A Beginner’s Guide to Skiing the Backcountry

Adventure skiing is still alive and well...if you're willing to work a little

December 14, 2023 6:38 am
A skier on an empty mountain with the ocean in the background.
There's a big world out there. Stop waiting for the same lift each season.
Courtesy of John Briley

If you’re a committed skier of a certain age, you can probably recall a time when ski trips felt like high adventure — bold journeys into the unknown, or the immensely challenging, or the very hard to reach. That thrill was borne of fear, perhaps, or the unvarnished optimism of youth, or the gripping anxiety of piloting a beater car over a pass in a raging snowstorm.

But at some point the annual ski trip turned less magical, each passing season a reprise of a vaguely familiar decampment to another megaresort, with mega infrastructure, mega lift lines, and that weird, paradoxical competition (with whom it is never clear) to have more fun than last year. In short, a sacred rite of winter started to feel like a lame-ass bro movie.

But it doesn’t have to be this way: Adventure skiing is still out there, if you’re willing to work a little, endure some creative itineraries, open your mind and body to new skills, and maybe even let the quality of skiing take a back seat to exploration.

Photos of men on a skiing adventure.
Skiing the backcountry with friends is a bucket-list adventure you’ll remember forever.
Courtesy of John Briley

Adventure Skiing 101

So what’s adventure skiing? “A journey with an uncertain outcome,” says professional extreme skier and guide Chris Davenport. “If you go to Aspen, Vail, Whistler, or the big resorts in the Alps, you know what you’re going to get.” That’s fine, Davenport says, especially when conditions line up in your favor, but what if you’re longing for that elusive buzz of discovery?

“When you go to the corners of the world in search of snow, that’s when things get interesting,” he continues. “You’re going for the experience — new cultures, scenery, food — and if you happen to get good skiing, that’s a bonus.” 

I spoke to Davenport just after he returned from his seventh trip to Antarctica, where he guides backcountry expeditions. “Each one has been different,” he told me. “Different levels of sea ice, different weather, different places where we could get to shore and start skiing.” He also guides in Japan and in Colorado, where, in 2007, he was the first person to climb and ski all 54 of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks in one year. All of these are projects he drummed up precisely to sustain the thrill in a life he built around skiing.

How to Make It Happen

Okay, so Davenport is an outlier, but we can still glean some wisdom from his mindset. I work full-time and have a family, along with a sadly familiar mob of creditors, but I’m also addicted to skiing and boundary pushing. For years I chased powder as maniacally as time and budget allowed, and when that began to feel rote I took up backcountry skiing (not a big leap for lifelong alpine skier), which has opened up a world of possibilities. 

Often, my friends and I will plan entire trips around backcountry skiing, as we did two years ago in the Lofoten Mountains of Norway. Over four days we loped through Lord of the Rings scenery — piercing, chalk-white peaks vaulting from the Norwegian Sea — and returned every evening to the ancient fishing village of Henningsvaer to eat fresh seafood, quaff beers, and scan the sky for the northern lights. We probably skied no more vertical feet than we would have in one day at Jackson Hole, but we notched a life-list experience that will bind us forever.    

And even when I’m headed to a big-box resort with my wife and kids (as a ski writer occasionally must!) I’ll seek out a guide for a day of backcountry or side-country skiing, to meet the mountains on their terms, not mine.

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Less Pricey Than You’d Think

These roads less taken needn’t break the bank, and in many cases cost less than a week at a marquee mountain. Among my catalogue of highly memorable buddy trips is a six-day tour of British Columbia’s Powder Highway during which a friend and I hit three resorts — Panorama, Kicking Horse and Revelstoke — augmented by a day of heli-skiing and a visit to a renown hot spring. With a favorable exchange rate, we paid significantly less for the whole thing than we would have for a week in, say, Vail.    

On another occasion a group of us anchored ourselves in a B-list Japanese ski village — Myoko Kogen — and hit four hills over seven days, tacking on a guided backcountry tour along the flank of a towering, steaming volcano. I used frequent flyer miles for my plane ticket and, once on the ground, found almost everything — including lift tickets, food and lodging — to be far less expensive than in the U.S.

And sometimes spending a little more is worth it: In 2017, I hired Davenport to guide me on a backcountry up-and-down of 14,265-foot Quandary Peak in Colorado. Of course, it didn’t go as planned: a weird spring storm whited out our climb and the views from the peak, and the descent took us a grand total of 45 minutes, but the day remains a high note on my adventure resume. 

One photo of a man working on a laptop with a beautiful vista outside his window, and another where is bathing in a hot spring.
Adventure skiing comes with a variety of gratifying side quests…which may or may not have anything to do with skiing.
Courtesy of John Briley

Hire the Big Guns

Davenport is among a cadre of former pros available for hire for all manner of snowbound adventures, and hanging with former big leaguers has perks. They know their terrain, wilderness medicine and technique, and have deep bullpens of stories to share. A few years back while at Big Sky, Montana, I skied with mountain ambassador Dan Egan, who regaled me with tales from his glory days as a Warren Miller ski film star — and of his narrow survival of a mountaineering disaster that left 15 people dead at 18,000 feet on Russia’s Mount Elbrus.  

To be clear, I have no ambition to push my exploits that far, thank you very much. But I admire the spirit of those who do. For now, I’m content to chase Jimmy Petterson, a lifelong ski bum, musician, writer and photographer who has skied at hundreds of resorts in more than 70 countries. Inspired in part by Petterson’s wanderings, I’m headed to North Macedonia and Kosovo this March for a week of cat skiing.

You Gotta Want It

No musing of this sort would be complete with a PSA on safety, so here you go: If you’re going to ski out of bounds anywhere for any length of time and don’t have avalanche safety training, hire a guide. Once you’re out there, know your own limits, eat and drink before you get hungry and thirsty, pack an extra (warm) layer and always plan to get back to home base with energy and daylight to spare.

Also, respect your tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty. Backcountry skiing, for example, requires a disproportionate amount of walking uphill, and if you don’t enjoy that, there’s no reason to put yourself through it.

Otherwise, look at every trip as an opportunity to expand your horizons, to revel in the unexpected, and to just have fun. If you decide you don’t like it you can always slink back to a well-oiled mega-resort. Just be ready for the warm glow of envy you’ll receive at the bar as you share your tales from the edge of the skiing horizon. 

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