Backcountry guru Gary Quinn is all smiles as he picks a line beyond Schweitzer’s boundary (Photo by Doug Marshall)
Sidecountry skiing from Schweitzer a backcountry trend
By Chris Park
It’s a bluebird morning at Schweitzer. Josh Burt, Gary Quinn and I, after a few warm-up laps in the Outback Bowl, take Snow Ghost back to the top and tuck it down to the Idyle Our T-bar. After a short ride, we’re leaving the resort at the boundary gate. Another short glide and we’re at the base of Big Blue where we skin up and start the 40-minute hike to the top.
At the summit, breathing hard, we’re rewarded with beautiful panoramas of the Selkirk and Cabinet mountains. We de-skin, do a transceiver check and make our way over the knoll to dig a pit. Finding the stability to our satisfaction, we pick our lines and one at a time arc fast giant slalom turns through knee-deep powder, gliding almost effortlessly, leaving trails of cold smoke as we descend 1,200 feet down to the run out.
Regrouping with snow-caked smiles, we exchange high fives and make the decision to hike up and do it again. It’s just too good not to. We’ll traverse out to the Outback Inn for a cold beer after the next run. This is the sidecountry experience!
Anyone with a passion for skiing has some degree of curiosity for what lies beyond the boundaries of a ski area. And anyone who has skied untracked powder definitely knows what that draw is. The late American ski pioneer Dolores LaChapelle knew what she was talking about back in the 1950s when she claimed, “The essence of life can be found in deep powder turns.”
For many, there can be no greater satisfaction than experiencing the virtually weightless, silent flight down a mountainside as skis plane over the cold, light, untracked snow, beautifully draped like a down quilt, softening and smoothing the hidden terrain below.
Here in northern Idaho, Schweitzer Mountain Resort’s inbounds terrain is pushing 3,000 acres. Combine to that over 3,000 acres of sidecountry terrain just beyond the resort boundary, and you’ve got one of the largest ski areas in the nation! Just to be clear: Sidecountry skiing is defined as occurring in out-of-bounds, unpatrolled, natural snow terrain that has been accessed from a ski area by a lift-riding, ticket-buying patron. Today sidecountry skiing may well be the biggest trend in the U.S. ski industry.
Schweitzer has gained a well-deserved reputation as a big ski area offering thousands of acres of inbound terrain for all levels of skiing. Still, on those big powder days when the visibility is good and the locals are out in force, the snow gets tracked up after only a few hours.
“That’s when I head for a gate and leave the boundaries,” says Josh Burt, 33, local ski enthusiast and lifelong ski bum. “I need virgin powder to satisfy my soul and my primal desire to rip a clean line!”
Burt describes Schweitzer’s sidecountry as “immense, beautiful and loaded with everything from hardcore lines to sublime bowls.”
Not long ago, skiing came in two varieties: lift-serviced resort skiing and human-powered backcountry exploring. The line between the two was rarely ever crossed. Not surprisingly, ski culture continues to evolve. Evolutions in equipment, an explosion in media promotions, European influence, better understanding and reporting of mountain hazards, more skiers with backcountry knowledge, and new policies at ski resorts have combined to create this new chapter.
We now live in a postmodern culture. People are inspired to find deeper, even spiritual, meaning in athletic pursuits. For many skiers and snow riders, the sidecountry is nothing short of an elixir for the spirit.
Local skier Gary Quinn, 57, another inveterate ski enthusiast, says sidecountry skiing reconnects him to that sense of freedom and wonderment that he had as a kid.“I’ve come full circle,” Quinn said. “The motive for passion doesn’t change, only environments.”
Instrumental in this developing trend are ski resorts across the nation that openly allow access to their sidecountry terrain; however, the market potential for sidecountry skiing is still relatively untapped. Only in the last few years have ski resorts started promoting this untamed, freeriding experience as yet another amenity to offer paying skiers.
For skiers venturing into the sidecountry unaware and unprepared, however, the experience can quickly turn miserable or even lethal. This fact has been the conundrum facing both skiers and ski resorts. Many resorts had officially closed their boundaries in the 1970s and early ’80s as backcountry skiing grew in popularity. At that time ski resorts were understandably concerned for the safety of their clients.
Ultimately however, these policies led to tremendous friction between the gatekeepers and the gate jumpers. This came to a head in 1997 when an internationally acclaimed extreme skier and guide, Doug Coombs, was banished from Jackson Hole for an alleged boundary violation. Less than two years later, this action was reversed and Jackson Hole officially opened its boundaries and literally set in motion the sidecountry revolution. Today most ski areas have followed suit and changed the focus from enforcement to education.
“I’ve always been for an open boundary policy,” said longtime Schweitzer Ski Patrol Director John Pucci. “We’ve tried different approaches over the years and have found that we cannot spend all our time enforcing boundary violators.”
Pucci added, “The best we can do is to help educate people.”
Schweitzer allows access to its sidecountry skiing only through six entry gates – three in the Schweitzer Bowl and three in the Outback Bowl. Part of the ongoing education effort is signage at these gates.
While sidecountry skiing shares the many rewards of traditional backcountry skiing, it also shares the considerable hazards: avalanches, cliffs, terrain traps, tree wells, ice falls, stumps, stobs, rocks, getting lost, equipment failure and extreme weather. Getting injured, stuck or lost in the backcountry can have extreme consequences and thus requires extra caution. Experienced backcountry skiers know this and have the experience, equipment and training to minimize those risks.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case with those venturing into the oh-so-easily accessible sidecountry. The sidecountry can and does create a false sense of security with its close proximity to the resort, easy access and escalating popularity. Route finding can be tricky, especially at Schweitzer, where whiteouts are common. Within minutes of leaving the Schweitzer boundary, you can find yourself in avalanche terrain. The backcountry begins once you leave the gate. At that point liability for your safety lies right where it should: in your own hands.
That’s not to say that a sidecountry skier in trouble has no options other than self-rescue.
“Due to our proximity and expertise,” said Pucci, “the patrol will, almost always, assist in a sidecountry rescue.”
He adds, however, that “A skier venturing beyond the Schweitzer gates who gets into trouble can be at the mercy of the Bonner County Search and Rescue.” This can involve a longer wait and significantly greater expense: A rescue involving a helicopter can easily run more than $10,000! A sidecountry rescue from Schweitzer can involve a single or cooperative effort between Schweitzer Ski Patrol, Bonner County Search and Rescue, Selkirk Powder and private individuals.
Since 2002 Selkirk Powder has been operating a snowcat skiing and guided snowmobile tour operation on the undeveloped private landholdings leased exclusively from Schweitzer, as well as some permitted State of Idaho lands. Selkirk Powder’s lodge is just off the top of Schweitzer Mountain, and much of its snowcat skiing terrain shares a border with the ski area. Selkirk Powder has taken a forward-facing approach to sidecountry skiers in their terrain, seeking a path to education rather than eradication. Regarding the inevitable “Who rescues?” question, Chip Kamin, co-owner of Selkirk Powder said, “We do help and will help in any emergency situation that comes up.”
Ken Barrett, president of Selkirk Powder and head guide for the operation, points out that Selkirk Powder “has been involved in 15 rescues over the years, and we accept this as part of the job. Our groomed road systems and mapping have made the area safer and sped up rescue efforts.”
Barrett goes on to say, “It’s big backcountry out there, and we’re willing to share it, but being respectful, responsible and safe will always be the most important issues.”
Joe Vallone, a registered mountain guide who works in the United States, Canada and Europe, describes it well: “When ski areas allow out-of-bounds skiing, the community is embracing the culture of the mountain and its dangers. But at the same time, the community is very proactive at educating, so the people tend to recognize the risks and respect the terrain more than in areas where out-of-bounds skiing is not allowed.”
It’s a huge advantage to be able to access out-of-bounds skiing from the lift. So good, some purists call it cheating. Many ski areas such as Schweitzer Mountain Resort and ski businesses such as Selkirk Powder, bless their hearts, have taken an honest, proactive approach to the sidecountry skiing phenomenon. They are there to help educate and assist. Taking this bold move to heart, the skiing community must also step up to the plate and continue to develop a strong and lasting ethic of education, preparedness, responsibility, accountability and respect when skiing in the private or public sidecountry. It’s all about pushing boundaries – but with style and grace!
Sidecountry routes and resources
Unless you know the terrain like the “back of your hand” and ski conservatively in mellow terrain in stable conditions, don’t go deep into the sidecountry by yourself. Pay a visit to the Schweitzer Mountain Activity Center, Selkirk Powder’s lodge or Schweitzer Ski Patrol’s room, where you will likely find someone willing to share his or her sidecountry stash. Book a guided cat skiing trip with Selkirk Powder: 866-464-3246 (http://www.selkirkpowder.com).
Before you go, it is quick, easy and smart to get online to check the local avalanche bulletin: http://www.fs.fed.us/ipnf/visit/conditions.html or call the Avalanche Advisory Hotline, 765-7323.
Show you’re “avy savvy” and set a good example by carrying a beacon, shovel and probe. Be comfortable and familiar with their use. Are you venturing deep into the sidecountry? Consider bringing along a compass, map, cell phone, first aid kit, repair kit, headlamp, extra clothing, water and food. Don’t forget your climbing skins!
Taking a Level 1 avalanche course will greatly expand your understanding, appreciation and respect for the winter environment. Locally, workshops are available through Kevin Davis, U.S. Forest Service avalanche forecaster (265-6686, http://www.fs.fed.us/ipnf/visit/conditions.html) and snow safety educator, Shep Snow (The Snow School, 263-3552, thesnowschool.com). Check The American Avalanche Association or Canadian Avalanche Association Web sites for information, too.
Between Schweitzer Ski Patrol and Selkirk Powder, four beacon practice areas exist at the resort. Patrol does a regular transceiver workshop on Sundays. Stop by!
When you’re dialed and styled, it’s time to head into the wild! Six gates access Schweitzer’s out-of-bounds terrain: three along the Schweitzer Bowl and three along the Outback Bowl.
For a great sidecountry start, head for the West Bowl, accessed from Schweitzer Bowl via the Lakeview Triple chair. Get off the chair, turn left and skate or scoot over to the radio towers at the top of the south ridge and look for the gate. Go through the gate and veer left. This is the not-too-steep, nicely gladed West Bowl. Ski down about 500 to 600 feet and traverse out left to reconnect with the south ridge. If you go down too far you’ll have to boot or skin back up to the ridge.
The West Bowl will ultimately lead to more adventures in exotic, nearby locations such as Solar Ecstasy, Larch Park and Eulida Bowl, as you explore and meet other explorers in Schweitzer’s sidecountry.