Get in the Know Before You Go
The common backcountry skiing thread is a desire to get away from crowds, infrastructure, amenities, and the general safety net of resorts. It’s getting back to skiing as a natural means of travel and exploration, to efficiently move through wild winter landscapes and interact with nature in its element. Many skiers and riders are choosing to leave the prospects of limited base lodge access, reservation systems, and extended lift lines behind in favor of socially distant backcountry experiences.
Words by Jake Risch, Photography by Alexandra Roberts Photography
All signs are pointing to busy trailheads, full parking lots, and lots of new users exploring the backcountry for the first time. The backcountry demands self-reliance, preparedness, and good judgment. Whether you’re taking your first steps off the groomers or your next steps up into high country, we offer the following information and resources to help you along your way.
This is the year that Backcountry Skiing goes mainstream. National publications, the New York Times and Forbes published backcountry “how-to” articles. Local shops are reporting record sales of alpine touring and splitboarding equipment. According to Andrew Drummond at Ski The Whites, “Business has been incredibly busy–starting in August–as we saw an unprecedented spike in sales. I’ve heard there’s anywhere as high as a 30 percent COVID push in the market.” Similarly, Coert Hansen, co-owner of Ragged Mountain Equipment reports, “…demand has definitely exploded, and our worry is that demand will exceed the supply for the first time in years.”
So, now that you have that fancy new kit, where do you start? What are the hazards and risks? What about avalanches?
If You Don’t Know, Start Low
Start with lower elevations, low angle slopes, and low avalanche danger days. Lower elevation options in the White Mountains included staying out of the above-treeline, open alpine terrain, keeping slope angles lower than 30 degrees to stay out of avalanche terrain—and when you do start pushing up into the higher presidential range—starting with days when the avalanche forecast is low.
Here in the Mt. Washington Valley, there are three broad levels of uphill ski touring options with increasing requirements for self-sufficiency and risk management.
Local Ski Resorts
If you aren’t sure of your commitment level just yet and want the lowest risk option to get a taste for uphilling, figure out the equipment, and gain fitness, try some ski touring at one of the local resorts that have an uphill policy. In the avalanche context, all of the trails at the MWV resorts are considered low angle. Black Mountain, Bretton Woods, Cranmore, King Pine, Shawnee Peak, and Wildcat allow uphill travel with the purchase of an uphill ticket. Attitash does not allow uphill travel at this time and encourages customers to try uphilling at partner Wildcat. Ski areas are a great place to learn and practice the basic touring skills without leaving the safety net of the resort behind. The uphill ticket pays for snowmaking, grooming, and ski patrol. Conditions are predictable and rescue is just a phone call away. Plus it’s a great way to get in a quick workout … with the reward at the end.
Uphill Travel Policies at Valley Alpine Areas
Earning Your Turns on the Groomers
Each resort has its own policies, and you need to respect the opportunity given to you. When in doubt, ask ski patrol for the safest route up the mountain.
Attitash Mountain Resort
Uphill access on Attitash Mountain Resort during, before, or after hours is prohibited. Their sister resort, Wildcat Mountain, offers uphill hiking, skinning, and skiing.
For additional, updated information, call (800) 223-7669 or visit Attitash online at www.attitash.com.
Bretton Woods supports individuals who wish to pursue alternative methods of accessing their trail systems. All uphill travel or skinning is done, solely, at each individual’s own risk. Those who wish to skin, snowshoe, or otherwise access Bretton Woods trails via uphill travel are responsible for their own actions, safety, and equipment. Individuals must purchase an uphill access ticket for $21 at the Bretton Woods Guest Services desk.
For additional, updated information, call (603) 278-3320 or visit Bretton Woods online at www.brettonwoods.com/alpine/uphill_policy.
Cranmore encourages uphill travel (i.e., skinning), and wants to make sure guests traveling uphill are doing so in a safe manner. Guests traveling uphill MUST have a valid lift ticket or season pass. Uphill access is permitted two hours prior to operating hours and during resort operating hours only.
For additional, updated information, please call (800) 786-6754 or visit
Cranmore online at www.cranmore.com.
A season pass, lift ticket, or uphill ticket is required to access trails. Skis with skins, snowshoes, or split boards are required. Brakes and/or restraining straps are strongly recommended. Uphill travel is only permitted from sunrise through 4 p.m. No uphill travel should be started after 3:30 p.m.
For additional, updated information, call (603) 383-4490 or visit Black Mountain online at www.blackmt.com/uphill-policy.
As an uphill user, you are the guest of Purity Spring Resort, Inc. and must agree to the terms, conditions, acknowledgment of risk (RSA 225A:3) and release of liability. Access is at your own risk. Skis with skins, split-tail snowboard with skins, or snowshoes are required. A current, valid season pass or lift ticket is required to access trails.
For additional, updated information, call (603) 367-8896 or visit King Pine online at www.kingpine.com/uphill-policy.
Shawnee Peak welcomes and supports guests seeking to enjoy uphill travel on the mountain. All travel is done at each individual’s own risk. All uphill participants will acknowledge that they know and will adhere to the Maine Skier Statute and the Maine Recreational Use Statute. An Uphill Access Pass will be free for season passholders and $30 for non-Shawnee passholders. Uphill travel is prohibited between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Headlamps and reflective clothing are recommended. During the early season, uphill access is not permitted due to snowmaking and grooming operations.
For additional, updated information, call (207) 647-8444 or visit online at www.shawneepeak.com/faqs/uphill-skiing-policy.
Uphill access to Wildcat by hiking, skinning, snowshoeing, or any other manual ascent is given only after a trail pass ($10) or lift ticket has been purchased for the day or with a valid season pass. Users of facilities do so under NH statutes S225-A:24 and RSA 637:8.
For additional, updated information, call (603) 374-2603 or visit www.skiwildcat.com/the-mountain/about-the-mountain/safety.aspx.
Mount Washington Cog Railway
For a unique, backcountry skiing or snowboarding experience, the trackside service trail is available all winter (parking/land use fees apply).
For additional, updated information, call (603) 278-3320 or visit www.thecog.com.
This information represents partial uphill information only, originating directly from each resort’s website in November 2020. Please refer back to each respective website for detailed and updated information.
Where to Go
Stepping away from the resort, folks can dip their toes into true backcountry skiing by exploring the glades created by the Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA) and the historic Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) ski trails around the Valley. With a few exceptions, these areas are low elevation/below treeline and low angle (less than 30 degrees) allowing users to gain experience backcountry skiing while avoiding the risk of being caught in an avalanche.
Once skiers leave the resort, they are faced with new challenges. Rescue will be hours away, hazards are unmarked, and conditions are dependent on the weather and traffic.
Parties should be prepared with skills and equipment to stabilize an injury and self-rescue or keep warm until search and rescue crews respond. Individuals and parties should carry extra layers, a first aid kit, and simple means for building a rescue sled from the patient’s equipment. Taking a wilderness first aid course will provide the skills necessary to stabilize an injury and plan a rescue.
The GBA glades in the region include Maple Villa in Intervale, Baldface in Chatham, Bill Hill in Gorham, and Crescent Ridge in Randolph. The crown jewels for backcountry skiers in the Mt. Washington Valley are the snowfields, chutes, and gullies of the Presidential Range.
There are four historic CCC trails: the Sherburne and Gulf of Slides trails (GOST) on Mount Washington and Black Mountain and Doublehead trails in Jackson. The Mount Washington Cog Railway allows skiing on the ski trail cut along the tracks with a day-use fee. All of these options—except the very top of the GOST and the snowfields above the glades on Baldface Knob and South Baldface—are out of avalanche terrain. The slopes directly adjacent to the Cog Railway are below 30 degrees, so not considered avalanche terrain; however, once you leave the Cog Railway property, you enter the high-alpine, avalanche-prone terrain of the Presidential Range.
Backcountry Gear Options
Until recently, options for backcountry skiing in the Mt. Washington Valley were limited to the alpine terrain of the Presidential Range, established historic backcountry ski trails, and elusive, guarded secret stashes.
Enter GBA. GBA has organized the BC skiing community, advocated with landowners, secured permissions, and turned out volunteers to develop gladed backcountry ski zones around the region. The MWV now has BC skiing options both in and out of avalanche terrain, just minutes from downtown North Conway.
Another good way to save is to consider consignment gear. You’ll find good equipment at a lower rate and also be doing your part in reusing and recycling.
The consignment shop at IME has AT and telemark ski gear, backpacks, ice axes and tools, climbing shoes, climbing gear, snowshoes, tents, sleeping bags, tons of clothing,
and lots more. Ragged Mountain has most of that, plus more alpine and cross-country gear. REI sells consignment gear online as well.
IME – North Conway NH – www.ime-usa.com
Ragged Mountain Equipment Intervale, NH – www.raggedmountain.com
Whether you’re getting into the backcountry for the first time or your looking to develop new skills, renting equipment can help identify which gear to buy, and at the very least, save a bunch of money.
These local shops can set you up with everything that you need.
Ski The Whites – Jackson, NH – www.skithewhites.com
mtnGEAR – Glen, NH – www.climbingrentals.com
REI – North Conway, NH – www.rei.com
The crown jewels for backcountry skiers in the Mt. Washington Valley are the snowfields, chutes, and gullies of the Presidential Range. Intrepid skiers and riders are scouring Google Earth to identify remote rockslide paths across the White Mountain National Forest. South Baldface and the Baldface Knob offer above-treeline skiing on exposed rock slabs accessible from the GBA glade. All of these options are considered avalanche terrain and deserve proper respect, training, and equipment to avoid being injured, or even killed, in an avalanche; and to be able to rescue a partner if they are caught, carried, and buried.
NOTE: For immediate additional information, visit www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center publishes a daily avalanche advisory with route-specific forecasts, usually by 8 a.m..
In addition to the first aid and self-rescue gear, parties pushing up into avalanche terrain should have an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel as a minimum; and consider crampons, a short mountaineering ice axe or whippet (ice axe/ski pole hybrid), and other mountaineering equipment appropriate for the objectives and routes.
Finding a mentor, taking avalanche education and rescue courses, and dedication to keeping up to date on the weather and avalanche forecasts are the tickets for entry into the high alpine.
Avalanche Courses in the Mt. Washington Valley
Understanding where and how avalanches happen and what to do when they do is an essential skill for backcountry skiing. We are fortunate in the MWV to have multiple world-class mountain schools with excellent avalanche awareness and rescue courses.
Chauvin Guides International
Synnott Mountain Guides
Mooney Mountain Guides
Eastern Mountain Sports Schools
East Coast Avalanche Education
The Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop
Mount Washington Avalanche Center
Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School
Mountain Shadow Adventures
The Mount Washington Avalanche Center
For immediate additional information, visit www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center publishes a daily avalanche advisory with route-specific forecasts, usually by 8 a.m.
Backcountry skiing requires participants to have sufficient skills, gear, and training. Hiring a guide helps to ensure preparedness.
International Mountain Climbing School – www.ime-usa.com/imcs
Synott Mountain Guides – www.newhampshireclimbing.com/backcountry-skiing-ski-mountaineering
Redline Guiding – www.redlineguiding.com/adventures/backcountry-skiing
Northeast Mountaineering – www.nemountaineering.com/ski-2/backcountry-ski-touring
Mountain Life International – www.mountain-life-international.com
Eastern Mountain Sports Schools – www.emsoutdoors.com/skiing
Chauvin Guides International – www.chauvinguides.com/winter-programs/skiing
Mountain Shadow Adventures – www.mtnshadowadventures.com/backcountry-skiing-ski-mountaineering
Local Non-profit Organizations Supporting Backcountry Skiing and Search and Rescue
Local Non-profit Organizations Supporting Backcountry Skiing and Search and Rescue
Want to give back? These local nonprofits support gathering and broadcasting critical weather and safety information, develop and maintain the backcountry zones, and support search and rescue efforts in the region.
Mount Washington Avalanche Center
White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation
Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol
Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue
Appalachian Mountain Club NH Chapter Ski Committee
There are no ski patrollers in the backcountry. Rescue will be hours away, hazards are unmarked, and conditions are dependent on the weather and traffic. Parties should be prepared with skills and equipment to stabilize an injury and self-rescue or keep warm until search and rescue crews respond.
• Carry enough warm layers to stay warm while waiting for rescue.
• Wilderness first aid training and the knowledge and ability to improvise a hasty rescue sled could save a life.
• Avalanche awareness and rescue training is essential for traveling in avalanche terrain.
• Understand and follow the principles of “Know Before You Go.”
• Carry a beacon, probe, and shovel—and practice searching for and digging out victims.
• Carry crampons and an ice axe when skiing the steep gullies and bowls of the Presidential Range.
• Taking a wilderness first aid course will provide the skills necessary to stabilize an injury and plan a rescue.
SKI NO TRACE
If you pack it in—pack it out. Protect our special places. This summer, the Mount Washington Valley saw an influx of new users to our outdoor spaces. Unfortunately, not all of the new users were as respectful as they could have been. Trailheads were overrun with litter and human waste. Let’s head this off this winter. We can do our part to be good stewards of our local resources. We can respectfully educate new users and help them to understand their impacts on the resources. Carry an extra trash bag and leave parking lots, trails, and the backcountry cleaner than we find them. Together, we can protect these valuable resources.
Understand the increased risk equation when you leave the resort. There is no ski patrol in the backcountry; you are on your own. Get the first aid, rescue, and avalanche training necessary to take care of yourself and your party. Leave an itinerary with expected time of return with a friend or family member with instructions on who to call when you are overdue. Be prepared to hunker down and stay warm for hours, or even overnight. Practice with your rescue equipment and partners. Understand the terrain and be mindful of your exit points. Finally, establish and stick to a turn-around time based on daylight and objective.
Be a positive mentor to the new skiers and riders joining the backcountry movement. Be patient with rookies, and provide positive constructive advice. If you are new to the sport, seek out mentorship with a learning mindset. Give back with time or donations to organizations working to protect resources and expand access. In the backcountry it is okay, even necessary, to have friends on a powder day.
Commit to understanding the added hazards and risks of the backcountry. Keep your skills sharp through continuing education in avalanche awareness, wilderness medicine, and self and group rescue. Stay up on the weather, snowpack, terrain, and conditions. Be mindful of the abilities, experience, and expectations of your party. Start with a plan and be ready to deviate when conditions change. It’s okay to bail when conditions don’t meet expectations.
There will be record numbers of users in the backcountry this winter. Please only park in available parking spaces and respect the local residents who live near trailheads. Follow the latest travel guidance, maintain social distancing, and follow COVID protocols when interacting with other parties at trailheads and choke points along the trail. Avoid postholing (walking without skis) in the skin track or up the middle of the ski trails. Be aware of other parties above and below you. When possible, avoid climbing up under a skiing party and dropping in above a climbing party. Consider the impacts of your actions on the experience of other parties. Also, be a responsible pet owner.
Winning the game means getting your entire party back to the trailhead at the end of the day. Everything else is bonus points. Understand your limits and the limits of your ski partners. Set realistic objectives and be ready to scale them back as the situation changes. Keep your skill sharp and equipment maintained. Follow established safety protocols. Turn your beacon on at the car and off at the bar. Gather as much information as possible to ground your decisions.
By all accounts, this season is going to be busy in the backcountry. Above all, be kind to your fellow adventurers. There is enough stress in daily life; let’s build an accepting backcountry community and help the newcomers out.