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Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

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Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby llamaman » Tue Oct 19, 2010 4:31 pm

My wife and I are looking to do more backcountry skiing this year. We're both intermediate downhill skiers at resorts (we can handle up to easy black runs) and pretty good XC skiers. Neither of us own downhill skis--since we only go a couple times a year, we always rent. We do own basic XC touring skis. I rented tele gear once last year to do a trip with a CMC group. That was fun--tough to learn tele turns in 20 inches of powder but at least the falls we soft.

We've decided that we are going to rent a few different types of equipment over the next few months (as soon as the snow allows) so we can experiment and decide what to buy. I don't see us going onto advanced terrain or doing aggressive stuff any time soon. So that makes me think we should target a lighter set up that won't slow us down too much as we learn. On the other hand, it might be nice to have skis that we can take to the resorts (probably AT), so maybe a fatter, heavier ski makes sense. Versatility may be the key for this first set of skis and it might be nice to get something on the cheaper end of the spectrum since, given my history with bikes, I'm thinking this isn't my last set of skis. :mrgreen:

So I guess I'm just looking for tips for a backcountry beginner. What should I look for? What should I ask? What should I avoid? Specific models to look at? Is there a general set up out there that's considered ideal for a first set of backcountry skis? I know about the various shops around and will visit them soon, but I'm ramping up my research. Thanks.

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby CR0SS » Tue Oct 19, 2010 4:47 pm

Avy gear(Beacon, probe, shovel)
Avy 1 class

Then start looking at ski gear.
Sierra Club, helping to confine humans within city limits one acre at a time.

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby tommyboy360 » Tue Oct 19, 2010 4:59 pm

Take a marriage counseling class! You'll need it \:D/

I would definitely not recommend making your first trek into the backcountry with your wife when both are you are unexperienced, need gear and are moderate expert skiers.

Backcountry is way more than 20" of powder. Check out the sidecountry options at the resorts and ski it in ALL conditions. Acquire and get to know your gear. Find some partners and then venture out. Perhaps a trip to silverton first?
“It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress.”

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby dbroudy » Tue Oct 19, 2010 5:07 pm

A lot of the focus with telemark equipment for the past couple years has been on heavier turn-focused equipment and bindings with a free-pivot "tour mode". One thing that I didn't realize when I got into telemark skiing was the level of cross over with old 3 pin XC equipment. I guess that 3 pin isn't very common on actual XC equipment anymore, and some people seem to sort of look down upon the lighter equipment and the "meadow skipping" style of tele skiing, but if you already enjoy XC, it might be what you're looking for.

This page is sort of the gosspel of this type of skiing. You should also check out TelemarkTips, which has the whole spectrum of tele skiers.

It's hard to know what you mean by advanced terrain, you might want to qualify that with what kind of angle you're thinking of. But in any case, backcountry makes any terrain more advanced, if only because the consequences are greater.

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby tommyboy360 » Tue Oct 19, 2010 5:33 pm

Your backcountry group is as only safe and fast as your weakest and inexperienced partner.

I've been doing it for years and I'm still learning. I cannot even explain the trouble you can find out there. Learn to read terrain, to ski/work together and understand snow conditions and winter weather patterns. Have expert ski skills that allow you to maintain speed in the flats/run outs, the deep and on rolling/bumpy terrain. Be confident in the trees and know how to communicate when separated. Learn to tread lightly and be able to react to shallow buried rocks/logs. Know what's below = tons of danger of getting cliff'd out. Done it, seen it and read many accounts of it.

Be careful of powder lure and don't underestimate avy conditions. I've seen simple little rollovers go and a person get buried in 5 ft of debris when most people would think that it was a tiny non-risk slide.

You need a good pack. Test it out and know how to pack and carry your alpine/survival gear.
Beacon, probe and shovel. Know who to use it when it counts. Take a class to understand conditions, crisis and gear. Avalungs are quickly becoming standard. Carry a whistle.

Traction: skins, AT setup, tele, splitboard, micropikes, ice axe, whippet, crampons... depends on terrain, preferences and conditions.

Silverton is a great place to get a taste. They make sure you have the gear and team you up with guides.

Do you have a vail 5 mtn pass? Watch for them to post opening days for the backbowls and be there. Learn to ski chair 5 and blue sky (champagne glade/steep and deep) from top to bottom... Read terrain, ski all types of conditions and learn to read and MAKE the flats. Terrain like Blue Sky Basin is a different animal when the underlying snow surface is not packed.

Aspen Highlands is another place to test your early skills. Wolf Creek has great sidecountry - short, deep and sweet. T-ride has good hiking too. Loveland and A-basin are great but back/sidecountry conditions will not be there until later in the season.
“It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress.”

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby llamaman » Wed Oct 20, 2010 8:52 am

I'm working on the avalanche training and do have experienced skiers I can go out with. I'm not worried about the marital implications.

My goal this year is to get out away from resorts and off-trail, but definitely not on steep terrain. I am aware that there are risks even on mild terrain, but I don't plan to ski 14ers or anything very steep. Last year, I went out near Montgomery Pass and another area near Cameron Pass, a few areas in RMNP (below timberline), and a few areas near Breck (below timberline). Most of that was on my very basic XC touring skis and while I managed to stay upright most of the time, it was difficult. I did rent tele gear (fat skis, plastic boots etc.) once and thought it was too damn heavy. The steepest thing I did last year (on the rented tele gear) was a small glade/meadow just below the main bowls at Montgomery Pass. I'd say it was maybe a 30 degree slope, so pretty mild. That was with a CMC group.

Basically, we plan to head out off-trail in search of some powder, but on much milder terrain than what most people think of when they think of backcountry skiing. I just don't have the skills or confidence yet to try anything too advanced, but I want to get away from the crowds and hoopla of resorts and off-trail. Nothing "extreme."

dbroudy -- thanks for those websites, the first one is pretty informative. I've never heard the term "meadow skipping." A little searching, though, and it seems to describe exactly what I want to do, which I guess makes me wimpy, but that's fine. I'll get just as much joy from the uphill as I will on downhills. So I want light gear, much fatter than what I have now, with good edges, some shape, not sure about camber, and probably not plastic boots. There are a lot of options, so I'm just trying to learn about the differences.

Thanks!

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby Carl » Wed Oct 20, 2010 9:34 am

llamaman wrote: I've never heard the term "meadow skipping." A little searching, though, and it seems to describe exactly what I want to do, which I guess makes me wimpy, but that's fine.


Nothing wrong with hanging out on some lower angle terrain during most of the winter months while the snowpack is less predictable. A 25 to 30 degree slope with a foot of fresh is a great place to spend Dec - March. There is a good reason why most of the 14er ski descent TRs on this site are in April and May.

llamaman wrote: So I want light gear, much fatter than what I have now, with good edges, some shape, not sure about camber, and probably not plastic boots. There are a lot of options, so I'm just trying to learn about the differences.


I don't know much about tele gear (if that's what you've decided on) but I do know you'll want some plastic boots.

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby dbroudy » Wed Oct 20, 2010 9:39 am

FWIW, 30 deg is getting into avalanche terrain. I think 25 deg is generally considered mellow enough to not slide under normal conditions, though you always have to worry about crossing steeper paths, or about slopes above you cascading down. But that's just from reading (Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, which is not a substitute for a class, as people will continually remind you), I'm not an expert by any means, and I still won't be after I take a class this year. It pays to have an inclinometer to know angles for sure, they're cheap and often part of a compass. I've been surprised both ways the couple of times I've measured.

For boots, there's an appeal to leather, but there are two big advantages to the plastic boot. First, it's absolutely not permeable, and is therefore going to be warmer in most cases. Second, it'll give you more control, at the expense of some glide, perhaps. But if you're just learning how to tele turn you may want a little extra control. To put it another way, I'd rather have a boot that overpowers the ski than the other way around, especially in variable backcountry or sidecountry terrain, with no ski patrol rescue me. Besides, you're not going to be in groomed XC tracks, you're not going to get all that much glide anyway. I have old blue 3 buckle Scarpa T2s (you'll see boots referred to like this with lots of qualification, since manufacturers like to change them a lot year to year) and they're a happy medium for me, but maybe a little heavier than what you want. Also, I have heard a lot of people say that you shouldn't try to learn to tele in the backcountry, that's probably good advice. I'll probably replace my T2s with T2 Eco's this year or next, and only then would I buy a pair of leathers for days when I don't plan on anything steep and when I'm not worried about warmth or really deep snow. But, I do eventually want to do steeper backcountry, so a Scarpa T3 (if you can find one, the don't make it anymore) or a Garmont Excursion might be better for you.

Another thing to consider is waxable vs waxless (patterned) skis. When I first started hearing about this kind of skiing, I thought waxing was crazy, but don't let it scare you. It sounds really bad, but the couple of times I've done it, it was actually really easy, and I was amazed how much grip it provided. It helped that it was well below freezing, and I always take skins as insurance, in case I can't get wax working. Waxing also means you can pick a more turn friendly ski, since you can wax anything. Though with a heavier ski you'll be slower. I wax my Volkl T-Rocks, and have a lot of fun. I'm not racing anyone.

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby rickinco123 » Wed Oct 20, 2010 10:11 am

llamaman,
A lot boils down to personal preference but technically speaking, you are putting yourself at a huge mechanical disadvantage by going the tele route. It used to be that you needed to do tele to get the light stuff but that is no longer the case. There is a reason that the heel was eventually attached to the ski. Generally speaking the advise you get a ski shops in the mountains will be better than down in the metro area. I think you were spot on about what you wrote, get a light easy flexing set up. If you are an experienced XC skier than you already have a lot of the experience you need.

Go out an practice your shelter building, after that reading avy terrain would be second. The terrain you are after is probably not going to be avy prone ( 25 degrees is like a blue run ) so your big concern is not crossing over or under avy terrain on the way up or back. Sounds like you are already getting after the obvious avalanche training etc.

I have a lot of experience, skiing 36 years with a lot of racing and teaching/coaching skiing for about 14 years. One thing I can tell you is experienced cross country skiers pick up alpine faster than just about anybody, maybe even faster than hockey players. If you can get out more, you will be surprised how quickly you and your wife will improve. I cringe at some of the bad advise I hear dispensed about skiing technique, if you have any questions please feel free to PM me.

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby llamaman » Wed Oct 20, 2010 12:04 pm

rickinco123 -- I guess you're suggesting AT bindings/boots?

I'm not so sure, for a few reasons. One, weight. An AT set up is well over 20 pounds. If I were really focused on getting great turns on serious backcountry downhill runs, then that would be fine. But I'm really focused on mixed terrain. I'm not sure what to call it. Meadow skipping?? Maybe it's really just off-trail XC skiing with some mild downhills. For example, my best trip last year was up a 2-ish mile climb, on trail, to some meadows/bowls, where we did a few downhill runs, and then returned to our cars through the trees off-trail. It was snowing hard and there was, I dunno, 20 or 30 inches of powder. I did that on rented tele gear, with plastic boots. I forget what kind of skis, but they were pretty fat--probably similar to BD Havoc. It was a fun day, but man that stuff was HEAVY!

Second, AT stuff is expensive and I'm hesitant to spend almost $2,000 (times 2, since my wife needs the gear as well) for something I'm just getting into. The only thing I really like about the AT idea is that I can take them to the resorts and ski regular alpine style.

I'm leaning toward what I think most people would call a heavy duty XC set-up, or I've seen some refer to it as "old school tele." Skis in the 110/75/90 range (like Madshus Annum, or Alpina X Terrain).

But we will at least rent a few options first--maybe that will change my thinking.

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby Carl » Wed Oct 20, 2010 12:34 pm

llamaman wrote:rickinco123 -- I guess you're suggesting AT bindings/boots?

I'm not so sure, for a few reasons. One, weight. An AT set up is well over 20 pounds. If I were really focused on getting great turns on serious backcountry downhill runs, then that would be fine.


So you're going to choose whether you want to tele or downhill based upon the weight of the setup? I've heard a lot of reasons why people do one over the other, but this is a first. Maybe you're getting this advice from someone who hasn't looked at AT gear in the last 10 years? An AT setup could easily get as light as 16 to 17 pounds (skis, bindings, boots) if you wanted.

llamaman wrote:Second, AT stuff is expensive and I'm hesitant to spend almost $2,000 (times 2, since my wife needs the gear as well) for something I'm just getting into. The only thing I really like about the AT idea is that I can take them to the resorts and ski regular alpine style.


AT stuff is expensive, I'll give you that. But you could put together a brand new setup with top of the line gear for $1,300. I'm figuring $500 for the boots, $500 for the skis, and $300 for the marker barons. You'd then be set for resort and backcountry (minus of course the skins and avy gear you'd need either way).

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Re: Equipment suggestions for backcountry beginners

Postby llamaman » Wed Oct 20, 2010 12:46 pm

Wesley wrote:
llamaman wrote:rickinco123 -- I guess you're suggesting AT bindings/boots?

I'm not so sure, for a few reasons. One, weight. An AT set up is well over 20 pounds. If I were really focused on getting great turns on serious backcountry downhill runs, then that would be fine.


So you're going to choose whether you want to tele or downhill based upon the weight of the setup? I've heard a lot of reasons why people do one over the other, but this is a first. Maybe you're getting this advice from someone who hasn't looked at AT gear in the last 10 years? An AT setup could easily get as light as 16 to 17 pounds (skis, bindings, boots) if you wanted.

llamaman wrote:Second, AT stuff is expensive and I'm hesitant to spend almost $2,000 (times 2, since my wife needs the gear as well) for something I'm just getting into. The only thing I really like about the AT idea is that I can take them to the resorts and ski regular alpine style.


AT stuff is expensive, I'll give you that. But you could put together a brand new setup with top of the line gear for $1,300. I'm figuring $500 for the boots, $500 for the skis, and $300 for the marker barons. You'd then be set for resort and backcountry (minus of course the skins and avy gear you'd need either way).


No, not choosing tele because of weight, but I might choose not to get plastic boots because of weight, which then rules out AT. A lighter tele set up is still possible. Like I said, I'm not sure (still debating) how focused I'll be on the downhill. I like touring and exploring, so that means miles of up and flat, so I'm not sure a heavy set up (tele or AT) makes sense. But I do need more float, stability and control than what I currently own.

$1300???? I must be looking in the wrong places. I've been checking online retailers (REI, Backcountry.com, a few other random Google finds) and it looks like $1600 is the basic price of admission for AT ($600 for skis, $600 for boots, and $400 for bindings).

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