We’ve always enjoyed spicing up our trips with a bit of adventure travel. While digital nomading in Colorado this winter we had the chance to try a totally new adventure that we’ve had our eye on for a while. As avid skiers (and snowboarders) we’ve always relished the idea of completely untouched terrain. After getting to see more of our surrounding areas this year when snowshoeing through Steamboat Springs and finding some social media inspiration from our friend over at The Bold Nomad, we decided we had to try backcountry skiing.
From cliff diving in Costa Brava, to mountain climbing/scrambling in Meteora, and canyoneering in Terceira we’ve actively pursued the active and adventurous sides of travel. Backcountry skiing was going to be different. All of those activities have their own inherent risks, but skiing in the remote wilderness was a whole new level. In Colorado alone, avalanches have claimed the lives of 10 people up to this point in the year and most experts have been warning of a historically weak snowpack. Besides the avalanche risk, we were planning to be in an incredibly remote area with no cell phone service that would be hours from the nearest hospital or ambulance.
With all of this in mind we knew it would be incredibly important to be prepared. We began reaching out to all of our connections, friends and family to start getting recommendations on resources. After some research we found an area that came well recommended and offered the terrain we were looking for. Our target was Cameron Pass. Next step, finding an expert.
Finding A Backcountry Ski Guide
As we’ve recommended before, when tackling new adventure travel, reach out to an expert to help plan your trip. There can be all sorts of logistics, training, gear and more that an expert can help you sort through. Given the dangers of a backcountry ski trip there was no doubt that we wanted to work with an experienced backcountry guide to help us navigate the terrain, keep us in safe areas, and make sure that the trip was a blast. Our research and conversations with friends and family told us that we were looking for someone who;
- Had all requisite avalanche safety training (AIARE I, AIARE II, AIARE Rescue, etc.).
- Preferably had First Aid and CPR training in case something did go wrong.
- Had intimate knowledge of the terrain.
- Had a great attitude and wanted to take out a group of first time backcountry skiers.
We started our search on Google, but ultimately found some of our best guide options using the post location feature on Instagram. We sorted through posts tagged with the location of Cameron Pass. Given the remote location, most posts from the area are from outdoor enthusiasts. We looked through the posts for guides and started conversations with several of them to feel out their qualifications and interest. Besides looking for the written qualifications we came armed with additional questions to make sure they could demonstrate to us that their credentials were justified. After receiving satisfactory answers we asked for references to give us further confidence.
After this process we settled on our guide, Zack Wallack of Cameron Pass Backcountry Tours. After several conversations with Zack, our tour started coming together and before we knew it we were renting our safety and touring equipment and heading out.
Prepping For Our Backcountry Adventure
Our tour was to begin at 8am in State Forest State Park about 2 hours away from our homebase in Steamboat. We piled in the car the night before and grabbed all our equipment on the way out of town. For the tour we each rented;
- Avalanche Beacon - to geo locate any buried party members.
- Avalanche Probe - to find buried party members.
- Backcountry Shovel - to dig out any buried members.
- Touring Boots (for skiers) - to allow for free heel movement to walk up the mountain.
- Touring Skis w/ Touring Bindings (for skiers) - alpine bindings do not allow this free heel movement and alpine skis have for less float on deep snow.
- Splitboard and Adjusting Bindings (for the boarders) - a snowboard that comes apart to create pseudo skis for the uphill climb.
- Matching Backcountry Skins for the Skis and Board - attachments that go on the bottom of your skis to allow you to climb up the hill without sliding backwards.
With all our gear in tow, we headed out to Walden, CO, the last town with a reasonably sized hotel for us to spend the night before heading up to Cameron Pass. We booked a room for the night, so that we’d only be 30 minutes from our meeting spot in the morning.
We went through all of our safety equipment checking batteries in the beacons, ensuring the tracking and discovering functions were working properly (thanks Youtube), tested probes (possibly poking each other too much for some) and put together and broke down our backcountry shovels. Finally, we went to sleep excited for the day ahead.
Our Cameron Pass Backcountry Skiing Tour
Alarms went off early in the morning and we were up and out of our hotel just after 7. We met up with Zack at the meet up spot and began the fumbling and arduous task of acclimating ourselves to touring equipment. With boots, skis and skins on, we made our way up just off the road to a small clearing area.
Our first order of business was a roughly hour long safety demo. What to do in an avalanche, how the equipment worked, some Q&A and then an actual exercise of individually finding and digging up a buried beacon to ensure we could all perform a proper rescue. The hour long demo in the single digit temperatures wasn’t the glamorous start we had in mind, but it was a welcome confidence boost to make us all feel very comfortable with our equipment, knowledge and especially with our guide.
With the necessary precautions covered, we finally began our climb. After a fairly strenuous ~1,000 ft climb through Medicine Bow National Forest we made it to our first summit. The snowy and overcast day didn't provide much for photo ops but the views we could take in were incredible and the gentle flakes falling throughout the day were a bonus. From the summit point we could see a number of peaks with the most eye popping being the Nakhu Crags. But we were there to ski! And throughout the climb the snow just kept getting deeper.
We made our transition over to downhill by removing our skins, putting the splitboard back in one piece, resetting the bindings and setting all the ski boots and bindings for downhill. We took in the view one more time, and proceeded to glide through several feet deep of light, powdery snow down to our first meeting point. Untracked powder is just a different feeling than all other skiing. And that first run after all the build up was spectacular. Our descent was only roughly 300 vertical feet, but everyone had huge smiles on when we made it down. Energized by the amazing run we quickly transitioned back over to our touring setups and started back up.
After covering the top 300 ft of our upward climb again we found ourselves at the peak of the same summit point, but facing back towards the forest. Excited, we switched back over to our downhill setups and dropped in for our second descent. This time, we made our way through the full 1000 vertical feet we had gained. First through an open glade, then through tighter and tighter treed areas until we made our way out to an opening spot that would be our lunch camp.
Here is where some unique challenges of backcountry skiing caught up to a snowboarder. In the backcountry it is incredibly important that you keep track of your group at all times, never letting anyone get too far away from the others. Additionally, this was unfamiliar terrain for us, so we stuck very close to each other’s lines. If you’ve ever snowboarded you know that once you stop in a flat area it can be incredibly difficult to get going again. With us constantly stopping to regroup, in two feet of powder, I found myself swimming through the snow quite a bit to get going again.
Despite that, we all made our way down to the lunch spot to enjoy a quick packed lunch before heading back up for more.
We transitioned our gear to start our climb and started back on the track from the morning. About the 3/4s of the way up the climb we deviated and headed over to a separate area from before.
With about 100 vertical feet left in the climb, I started having some serious equipment malfunctions. The skins, which attach to the bottom of your skis and prevent you from sliding backwards in the snow, were no longer sticking to my splitboard. Zack made a couple adjustments and helped me get maybe 50 more feet before things were unsalvageable.
Unfortunate Truths, Equipment Can Be Critical To Your Trip
Here’s where I’m going to take a minute to be brutally honest. Even before this moment, I had been having a really rough time with my skins. For every step forward, I was sliding backwards maybe a ¼ of my step. Even with coaching from Zack on my technique, I was still having to work wayyyyyy harder than everyone else in the group. As a result, I was consistently out of breath and it had made the day, even up to this point, far less enjoyable than it could have been.
Even more backstory, the place where we rented the splitboard and skins is a place in Steamboat where I used to get my seasonal snowboard rental. I say USED to, because after breaking 3 of their incredibly old and low quality bindings, I decided to buy my own gear. FYI, breaking a binding is not a small issue, it is incredibly dangerous, and it happened 3 times to me this season using their gear. Thankfully, each time I was not injured, and each time they assured me there was no way it would happen again. Because of this, I DO NOT recommend snowboarders rent gear from Ski Haus in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Their ski equipment appears to be much higher quality, and they openly admit that their snowboarding equipment is not equal quality to their ski equipment.
Anytime you’re heading out for an adventure travel trip it is imperative to ensure that you’re equipment is up to standard. Good gear, can make or break your trip and in some cases faulty or defective gear can cause major injury or life threatening situations. I can’t stress again how important it is to ensure you have the right tools for your trip. In this instance, we were lucky that the consequences were low. Unfortunately, we were forced into using this shop, but we will not make that mistake again.
Back to our story…
Finishing Up Our Cameron Pass Ski Tour
Thankfully, we were already on the edge of the bowl where we would be skiing down our next section. I was able to maneuver my way to the edge of the drop off, and after everyone else had made their way down, I was able to ride the section down. Steeper terrain, bottomless powder, and the handful of turns I made in this section were amazing.
At the bottom of the bowl, things tightened up again with another dense section of trees. We finished the final 600-700 vertical feet before meeting back up with the road. We popped off our gear and hiked back up to the car to finish off the day.
First Impressions of Backcountry Skiing
All in all, the day was a blast. The views were unbelievable, the snow conditions were spectacular and we felt safe the entire day. The feeling of accomplishment at the summit, especially given the struggle was really empowering. To know that we were on a peak drinking in a view that few people will bother to trek up to was an amazing feeling.
One downside was the relatively low ~2,000 vertical feet that we were able to ski given the amount of effort. For context, we average 10,000 to 15,000 vertical feet in just 2-3 hrs in the resort, and this was an 8 hr. tour. So that was a lot more time hiking and a lot less time skiing. It is a timeless argument of quality vs. quantity, because the downhill sections were spectacular. Despite the struggle, I believe we’ll give it another go with more reliable equipment and potentially in a different zone offering more open and consistent descents.
If you’re looking for a backcountry ski adventure in Colorado I would definitely suggest Cameron Pass and Zack of Cameron Pass Backcountry Tours.
About the Author
|Stephen Gary is the co-founder of Flashpacker Co. He’s been a digital nomad for the past 5 years traveling all across the globe exploring new cities, languages and new passions. Find more from him over on our travel blog.|