Ripped right out of the pages of "Zoolander," everybody is talking about the backcountry. "Skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry is so hot right now."
But what exactly does it mean to be in the "backcountry?" Central Oregon has miles and miles of terrain to explore during the winter by ski or snowboard, and although venturing out into the unknown can be daunting if not downright frightening for those new to the concept, there are a few great entry-level options for the backcountry-curious crowd.
- David Sword
- Snow season is here! It's time to strap on the skis, boards, and have a safe time.
What is the backcountry?
The backcountry is technically any remote area that does not have public services or supervised access readily available. Side-country, meanwhile, is a term used for access to areas that have easier entry points, give you the remote feel of the backcountry, but without the same level of commitment or dangers. Many ski areas allow access to such zones through gates between the rope lines. With many roads and trailheads closed or difficult to reach during the winter, safe and easy access into unpatrolled winter terrain is limited in Central Oregon.
Where do I go to experience the side-country?
Central Oregon's classic side-country option is The Cone route on Mt. Bachelor and is a great place to start for the beginner. Check its website for all the up-to-date deets and an easy-to-follow map. The uphill route starts at the base of Red Chair and follows signage up the ski trail called Leeway. The route is short, moderate for climbing and allows riders to either ski down the groomed run, or continue up to the top for a dose of Conditions de Jour. The Cone route is popular, approachable for all levels, and carries relatively low chance of avalanche.
Dawn Patrol, a phrase coined in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah for backcountry laps before the workday starts, is a rite of passage of sorts for the Bendlandian, and you may see a familiar face or 12 lapping the Cone during quality snow days. If you grow tired of being a Conehead, need a longer option or are looking to experience something new on the side-country menu, Tumalo Mountain, Vista Ridge and Todd Lake give riders plenty of interesting and approachable terrain choices to whet the snow-touring appetite.
- David Sword
What do I need?
For a first ski or snowboarding engagement in the side-country, necessities include gear for both the up as well as the slide down. Layer clothing but understand that although it might feel a wee bit cold at the start, the uphill route means riders will warm up quickly. Over-layering can lead to an early sweat and cold body temps later in the day.
Boot packing and snowshoeing are options for the ascent that won't cost much, but mean carrying downhill gear on a pack. Modern-day equipment, like Alpine Touring gear and Split boards, are designed to be lighter weight, kinesthetically efficient on the up and performance proficient on the down. Shops like Mountain Supply, Pine Mountain Sports and Crow's Feet (full disclosure: I work there) are great information hubs, sell the gear you need and offer demo gear you can try before you buy.
Is it safe to ride the side-country?
Yes. And no. Danger is always present in the mountains. If you want to eliminate it, stay home. Mitigating the risks is the key. First, check road and weather conditions. Winter is often wintery and riders need to be ready for inclement weather, both while driving and while striking out on the mountain experience. The inherent risks of winter travel in the backcountry, like variable snow and weather conditions, hidden dangers like rocks and tree wells, should always be considered. Perhaps the greatest area of concern for the beginner is snowpack stability and the possibility of avalanches. Knowledge is power and having at least a rudimentary idea of snow safety guidelines are a must. Much of our side-country terrain has low-angle options, making them relatively safe even in considerable avalanche conditions. Take a course, attend a clinic, surf the interwebs for avalanche safety. Bring a partner, first aid and repair kit. Plan on being self-sufficient. Invest in a transceiver, shovel and probe and learn how to properly use them. Practice, then practice some more. Use local shops and backcountry professionals like Central Oregon Avalanche Center, Oregon Ski Guides and Three Creeks Backcountry to increase your knowledge base.
Avalanche Safety Tips
The five red flags are simple visual clues that are a sign of potential avalanche danger. I use these observation techniques more than anything else to judge avalanche conditions in the backcountry."
Ninety percent of human-triggered avalanches happen during or within 24 hours after a storm. Give storm snow the utmost respect and assume high to extreme avy danger within 24 hours after a storm. Follow this rule and you will eliminate your risk of getting caught in an avalanche by 90%.
Signs of recent avalanches
If you see signs of natural avalanches (crown lines, avy debris) this is a sign that avy danger should be taken very seriously. Take extra precaution if the natural avalanches have occurred at a similar elevation and on the same aspect as the slope you want to ride.
Collapsing or cracking in snowpack
If you feel the slope collapse under your feet or hear whomping sounds, this is a sign of unstable layers in the snowpack. Cracks may also shoot out from your skis or board as you skin or ride in fresh snow. These are all signs of dangerous snow layers.
Rapid rise in temperature
No matter the starting temperature, any rapid warm-up is dangerous because the snowpack does not have time to adjust to the temperature change. Take extra precaution on the first warm day after a storm cycle.
Strong winds, blowing & drifting snow
If the wind is strong enough to transport snow, then avalanche conditions can change from stable to dangerous without any new snow. Watch for blowing snow on high ridges and beware of wind-loaded pockets at the top of faces and chutes.