Skiing doesn’t look the same for everybody. In 2006 I discovered alpine touring, or backcountry skiing, in which skiers ascend a slope under their own power before skiing down. Their favorite dad joke is, “These are the only high-speed quads I need,” pointing to their upper legs. (High-speed quads are fast ski resort chairlifts that hold four passengers (the best jokes always need explaining)).
In lieu of just walking up the hill in our ski boots while carrying our skis, we climb most frequently by adhering thin reusable “skins” to the bases of our skis. These skins have resilient adhesive on one side, which we attach to our skis, and directional fabric on the snow-facing side, which allows the ski to be propelled forward while walking uphill, but will not slide backward. Our ski boots have a flexible “walk mode” and our ski bindings detach at the heel and pivot at the toe, allowing us to move with a comfortable walking motion resembling cross-country skiing. In this way, we can climb low-angle powder meadows or steep mountains with skis attached to our feet, carrying the heaviest gear with the strongest muscles: those “high-speed” quads. When we want to descend, we simply lock our boots into “ski mode,” attach our heels to the heelpiece of our ski bindings, and remove the skins from our ski bases, returning us to a more traditional alpine ski setup. This style of skiing quickly became my preferred form of travel in the mountains, and I’ve worked hard to turn it into my job. I now work as a professional skier, with 100% of my ski descents being “earned” by first climbing them. I’ve done this on six continents, with ski descents in Svalbard, Alaska, Scandinavia, Patagonia, Kazakhstan, and beyond.
Backcountry skiers, though, are climbing and skiing beyond the confines of ski resorts, which typically “control” for avalanche dangers. Resorts use an array of explosives and other strategies to purposely initiate avalanches before public operating hours, mitigating the risk to customers. In the “backcountry,” though, avalanches are a constant threat to skiers when in or near slopes over about 30°, which is the slope angle when skiing becomes the most fun. To stay safe in the backcountry, we rely on more than just luck.
Snow safety/avalanche education is the foundation upon which backcountry travelers can begin to move safely in “avalanche terrain,” defined as any area on, beneath, or adjacent to slopes steeper than 30°. There are full curriculums of avalanche education and providers to teach all over the world. There are avalanche forecast centers that also offer general avalanche hazard information, which changes day to day. In the USA, more information is at avalanche.org.
Some of the necessary tools to have in the backcountry, which we learn to use in avalanche rescue courses, are an avalanche probe, shovel, and transceiver (“beacon”). When locating someone buried in an avalanche, a transceiver is used to locate the general accident site. This, of course, can only be done if the victim is wearing a transceiver. Our beacons are constantly transmitting a universal signal, and only when we’re searching for someone do searchers place their beacons in “search mode,” which will then receive the victim’s signal and guide to their approximate location. A probe, which resembles a long tent pole that is between 6 and 12 feet long, is then used to penetrate the snow surface and locate the exact location. Finally, a shovel is used to, slowly and excruciatingly, extricate the person. A buried victim, if not killed by the trauma of the avalanche–being dragged through trees or over cliffs–has approximately 15 minutes before dying of asphyxiation. This is nothing to mess around with, and one reason why it’s so important to always ski with an educated partner.
In addition to avalanches, backcountry skiers must be prepared to face harsh climates, whiteout navigation, team dynamics, and remote locations. For this reason, our communication, navigation, and preparation devices are integral safety equipment. And because these devices are electronic, I never leave the trailhead without a small, lightweight backup battery like a Goal Zero Venture 35 and short version of all the appropriate charging cables, like a 5-inch USB to Lightning Connector Cable. My phone is used first for in-service communication and GPS navigation. When a more precise navigational tool is required, I carry a Garmin inReach Mini 2, which also serves as a two-way satellite communicator if I find myself out of cell service, as backcountry skiers often do. In an emergency, an inReach has an SOS button that will immediately mobilize local rescue crews. With it, I can also just send a quick text to a colleague when I’ve been hiking for seven hours and suddenly remember that I never sent that important email. Lastly, I always carry a rechargeable headlamp, even if I’m “100% sure I’ll be back to the car by noon,” because, well, we’re never 100% sure. Part of what draws us to the backcountry is its uncertainty. With that comes the chance we’ll be navigating back to the trailhead at midnight by headlamp, having been lost in the mountains for the past ten hours. None of these devices are useful, though, if their battery is dead. In my opinion, these are as important as the trio of avalanche safety equipment.
Along with avalanche safety equipment, the local avalanche forecast–here in Utah, it’s provided by the Utah Avalanche Center–, snow safety education, solid partners, and a few crucial devices, backcountry skiing can be a safe, lifelong activity allowing participants to escape crowded ski resorts, exercise in nature, and use not only their biggest muscle–those high-speed quads–but also the most important: their brains.
Brody Leven Goal Zero athlete since 2013
Brody Leven has never eaten meat. He is a professional skier who ironically prefers climbing up mountains to skiing down them. He advocates for planet and people through his steep skiing and self-supported endurance outings. Brody has run 100 miles without stopping, climbed and skied 70,000 vertical feet in three sleepless days, kayaked the Grand Canyon, established bikepacking routes, and made first ski descents on six continents. Since earning Economics and Honors degrees from Westminster College, where he was two-term student body president focused on environmental initiatives, he has been featured on the cover of Powder Magazine three times, in award-winning adventure films, and as an Outdoor Industry 30 Under 30. As a writer, on-screen personality, director, and producer, his year-round mountain stories inspire others toward impactful challenges. Brody’s longtime volunteer activism focuses on environmental stewardship, public lands advocacy, and avalanche education. He regularly meets to discuss these with government officials in Washington DC and those local to his Salt Lake City home, where he shares a small organic farm with his girlfriend Katie and dog Spaghetti. His professional partnerships include Fischer Sports, Garmin, and Goal Zero.