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December 25, 2010
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Backcountry bonanza

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Maybe it's the fresh snow.

Maybe it's the sense of solitude in nature.

It may even be that the cost of a lift ticket is simply putting one foot in front of the other.

But increasing numbers of skiers and snowboarders are venturing into the Sierra Nevada backcountry.

The exact number of snow enthusiasts making the leap to the backcountry is unknown, but anecdotal evidence abounds.

"I remember, back in the day, it was pretty much limited to just Telemark skiers and we all knew each other by name," said Lake Tahoe Community College Instructor and backcountry skier Travis Feist. "Now, the Powder House is always packed."

Sierra Avalanche Center avalanche forecaster Brandon Schwartz agreed. Schwartz spends at least five days a week in the backcountry assessing snow conditions and generating the center's daily avalanche advisories.

He said the number of cars parked at trailheads, as well as the number of encounters he has with other backcountry users, has spiked in the past several years. The Avalanche Center's website also notched 372,551 visits in 2009-2010, a 50 percent jump from the previous winter.

The number of Alpine Touring setups being sold in the U.S. also increased 60 percent between 2006/2007 and 2009/2010, according to the statistics from SnowSports Industries America.

Alpine Touring setups - known informally as "AT" or "Randonee" setups - allow the heel of a skier to move up and forward. The extra movement makes it possible for skiers, with the use of climbing skins, to enter the backcountry on the same equipment they use to descend.

Alpine Touring setups differ from traditional Telemark skis in that they allow the heel to be locked down, giving an Alpine skier the opportunity to make familiar Alpine turns on the way down.

SnowSports Industries America does not track the sale of splitboards, which have also made accessing the backcountry easier since being developed in the mid-1990s. Aptly named, a splitboard separates down the middle so it can be used as a set of free-heel skis to approach backcountry lines.

Improvements in technology were cited by several people as a key reason for the increased interest in backcountry skiing and riding.

Better skis, splitboards and climbing skins have opened up backcountry travel to a whole new group of users, Schwartz said.

High quality AT bindings, especially, have made the experience more attractive and safer, said Dave Salazar, backcountry skier and employee at Sports Ltd. in South Lake Tahoe. The technology has advanced to the point where he'll use an AT setup even while skiing at a resort, Salazar said.

But why invest the energy in what sometimes amounts to an all-day walk for a single backcountry run, when more vertical feet can be tallied doing laps on a chairlift at a resort?

"I think the draw is untracked conditions and beautiful places," Schwartz said.

"Unlimited powder" is how Feist put it.

The Lake Tahoe area benefits from a wealth of terrain without the population base of a place like Denver, making the amount of fresh snow per capita almost limitless, Feist said.

Easy access to the backcountry from places like Carson Pass also make the region's backcountry especially attractive, Feist said.

But it may not just be soft snow and scenic vistas driving interest in out-of-bounds skiing.

Eliminating one component of the ski resort experience cost equation may have also fueled the growth of backcountry skiing, said Kelly Davis, the director of research with SIA, in an e-mail.

Backcountry skis and bindings can easily cost as much or more than an Alpine setup, but the cost of a lift ticket lies solely in how much energy one is willing to spend.

Davis said she would know more when preliminary sales data for 2010/2011 are compiled, but added sales figures have shown an overlap between resort and backcountry skiers.

"Backcountry equipment sales saw a spike in boots in 2008/2009 when the economy tanked, but ski sales didn't spike until the 2009/ 2010 season, indicating that participants new to the backcountry bought the boots in 2008/2009 to try the new discipline and save money on lift tickets, then they decided to buy real AT/Randonee skis last season and stop slapping skins on their old Alpine skis," Davis said.

The cost savings do come with a tradeoff - a required increase in awareness.

Inexperienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders often don't realize the danger just outside a resort's boundaries, let alone miles into the backcountry, where help is potentially hours away, Schwartz said.

Even minor problems such as a broken binding can compound quickly because of the lack of immediate assistance, Schwartz added.

But one of the major concerns for the backcountry user is being caught and buried in an avalanche.

Resorts are able to mitigate the chances of an avalanche through various control methods, but no such protections exist outside a resort's boundaries.

Both Schwartz and Feist recommended backcountry skiers and snowboarders take an avalanche course prior to making their way into the backcountry.

"Education from a professional source goes a long way," Schwartz said.

The interest in avalanche safety courses at Lake Tahoe Community College has grown along with the popularity of the backcountry.

"We can't offer enough classes, they're full right away," Feist said.

Although the Sierra Nevada has a reputation for quickly stabilizing within two days of a storm, assumptions about snow safety are one of the avalanche safety instructor's foremost concerns.

"I think the biggest danger is the assumption that it's safe," Feist said.

An unusual condition for the Sierra Nevada that formed recently is just one example of the unpredictability of unpatrolled snow.

Prior to last weekend's storms, Schwartz expressed concerns about a layer of "surface hoar" that had the potential to create widespread, persistent instability in the snowpack.

The snow formation is common throughout many of the mountain regions in the west, but rarely persists in the Sierra Nevada. In six years of avalanche forecasting, last week was only the second time he has seen the layer persist, Schwartz said.

After snow accumulates on top, surface hoar has the potential to start large avalanches traveling long distances. Still, recent avalanche advisories show a rapidly stabilizing Sierra snowpack.

"Snowpack failure occurring deeper in the recent storm snow is unlikely but not impossible, especially in areas of complex or extreme terrain," according to Wednesday's avalanche advisory.

Although helpful, the advisory is not the only information people should take into consideration when heading out, Schwartz said.

"It's a starting point in their decision-making process for the day, for where, when and how you travel," Schwartz said.

How backcountry travel is evolving was highlighted in a snowboarding film that recently premiered at the South Shore.

Jeremy Jones' "Deeper" was shown at MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa Dec. 15 and highlighted groups of professional snowboarders spending extended periods of time camping in the backcountry in search of lines that have never been ridden before.

The film, which is half mountaineering, was done without the usual help of snowmobiles and helicopters. Splitboarding, ice climbing and plain old walking are portrayed as the new frontiers of snowboarding in the film.

Jones, a Truckee resident, expressed his feelings towards the dedication to the "earning his turns" mantra in a blog post earlier this year. The post also highlights Jones' desire for people to be safe in the backcountry, while summing up the feelings of many towards taking the path less traveled.

"The reward of riding a new 'dream line' that I have worked so hard for is the ultimate reward for me in snowboarding. After 25 years of riding this is where I am; getting my greatest highs in snowboarding. That is the whole point of it. He who comes home at the end of the day happiest wins."


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Dec 25, 2010 03:51PM Published Dec 25, 2010 03:48PM Copyright 2010 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.