Like people or the movies, snow can be good—or it can be bad.
Bad snow is deceiving: hard and crusty on top yet soft and air-pocked underneath. Bad snow doesn’t hold up under pressure—it breaks apart and shifts and slides. Bad snow causes avalanches.
I never really thought about bad snow until I was standing on it—or slipping on it, rather. Wearing a pair of bouncy backcountry powder skis, I struggled to get a grip on the severe slope of Elk Mountain in Glacier National Park. Digging my edges inwards did nothing—I looked back and noticed that I had not even left marks in the snow.
Scraping across the sugary crust of snow was frightening, especially when I begin to think that the entire slope could give way at any moment.
“There’s considerable avalanche danger today,” my guide Greg announced to me—after we’d already made it halfway up the mountain. The beauty of backcountry skiing is that it takes you both back (and up and down) the magnificent wintry wilderness terrain. At the same time, the danger of backcountry skiing is the fact that wilderness is “wild” and thereby unpredictable.
I had always wanted to explore the deep interior of a national park in wintertime and backcountry skiing is the perfect way to do that—it’s just that I would never do it without a guide. I was grateful for someone to show me the way.
Avalanche awareness should only inspire precaution, and not deter travelers from exploring the backcountry. Just like you’d pack an umbrella to visit London, there’s certain things you take along when you ski off-piste.
“Rescue and safety gear is not optional,” said Devin Schmit, another guide who grew up just outside Glacier National Park and skied with me for the day. To ski into the park in the dead of winter, I wore an avalanche transceiver and carried a collapsible shovel in my pack. Before descending the mountain, Greg and Devin performed an ECT—an extended column test—where a column, or pit, is dug into the snow, in order to review all the different layers. Experienced backcountry travelers look specifically for transitions in the snow to see if the added pressure will cause it to collapse.
Luckily we found a nice long run that was filled with heavy powder—soft and fluffy virgin snow untouched by humans. This was the reward for the days uphill climb (a vertical ascent of some 1,500 ft.)—to ski down the backside of Elk Mountain. All the hours of sweaty work culminated in that sixty-second drop through a cloud of powder—but my, it was heavenly. As I reached the end of my first run I yelped with joy—to backcountry ski is to feel true freedom. My only regret is that we couldn’t just head right back up the mountain and go down again.
Unlike skiing at a resort, backcountry skiing favors quality over quantity. Instead of a descending a dozen different runs in a day—we only had that one brilliant drop, but it was so worth it, because the snow was so good.
I would do it again in a heartbeat and already, I dream of returning to do an overnight trip, where you get to build (and then sleep in) an igloo. My day trip was amazing fun but Glacier National Park is so gigantic, and filled with such a variety of snow, I think you’d need a few days to make the most of this vast and silent backcountry.