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****DOWNING MOUNTAIN LODGE****

Operating as a year round adventure lodge two thousand feet above Hamilton Montana. Private access and backcountry, wilderness skiing in Montana! Enjoy the best of backcountry skiing with 3,000' vertical and a log lodge in which to rest, restore, and recover. In the business of adventure lodging, private events, retreats, and adventure consulting call or email for your complete Western Montana vacation.

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Please visit the reports page for archived trip reports pre 2010 and the tours page for local and regional backcountry ski touring info.

BACKCOUNTRY FOCUS a Western Montana website created by backcountry enthusiasts for backcountry users.

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Western Montana Avalanche Forecasts-- Gallatin Forest Avalanche Advisory-- Sun Valley Advisory


BACKCOUNTRY SKIING

Backcountry skiing has become amazingly popular in the past decade resulting in an ever expanding resource of backcountry runs pioneered by free spirits. It is the backcountry community that develops these ski bowls, chutes, and lines that are a natural part of the mountain landscape. Your effort, your reward! The more time that you put into researching and exploring the mountains, the broader your knowledge of ski features will become. It is a lifelong process for a dedicated group of enthusiasts. For all backcountry skiers there are reasons to be off piste in the mountain ranges of the world: solitude, exploration, exquisite wild snow, and challenge are some of the more familiar reasons. All of us love to hike as well and after a long winter hike in the mountains the reward is to slide back down your chosen line, alone with friends in an idyllic setting. In the summer, what you hike up you must hike down!
So if you're wondering about leaving the ski-area for the freedom of the mountains, or if you’re a regular enthusiast we hope you find our site useful and engaging.

EQUIPMENT

Backcountry skiing requires specialized equipment that will enable you to hike uphill as well as ski back down. Currently, equipment is in the middle of a major revolution and advances are being made continually. The basics include a pair of telemark or randonne boots and skis equipped with specialized bindings. Telemark bindings allow the heel to always be free, like cross-country skis. Randonne bindings free the heel for uphill travel, then lock down the heel for the ski run. Split boards are an option for snowboarders; the splitboard splits lengthwise into skis for the uphill and then mates to form a snowboard for the downhill. Ski skins are made of directional fabric that will only slide forwards. These skins mount directly to the bottom of the skis with a special adhesive and are then peeled and packed away for the run. Poles are helpful whether a skier or snowboarder and manufacturers offer many options including adjustable length poles. Additionally a shovel, sectional probe, Avalung, avalanche beacon, helmet, ski crampons, self arrest pole grips, boot crampons, ice axe, and a rope are all additional equipment to further the quest and help keep you safe. All this gear needs a home and the ski pack has become a specialized item large enough to carry all the gear yet also equipped with features to strap your skis onto during hiking circumstances. Learning to use this equipment safely and efficiently takes practice.

Foremost is to learn the basics of the equipment along with safe travel skills, risk management and avalanche terrain to avoid ending the quest in a search and rescue by your group or the professionals. There are many resources available these days for learning about backcountry skiing from books, courses, seeking a mentor and the web; check the links page for additional resources. There is much to learn and, like riding a motorcycle, accidents happen most often to the inexperienced and brash backcountry skier.

photo by Don Lange Dome Col Selkirks B.C.

TOURS
There are endless mountain ranges in the world for exploring on skis, from Antarctica to Greenland and almost every latitude in between. We are from North America and will therefore focus on the areas we know best and the means by which we have learned to find backcountry ski runs.
There are areas that have become popular backcountry destinations during the past few decades. Mostly it is a coincidence of good highways happening to pass through exquisite ski terrain that has not been developed with lifts. These areas are typically associated with high mountain passes or are adjacent to current ski areas. Other popular areas have been pioneered using helicopters or snowcats or snowmachines. With the Forest Service and Park Service having a recreational mandate, most areas are open with seasonal exceptions in sensitive wildlife habitat. Please inquire locally and respect these closures.
There is a contention in backcountry skiing that publicity and increased traffic will eventually spoil an area's charm. Hence many backcountry users keep their favorite runs secret revealing them reluctantly or not at all. How to balance this with the growth in our sport and ensuring that backcountry users continue to have access, and that user conflicts with snowmobilers and others is understood and resolved will continue to be an issue. As backcountry skiers, we need to get involved and give public input to resolve these conflicts in order to protect unique areas that offer great backcountry skiing. This is the only reason why we should publicize our favorite ski runs. If in the course of this website we reveal your favorite secret stash and that annoys you, remember that without a voice we may be overrun by user groups with one.
A brief summary of easy access and popular backcountry ski areas would have to include Utah's Cottonwood canyons; Teton Pass in Wyoming; Berthoud, Loveland, and Red Mountain passes in Colorado, Donner Summit and the backcountry out of Bishop in California, Galena Summit and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho, Roger's Pass, Kootenay Pass, the Whistler backcountry and the Icefields Parkway in Canada, the volcanoes of the Pacific ranges in the springtime and summer, Beartooth Pass and the Bridger Range in Montana as well as the backcountry around Cooke City, Montana and along the Gallatin River. This just names a few and does not include Alaskan areas or more remote and difficult to access areas.
In the east the White Mountains and the President range of New Hampshire as well as the Adirondacks of New York and the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec all provide opportunities for skiing off piste as well. As anyone can see there is a very large quantity of destinations to visit for exploring the backcountry on skis. Europe, Asia, and Scandinavia all provide additional venues in which to explore the world off piste on your skis under your own power.
The backcountry that I have most thoroughly explored is in Montana's Bitterroot Valley where I live. With a range extending over a hundred miles long and having northern, middle and southern portions, there are many places I have been and many yet to explore. We often settle on favorite areas which we enjoy and have good access to very much like a ski area and then occasionally explore new venues when the weather and time allow.
As backcountry skiing is typically self propelled, do not expect to ski much more than 5000 vertical feet in a day, especially if you are out breaking trail in deep powder. But once you have the trail set it is possible to put in bigger days. For me, skiing has become a passion in which I get out to the local spots regularly and try to explore a few new locations every year to develop a bigger repertoire and a deeper memory bank of exquisite ski runs. Though skiing deep powder at my easy spot close to town is my “bread and butter”, skiing the remote and wild big-mountain line is the pinnacle of my ski career. Sometimes it takes a few years to pull off that trip planned to some remote and beautiful peak.
If approaches are long and difficult, too many bushwhacks may demoralize and turn you off. If you find a place you enjoy skiing and find that it is often that your party is there amongst few others, then enjoy your find and settle into learning the details of the terrain and the avalanche conditions at that particular spot. However it is important to make goals for yourself and try to stick to them whether they entail exploring new venues or making the multi-day tour to a remote location or pushing the limit of your vertical in a day.

photo: Don Lange, Skier John Lehrman, spotter: Steve Loch, Location Homer Young Peak

SAFETY
If you do not already consider one of your primary life goals safety, it had better become important when you venture into backcountry skiing and avalanche terrain. The two are virtually synonymous. Avalanches have a tendency to clear out the forest and fill in with snow and do it again. And the alpine is the starting zone often below the wind drifted ridge. Bruce Tremper boils it down quite well when he equates that 95% percent of the time the snow on avalanche terrain is stable, if you ski 100 days in avalanche terrain and mind not the random stability you will get slid, launched, swept away into the cheese grater river of snow five times. If you have never been in this river swimming you can only imagine the power, more like concrete slurry in the end. Imagine swimming down a steep, mountain slope in a current of cold concrete and you get the idea.
So that is what we are trying to avoid when talking avalanches: starting a slide on a slope we can safely ski otherwise. The slope has an angle that induces skis to slide and then you make the turns to control your descent. Every time you turn it shocks the snowpack which may cause a failure in a weak layer, and possibly a slide to start. For more information, Bruce Tremper’s “Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain” is the latest bible on avalanche safety.
Avanlanche safety revolves around knowing the history of the yearly snowpack, and if there are any problem layers that may pose a threat to your safety. Pay attention to these layers, and try to estimate how the latest weather patterns are affecting them before you go out. If you don’t know the history of the snowpack, try to get this information from a bulletin or local backcountry users to get the scoop. If you have no opportunity to learn about the snowpack you are about to venture into, then travel a safe distance from avalanche terrain until you can make your own assessments.
The slope angle professionals tell us is that the mean of the bell curve for avalanche accidents is 38 degrees: wear an inclinometer around your neck and measure your slope angles-it may save your life…seriously. Below 35 degrees avalanches become less frequent as they do above 45 degrees. Below 30 degrees they are quite rare as starting zones but will slide from a release above very readily. So if you pay micro attention to the slope angles that you ski, especially when ascending avalanche terrain, you will reduce the risk of stepping on a trigger. Triggers can be slow to find in some cases.
Hence there is a set of golden rules to skling avalanche terrain. First has got to be staying clear of avalanche danger until you can learn about the snowpack. Second, is wearing a beacon, Avalung, and helmet for your self protection and carrying a shovel and probe to protect your friends. Third, in avalanche terrain spread out the group. Obviously more weight is more likely to trigger slides. Spread out the group on both uptrack and while skiing. This makes groups of 3-4 ideal. With good coverage and not too many to induce bunching, three to four in a group can cycle through breaking trail chores and trade off first and last ski runs with the best efficiency and safety. Another great reason to spread out is to only expose only one person at a time to avalanche terrain. If that is impractical, due to the length or size of the feature being crossed, spread out as much as possible. This might mean ten minutes on the uptrack and giving each other three or more full minutes on the descent. Use your watch to measure time, as we are all excited to hit the powder.
Another rule is to operate from a position of safety. Before dropping into the avalanche zone and while waiting for your partner to ski, it is imperative that you are in a safe location and preferably (but secondarily) with a view of the skiers on the run. Likewise when you finish skiing through avalanche terrain move away to the sides, onto a hillock, or into the trees so that you or no longer exposed to a slide from above. Keep your skis pointed in the direction of further safety in case you need to move further. Only through constant diligence to recognizing exposure to avalanche threats can we reduce the chances of being slid, buried, and not having a partner capable of rescue. Be aware when you are breaking the rules and make others in your party aware as well. Remember this is your and your partners' lives at stake and there should be no powder frenzy like at the ski area.
Other rules while skiing into avalanche terrain include being aware of escape routes, stack tracks or figure eight if possible, and ski the fall-line (the line that a snowball will roll down the hill). Try to avoid falling-especially during more considerable avalanche hazard-when you know the snowpack is touchy and reactive. Ski with at least one partner whenever possible and take considerably less risk when alone.
Over time, you will make several rules of your own, that meet your own comfort levels. On that note, you should always match the comfort and skill level of the least experienced person in your group. It is unethical as a group leader to drag someone into terrain that they are not ready for, or are not comfortable with. If you are sour about not getting to ski the sweet line because someone in the group is not up for it, then the responsibility is on you to come back a different day with a different group that is capable. Likewise, don’t ever let a poor group leader talk you into doing something you are not comfortable with. Your life is on the line.
Which leads to my final comments on staying alive in avalanche terrain: you are your worst enemy. That’s right-the newest recognition in avalanche safety is that we, as humans, are susceptible to convincing ourselves into just “skiing the line anyway”, because we want to. We look for reasons to ski the line, instead of reasons not to. Your best bet for safety in the long run is to remind yourself that you may be making a poor decision. Give yourself and your friends a reality check: are you really making sound judgments as a snow scientists, or are you making judgments as a creatures of wants and desires? Learn the difference. A healthy attitude is to remember that a chance to ski a great line in the mountains is a gift given to you on a certain day, with certain conditions. It is not an inalienable right: it is not the paycheck for your hard day’s work. Mountaineers that live to old age have learned to turn back at the right time.

 

SNOWPITS and AVALANCHES
Digging into the snowpack to determine stability has become a necessity for the backcountry skiing traveler. If you want to play and do it safely digging pits right next to your line will give you the best look at the stability there. Of course the pit digger needs to know what to look for in the snow profile six feet deep. What causes most avalanches is a bed surface failure, otherwise known as a collapse of the weakest layer affected by your skis and weight. The layer loses all its bonds in a brief moments, then the slab on top is free to slide if the stauchwall at the bottom allows the slab to pop out on top of the snow. In this case, snow will start ripping down the mountain with an ever increasing velocity depending on the slope length. Long avalanche paths (aka: great ski runs) can produce a large avalanche, and small slopes can produce smaller but equally dangerous slides.
Generally avalanches start to slide on open and open treed slopes. If you can ski downhill through a glade it is open enough to slide. Look closely for branches missing to determine slide history. If your lane is open enough to ski and steep enough to be exciting, voila...avalanche country. No wonder the number of deaths has been steadily increasing amongst skiers, boarders and snow mobiles. It is really fun to play where the avalanche dragon lies.


GOLDEN RULES to reduce risk in avalanche terrain:
-Wear a tested beacon and have experience using it
- Carry a shovel, probe, and Avalung in a pack with emergency gear
- Dig a series of snow profile pits throughout the season to learn about snow
stability.
- Spread out on the uptrack and be conscious of partners whereabouts and the groups exposure
- Ski one at a time while in avalanche terrain with 3 minute between skiers rule if you cannot see them reach a safe island.
- Wait in safety zones and communicate effectively with your partners
- Do not ski avalanche terrain when danger rating is considerable or higher
- Safety is a constant group and personal dialogue where we must continually monitor ourselves as much as the conditions. Pay attention to your instincts. While you are inexperienced it is good if you usually feel nervous in avalanche terrain. Only through years of studying regularly avalanche danger signs will you truly begin feeling somewhat comfortable in avalanche terrain; otherwise you will be best served by being scared and cautious.
If avalanche terrain is safe for travel 95% of the time what are the conditions that produce slides. As may be obvious heavy snowfall and winddrifting of snow are the most obvious factors in producing instability Beware of snowstorms and high winds at ridge tops and across snowfields.
The other major factor increasing snow instability is rapid warming. This most frequently occurs through two factors solar gain and heavy rain. Heavy rain may be the most dangerous sign of impending doom, fortunately it is not a desirable time to ski as well.
But while the storm rolls in and blankets your favorite lines with a fresh icing and the cold powder sits there waiting for your tracks it is also adjusting to itself and the snow it landed upon. These conditions can be the best deep powder days of your life, like never truly known at the ski area . With snow blowing up around your chest and neck and frosting your nose and view, deep powder is a unique substance to ski. After a day or it is much settled compared to fresh, making multiple day snowstorms a must for the fat skis. With no cohesion the layers want to slide and will if steep enough and ready for that trigger.
In snow science the professionals have identified a number of lemons that seem to recur in the avalanches that get people and that the pros monitor.
These lemons include:
-a weak layers in the top meter of snow,
-a thin weak layer, more than a single step in hardness difference between
adjacent layers,
- the prescence of near surface recrystalized snow (facets).
So now we have the basics of knowing avalanche terrain, knowing avalanche weather, and how to avoid being avalanched. Experience is the key. Instead of only reading about it, get some more experience, and read some of the great books available with a click of the mouse. In Montana check Chapter One Bookstore in Hamilton they will order for you. In a few days only you will have the book.
Staying Alive In Avalanche Terrain, Bruce Tremper
Avalanche Safety for Climbers and Skiers, Tony Daffern
The ABCs of Avalanche Safety, E.R. LaChapelle

photo: Don Lange skier: John Lehrman location Oh My God Chute Bitterroot Backcountry Skiing

CONCLUSION
The most rewarding aspect to a backcountry ski tour is having spent a safe and exciting day in the mountains and heading home or to the tent to a good meal and sleeping comfortably with those you love safe around. Skiing avalanche terrain is often very scary at first and dealing with this fear factor as well as the excitement factor is every bit as challenging as analyzing the snowpack for signs of instability. Dealing with your ego is every bit as important as determining a sense of snow stability.
In the end, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering can really raise the ante in your wilderness experiences. It is a sublime human and holy experience that can bring you to your knees in both sheer joy and utter tragedy. By risking what is most important to me, I walk out of the woods with a thankful heart and the deepest appreciation for life and the loved ones around me. Like all travel to foreign places, it is common to more deeply understand who we are and what we are doing when we take several steps away from the safety of our home and look at our lives from far away. Perhaps this is why so many of us recreate ourselves by recreating this way.

Used Backcountry Gear- page devoted to selling gear. Email photos, price, and contact and your for sale gear will be posted.

- John Lehrman, Publisher
- Don Lange, Contributing Editor

all material and pages and photos in this website are copywrited. Please ask pemission to reproduce any portion of the pages by emailing the publisher. We would love to hear from you.

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Backcountry skiing and travel in the wild mountains is a potentially dangerous sport. Hazards range from trees, rocks, ice, avalanches, stream crossings, lake crossings, wind, blizzards, sunshine, cold, to snowmachines, ego, over exertion, hunters, mountain lions, bears, wolverines, wolves, and other skiers. The publisher and editor encourage all backcountry users to have sufficient skills, knowledge, and judgement in their use of the infomation in this website. Using the information herein is solely at the discretion of and is the responsibility of the user/reader and we expect all to understand the inherent risks in following any of the tour descriptions found on these pages. Different snow years will produce differing conditions, and of course different times of year and day will alter conditions as well. Most of the tours in this website are subject to skier triggered avalanches. Beware of these conditions. There may be errors in the descriptions and you may have trouble finding the exact locations described. Use good judgement and communication. Rely on yourself and your party for this judgement and also for self rescue. Know when to turn back; leave the ego for book reading and time spent with family. -Johnny