Imagine standing on the shoulder of a snow-covered peak, your skis or snowboard teetering over the edge. You see the highway, where you began, meandering, thin as a hair 3,000 feet below. Dropping in, each turn erupts arcs of snow, like giant rooster tails, and the sun turns the lingering icy mist into billions of tiny prisms.
It took two hours to get yourself here. You studied the weather, the avalanche bulletin and the map. Finally, the rewards: 20 minutes – 30 at the most – of bliss all the way down.
It's called backcountry skiing, where you earn your turns. And more and more, people are gearing up their arsenal – in equipment and knowledge – to get out there.
Despite a record surge in Colorado skier visits – 12.6 million last year as California droughts drove many to the Rockies – skier visits are down 10 percent across the U.S. since 2010-11, according to the National Ski Area Association. It's not that people aren't skiing, they're doing it a different way.
In a report issued by the U.S. Forest Service, undeveloped skiing is expected to increase by up to 106 percent in the next 30 years. The Winter Wildlands Alliance reports that human-powered snow sports are the fastest-growing segment of winter recreation, reflecting a recurring trend during the last five years.
The industry has skyrocketed. That 10 percent drop in skier visits may be found in the 10 percent rise in backcountry gear sales, reported by Snow Industries America. According to them, those sales topped $44 million last winter.
In the Winter Wildlands report, between 2008 and 2011, the number of people older than 16 who participated in nonmotorized winter recreation grew by 4 million. By 2012, 10 percent of adults in the West had at least tried human-powered snow sports – 2.1 million of them backcountry skiers or snowboarders.
In Durango, Miles Venzara, co-owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering, says he's watched it happen. Fifteen years ago, gear people used was heavy and cumbersome.
“The new equipment is lighter, safer and more versatile,” he said. “The new technologies are progressing.”
Technologies advance, allowing more people to go farther, faster and more often. Manufacturers are making equipment for the best of both worlds. With Alpine touring and Randonee bindings that allow skiers to free their heels and maneuver like a Nordic skier, they can use the same rig for lapping a crowded chairlift as touring remote mountains. By using skins, a synthetic layer of fabric that adheres to the bottom of your skis to climb uphill, ascending is relatively simple. Venzara said most modern ski boots now even have a walking mode.
“The alpine world – the typical chairlift, skier and equipment – is really changing over,” he said. “It's taking from the (Alpine touring)world.”
Splitboards – snowboards that split in two and are used as skis for ascents – are a huge sector of the snowboarding industry. Several years ago they were a fringe novelty for a fraction of the demographic. Today, most snowboard manufacturers market one.
Many resorts are trying to appeal to skiers who want valet parking and après ski ambiance. Wolf Creek Ski Area is renowned for its hike-to terrain, accessible from above the lifts, providing a greater sense of adventure and often deeper snow. Silverton Mountain hikers can access 13,000-foot peaks from the top of its only chairlift. Mostly guided, the “un-resort” often is booked for weeks in advance.
Avalanches kill more people in national forests than any other natural hazard, according to the National Avalanche Center. Swarming into unpredictable environments, skiers are arming themselves with knowledge. Currently, in the U.S., more than 90 course providers and 250 professional instructors represent the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). In Durango, Friends of the San Juans introduced the area's first free avalanche-awareness courses. Free to the public, it was met with overwhelming response.
“We're taking responsibility in educating folks on the risks and dangers of choosing this new lightweight equipment that can all of the sudden put you in avalanche terrain pretty quickly and easily,” Venzara said.
Gear of the year
Much of that $44 million in gear sales goes to safety. Small, digital location transceivers send or track signals and allow savvy users to locate victims quickly. And time is everything: The chances of survival drop with every passing moment. Modern collapsible shovels and probing poles weigh little, and considering a 3-foot burial requires moving 2,500 pounds of snow, according to an AIARE study, shovels are a must-have. (Note: A typical 6-foot deep burial calls for 10,000 pounds of snow shoveling.) So called anti-burial system packs, backpacks with a balloon-like feature that blast into shape via compressed air or fan at the pull of a cord, are becoming the norm, reducing mortality rates from 23 percent to 2.5 percent. Even snorkel-like breathing devices are marketed to divert carbon dioxide away from air intake, allowing a buried victim to breathe under snow.
With a myriad of weather forecasts, and avalanche applications, your smartphone holds instant data that is constantly updated and available.
“There's so much good research and study these days,” Venzara said. “You don't have to be an expert.”
Allure of the mountains
“That's what got me out there, untracked powder,” Venzara said, returning from an early-morning outing off Bradgon Ridge in the La Plata Mountains. “But now it's become more for me just to find a place for solitude. To be where not a lot of people go.”
Since 2002, 57.5 million skiers have hit U.S. ski-area slopes, according to the NSAA. Meanwhile, a few miles away from the lifts, someone is quietly skinning up a wooded trail, spotting snowshoe hares and mountain chickadees, absorbing the sounds of the Rockies. One Sunday, Venzara was one of those, part of a growing number of skiers who work for the top and shy away from the crowds.
“It was just me and my buddy,” Venzara said. “There was nobody else up there.”