I ’d like to begin with the bad stories. The time confusion made for a trip that truly was uphill both ways and meant seven hours of slogging for half an hour of downhill turns. Or the time two hours cruising over rolling hills for one prime slope ended abruptly in an unexpected field of grass. Minor epics, in the face of a sport that for some ends in major disaster.
I'm talking about backcountry skiing, of course. And I started with the bad stories because, really, I'd rather scare you off and see New Mexico buck this latest trend. But I'm on the losing end of that stick.
The reality is, the backcountry enthusiasm that's been sweeping the country over the last few years has come to roost in, well, our backyard. Nationwide sales for backcountry ski gear are up some 27 percent for boots and 12 percent for safety equipment (beacons, shovels and probes—more on this later), according to Snowsports Industries America.
"We are seeing tremendous growth both commercially in terms of selling the equipment to facilitate backcountry travel but also just in terms of enthusiasm and people being out in the field," says Owen Haggard, backcountry skiing specialist with Alpine Sports on Sandoval Street in Santa Fe. "This is one of the busiest early seasons we've seen down in the workshop in many, many years."
Let's be clear what we're talking about here. Backcountry skiing means hauling specialized ski gear to the side of the mountain and, rather than plopping your butt on a chair to sip from your flask or vape-at-will while chairlifts do the work of getting you up the hill, you put on skins, a layer of fabric that adheres to the bottom of your ski and allows it to grip the snow, and you walk uphill.
There's a snowboarding version, too, splitboarding, in which a snowboard breaks into two for uphill travel and is reattached at the top to ride down. (We know. Mind blown.)
If the terrain is particularly steep, you might even ditch the planks and kick-step your way to the top. It's all a way to "earn your turns."
And those turns can be glorious romps through powder-filled aspen groves—though, also, the sum total can amount to busting through a windblown crust, dodging branches in a tight cluster of pine trees and, of course, perpetual terror of avalanches. Really, stay home. Take up badminton.
We are not talking about ducking ropes at a ski area to make fresh tracks through a patch of trees no one else has skied, and certainly not chopping down a thousand trees to make your own ski run. (Local forest officials are still looking for those jerks.) Most of the best backcountry skiing is in natural glades and meadows.
Getting around requires alpine touring boots that flex at the ankle, ski bindings that are or can be freed at the heel, skis that are probably a bit wider than what you used 20-some years ago and skins. Staying safe calls for an avalanche beacon, which will be perpetually set to broadcast your location and can be switched to search mode if you need to find someone under the snow, and a shovel and probe to aid in that search. Serious backcountry skiers also sometimes use backpacks equipped with a breathing device to allow a few extra minutes of oxygen if trapped under snow, or an airbag to protect from the more common cause of death during an avalanche: blunt force trauma.
Do we sound like we're trying to scare you off this sport? We are. Selfishly, in part, because backcountry lines are about cutting solo tracks and not having to dodge 4-year-olds, or 40-year-olds, wedging their way down the hill. And a bit altruistically, as well, because backcountry skiing is serious business. Especially in Northern New Mexico, where the snowpack breeds problems.
"We have usually a shallower snowpack, which means we can have problems persist for a really long period of time, and we can have instabilities form from the first few storms of the year, and those instabilities can cause problems weeks or even months later," says Karl Geisler, a ski patroller at Ski Apache and an instructor for avalanche education classes in New Mexico this season. "My main goal for my students is to understand what causes avalanches and what students can do to stay out of the path of avalanches. Even when the snowpack's not ideal, there's always someplace you can go and have a good ski day, and the trick is knowing when you can go and push the terrain and when you can ski the steep stuff and what days you need to keep it mellow and ski the low-angle trees."
Happily, Ski Santa Fe has been friendly toward uphill travelers, which makes for an accessible option for those who want to get outdoors without undertaking so much risk.
"It's just as a goodwill gesture to our community and our skiers. A lot of them enjoy skinning uphill and also enjoy skiing at the resort and as long as we can continue to do it safely, then we'll continue to do it," says Ben Abruzzo, area manager for Ski Santa Fe. Anything outside the boundary, he adds, they don't condone or promote. And that may be fine for most folks.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm from people who may not go in the backcountry, but are excited about traveling uphill under their own power," Haggard says. "I'd say a lot of the growth I'm seeing are people like this—not necessarily people like myself who will travel deep into the woods, but people who want to add another mode to their sport and who appreciate the exercise and the fresh air and the ability to go get some turns before the chairs are running."
Perhaps the saving grace for those of us who go into the woods to be, at least to a certain degree, alone or only among friends, is a question of math.
"In Colorado you go to certain passes and popular zones where people like to ski, and you'll see dozens or hundreds of cars," Haggard says, "Around here, you might go to your favorite spot, and you'd see a couple of other people, which is a couple more than you might have a couple years ago, but it's just not on the same scale."
And thank the snow gods for that.