There is local ski spot that is not Purgatory or Wolf Creek. In fact, at this place there are no chairlifts, lift tickets or crowds. This dream skiing location is called the backcountry.
One person who knows about the backcountry is Steven Meyers, an English professor at Fort Lewis College, and a man with an avid ski history. A major factor for Meyers’ love of skiing the backcountry is mentorship, Meyers said.
“I moved to Colorado in my late 20s thinking I was a skier, cause I had only skied ski areas,” Meyers said.
After arriving in Silverton in the mid ‘70s, Meyers befriended Dolores LaChapelle, who quickly took on the role of mentoring him when he was in his late 20s, he said.
Meyers skied with LaChapelle, the first ski instructor at Alta Ski Resort, and her husband who created the snow physics program at the University of Washington, he said.
The first time Meyers skied with LaChapelle, she pointed at a patch of snow a mile away and said that they had to avoid that because it was wind slab, Meyers said.
He looked but all he saw was snow, nothing special about it, he said.
It is common that skiers use a beacon when they are in the backcountry because it allows their partners to find them if they get buried in an avalanche. But avalanche safety gear, like the beacon, were still developing when Meyers began skiing in Silverton.
Back in the ‘70s, many skiers had issues with the Pieps 1, one of the first beacons used to find people buried in avalanches, Meyers said.
“People were getting into trouble when they were tumbling in avalanches and the beacon would switch from transmit to receive,” Meyers said.
He even remembers taping a quarter over the button so it would stay on transmit, he said.
Brett Davis, the assistant director of Outdoor Pursuits, said that one way to achieve backcountry safety skills is by taking a course. If one can’t afford that, Davis recommends going with people who know what they’re doing, people who have taken the safety courses, he said.
OP used to carry more resort specific gear, but now it focuses on backcountry access by offering alpine touring skis and telemark skis. They also offer splitboards, a type of snowboard that can be split laterally so the user can hike up mountains as if they are using skis, and avalanche safety equipment, such as beacons, probes and shovels, he said.
One such snowboarder is Michael Bartley, an environmental studies major at FLC, who puts school second when it comes to having fun in the backcountry, he said.
Bartley prefers backcountry splitboarding over resort snowboarding for a number of reasons, he said.
The main reason he likes splitboarding in the backcountry is because the splitboarder, like the skier, has to hike up the mountain with all their gear before they get to ride back down, he said.
“I like the idea of earning your turns,” Bartley said.
Another reason Bartley prefers the backcountry is because of the big crowds of people who are typically found at resorts, he said.
Bartley agrees with both Meyers’ advice for obtaining a mentor and Davis’ advice for taking classes about the backcountry.
“Read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into, and go out with somebody in a smaller crew and learn from them,” Bartley said.