We are now into our first month of training for the Haute Route ski trip planned in March 2020. The Haute Route is a 7 day backcountry ski trip from Chamonix France to Zermatt Switzerland. Each day we will be expected to travel over several miles and about 5000 feet of vertical touring which is equivalent to hiking to the top of the Snowbird Tram 2 times. The group guide has instructed us to be prepared for 5+ hours of touring each day, making transitions from skiing to bootpacking in steep terrain, and be able to ski variable snow conditions. To physically prepare for this event we have been meeting as a group every Tuesday night for a few hours making as many laps possible in the frigid night air from the Alta parking lot to the top of Sunny Lift. In addition to our weekly tours we have scheduled Saturday tours that gradually increase our endurance to the Haute Route requirements. T
This last Saturday was our first 5 hour tour out of bounds from the ski resort in the Wasatch backcountry. We started at 7am from the the Red/White Pine parking lot with the intention of skiing Scotty’s Bowl. The sky was dark as we prepared our equipment for the 2000 foot vertical tour, except for a rutilant iceblink above the Monte Cristo Ridge line. We all paused for a moment as recognized the beauty we were witnessing. The conditions were not the coveted 12” of fresh powder since it had been over 5 days since our last snow storm. So we sought out for the shaded North face slopes offering silky condensed powder. The approach to the top of Scotty’s Bowl was a bit more difficult than anticipated. There was a rime crust on the west facing slope combined with a pawky thin layer of fine snow that became very slippery, making up hill touring difficult (2 steps up, one step slide back). There were several times we wished we had a support line to grab on to to help us over steep sections to prevent us from sliding backwards, but we able to bootstrap up the steep skin track to the 10,200’ ridgeline.
We found some epic untouched lines through the trees of Scotty’s Bowls. The Wasatch backcountry is becoming an increasingly popular place to ski and it's difficult to ski an entire bowl to yourself like I used to when I started in 1993. As I look back at those days of boot packing to the top of the peaks across the street from Snowbird and Alta Resorts, I have to shake my head in disbelief that I am still alive. From 1993-1997 I skied everything, Mt Superior, Flagstaff, Days Fork without any avalanche training and equipment. We spent several hours inefficiently bootpacking for one long epic untouched 2000-3000 vertical foot run down untouched powder. It was worth every exhausting foot
I have spent years learning to prognosticate the signs of avalanches. Listening for sounds, identifying snow types, observing the wind, digging pits, and daily reading of the avalanche reports (big shout out to our local avalanche forecasters who do amazing work to keep us safe). There is an instinctual alertness that you learn to attune yourself while you're backcountry skiing. I am sure it’s similar to the same instinctual alertness the plains animals use watching out for predators. You are fully alert the whole time. It’s a an experience of stepping out of your comfort zone and developing skills that adrenalize the return of skiing confidently after the next storm
Backcountry skiers need to commit to a disciplined temperament. There is an inherent risk of death and serious injury with the beckoning sirenic slopes all around you. Each skier is responsible for setting their risk boundaries and having the courage not to cross them (easier said than done). Many times I have had to say “not today” as I am drooling at the epic untouched run. This is something that has developed with time and more parental responsibilities. So, I was relieved to see Saturday's avalanche report showed “Low Danger” on all aspects so that this first time group would not be tempted to ski something beyond that boundary.
After our first run down Scotty’s Bowl we ventured off to some steeper terrain in the Temptation Chutes area. During our gibble-gabble to the top of the ridge line the people in our group were having epiphanic moments of how challenging uphill touring could be. But the effort was worth every amount of exhausting step ups, backward slides, off balance falls, and awkward switchbacks. Especially after skiing the untouched line down through the chutes of trees.
The objective of backcountry skiing is to be energy-efficient so that you can ski as many downhill turns as possible. You must relax your arms, glide instead of lift your skis, manage your breathing, and channel every available calorie of energy to downhill turns. Many of the people in our group have been revving their heart rates up to zone 4 and zone 5 trying to keep up with each other during the uphill touring. This equates to the heart working at 80-90% of its maximum effort. The rules of endurance only allow you about hour of activity at this heart rate level. I was excited to observe after Saturday’s tour that our group quickly learned that muscling through backcountry skiing will not allow them to accomplish our ultimate goal of touring for 7 days. They are going to have to learn the art of sashaying efficiently up and down the slopes. Hence, this is why we started our training a year and half before our event.
There is another realization among the group, and that is they're going to have to sacrifice some of their hygge environment and dedicate time to fitness training to enhance the backcountry skiing experience to its fullest potential. There is really only one way to get in shape for backcountry skiing and that’s getting outside and touring. But most of us don't have the time to spend touring everyday, and must supplement our fitness in the gym. Many of the people who are going on the Haute Route trip, train with me 2-3 times a week at the gym doing a variety of workout modalities. And those who are committing to these workouts are already seeing the benefits of training. This is really what I am trying to show people, the greater the effort the grander the experience. I really believe that you enrich your life experiences when you put effort into physically preparing for them. I truly love the recreational adventures and walks along the beach that do not require preparation and training. But the experiences I am referencing are those challenges that are out of our comfort zone. Experiences that provoke self reflection and development, and reaching beyond what you thought was possible. Look at Alex Honnold who spent years training to free solo El Capitan, and Killian Jornet who spent several month preparing to set the world record for the fastest ascent/descent to Everest. Their experience was enhanced as they reflected on all the work it took to achieve that one great moment that would have not been possible unless they trained for it. My aspiration with the individuals I work with is to inspire them to want to self improve from their current state to reach something greater, giving deeper meaning and reward to their outdoor experiences.