul all your gear up to a base location, set up camp, and start touring!  You can make an improvement by getting this Otter hitch here, to avoid using rope, and having it hit you going down. And if you don’t want to put a tarp on it to keep it dry, how about this cover.  In general, going on a trek with one snowmobile is also not a good idea. Find a buddy with one so you can be towed out if needed. 

The towing rig we’re using on Corey in this pic is well described in this old article at Wildsnow. My choice is harness/carabiner/inner tube to rope. It works, but bring extra inner tubes as they can and will break!

My 1998 Yamaha Mountain Max, and big Otter Pro sled.  Good enough to get to the trail head.

Here’s a video below showing our snowmobile setup and a little bit of side country to Schweitzer in the beginning. There’s also some footage of some amazing skiing up at Lunch Peak on some low angle slopes, followed by one crusty day near Roman Nose, in Northern Idaho.

Some Snowmobile accessed terrain near Lunch Peak and Scotchmans Peak,  Idaho Panhandle

If you are setting up a base camp for your backcountry ski tour, look into the rules.  Don’t camp on someone’s private land. In Idaho that might get you shot!   Here’s an interesting article on dispersed camping rules in Idaho.  Make sure you bury your ?with a shovel and put your toilet paper in a bag to carry out, here’s a product for that, on Amazon that I will be trying in the spring on a multi-day trek. Remember to leave no trace!

If you found this blog interesting there are two other connected blogs you should look at:

BLOG Know Before You Go – Preparing for Risk, and Route Planning Tools

BLOG Touring Gear and what you Need for Day and Multi-Day Tours

I hope you enjoyed this blog, and great success to you with your adventures, please stay safe in the backcountry!  We look forward to sharing some of our exciting new adventures this winter with you.

About Jeff Meeker – Jeff is an avid skier, outdoorsman, and technology guru, who’s love for skiing is at the same level as his wife and two kids.  His passion for skiing started age 3, when his Swiss mother made it a requirement that he know how to ski. He spent the winter of ‘84 working in a Swiss ski school near Verbier, which his daughter decided to replicate in 2017.  Jeff spends his time between Northern Virginia, Switzerland, and Sandpoint Idaho. He has two home ski mountains, La Tzoumaz, Switzerland, and Schweitzer, Sandpoint Idaho.

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