One spring day I was ripping around Aspen Mountain with Klaus Obermeyer, the ski legend who still lays down powerful turns in his 90s. As we watched a family having a great time together, he turned to me and said, “Skiing is very conducive to handicap.”
How right he is. Once past the beginner stage, everyone can enjoy the game together. Timid, once a year skiers can take a ski holiday with their expert friends and enjoy runs together and parents and kids can both have a raging good time on the same terrain. The great equalizer is the combined forces of gravity and the ski lift. Modern ski gear makes it even better. More people can have more fun skiing than ever before.
The gear has gotten so good that the “handicap” Klaus is talking about even applies outside the ski area. Backcountry skiing is exploding in popularity, and the easy to use, lightweight equipment is no small part of the reason, but the removal of the lift and the ski patrol raises the bar considerably when it comes to enjoying the game safely with people of different ability levels – especially with kids. But it can be done, and done safely, if you pick the right objectives and have the right attitude.
Over the last few winters we’ve slowly been figuring out how to enjoy the backcountry with our twins. With virtually zero information available on how to do it - a striking void in the information age - I thought other people might like to know what we've learned.
There are three enormous considerations involved in taking kids into the backcountry: the logistics of skinning up and skiing down with kids, cost and availability of equipment, and the nightmarish risk of avalanches, tree wells and cold. These issues beg the question: Would a responsible parent take their kids ski touring?
When we started playing with the kids on skis outside the ski area, I didn’t really know the answer. I was in no hurry to take my kids “backcountry skiing” and didn’t really have a clear idea of how it could be done safely and enjoyably. It just evolved. In the beginning, we didn’t do what I would consider ski touring. We called our outings “ski hikes” and we started on plastic, cheapo cross country skis when the kids were 3 years old. We’d go to a place with some mellow terrain and let the kids stagger around with skis on their feet. They’d slide down little hills, fall over, cross tips, get frustrated, giggle, drink hot chocolate, and snack on elk jerky; there was precious little skiing involved.
As the kids got older, we started doing mini car shuttles, driving to the top of a snowy hill and skiing down. Often the snow was too deep, too shallow or simply heinous un-skiable crud for the little legs and skills and we’d end up just playing in the snow. This year, everything changed. They got heavier and strong enough to push through powder and their skills were up to the challenge after getting to the point where they were comfortable on almost all in-bounds ski runs.
Part of the breakthrough was that I stumbled across an equipment solution that wouldn’t break the bank and made the logistics of ski touring with kids a reasonable proposition: the 4500 Contour Startup Ski Touring Adaptor, available from Camp in the US for about $150. The Startup works similar to the Alpine Trekker in that it simply clips into a downhill ski binding, but is much lighter. The device is then removed for downhill skiing. For skins, we have a few old pairs of skins lying around, so we cut a couple of pairs to fit the kid’s skis – with about a foot leftover to accommodate increases in ski length from year to year. Then we wrap the extra around the tail of the ski and secure it with athletic tape. A tail kit could be installed as well, but for a lap or two, tape works fine.
Considerations for the uphill include:
· Unbuckle the boots to maximize ankle flexibility
· Go for a very short tour the first couple of times so the kid’s feet and muscles can adjust to the strain of carrying the skis and their skin can toughen at the inevitable places the boots will rub against the feet.
· Use high-quality, full calf ski socks and watch out for the dreaded hangsock
· Carry athletic tape in case of hot spots or for fixing skins
· Wear sunscreen and sunglasses – kids will usually forget both
· Stop frequently for food and water – an easy access hydration system is essential
· Keep the skin track angle really mellow with easy direction changes
· Let the kids break trail sometimes – in short doses, they love fresh tracks even uphill, but be sure to monitor temperature so they don't overheat and get sweaty
Then there’s the downhill part.
Backcountry skiing is synonymous with avalanche danger and the consequences of getting caught are so severe that it calls to question the entire concept of ski touring with kids. Avalanche forecasting is a complex and inexact science even for the world’s best. Ongoing assessment is so critical that some ski guiding companies run their schedule with overlap between the guide teams so someone on the team has always skied the day or week before. The point is, developing adequate intimacy with snowpack structure to make decisions about venturing into avalanche terrain safely with kids is beyond the capability of 99.9% of the backcountry skiers out there, myself included.
So how do you go into avalanche terrain with kids? The answer is surprisingly easy. YOU DON’T. Stay on terrain that essentially never avalanches. This means:
· Keep the slope angle under 25 degrees (get an inclinometer app)
· Stay out from under steeper terrain above
· Stay far away from steep slopes below
· Avoid terrain traps like steam beds and gullies
When considering the right kind of terrain, look for the kind of features where you would take kids sledding or playing in the snow; the kind of slopes where you’d be safe living in a tent all winter long, even during periods of extreme avalanche danger. Look for short hills and low angle meadows with no threat from above, not proper ski objectives. Check the local avalanche forecast to see if things are exceptionally dangerous. Unless hazard is so extreme that you should be worried about driving the car to the pass without getting buried in an avalanche, even inexperienced backcountry skiers can avoid trouble by religiously following one simple rule: stay out of avalanche terrain.
We sometimes let our kids wear our avalanche beacons because they like playing with them and doing searches for fun, but most of the time while skiing with our kids we don’t even carry avalanche equipment and instead keep a large buffer between us and avalanche terrain. Go skiing with kids in picnicking and camping terrain, not real skiing terrain. By all means, carry transceivers if it makes you feel better, but don't ski more aggressive terrain because you have them.
The final step to staying out of avalanche trouble is to take your own preconceptions about quality skiing out of the picture. For kids, even straight-lining down a 15-degree meadow of boot-top powder is an incredible experience. A 10-foot tall rollover of champagne pow can provide a kid with a face shot that hooks them on powder skiing forever. And just being out in the winter woods, even within sight of the car, is an eye-opening wilderness experience for a little kid.
Tree wells and shallow snow are another hidden danger.
· Avoid tree skiing when deep tree well conditions exist
· Ski short pitches, one at a time in a manner where the kids are in sight at all times
· Keep one adult in the back and one in the front, or stay very close to the kid
· Avoid slopes with shallow snow
Cold is a bigger issue in the backcountry than it is in a ski area. At the resort, there is always a lodge or warming hut just around the corner. In the backcountry cold fingers and toes can ruin the day or even cause injury. Also, remember that the goal is not to take you kids on a real ski tour; the goal is to have a really fun time in the backcountry with your kids. Tips for keeping it fun include:
· Don't bother going on the most frigid or windy winter days – even if the kids stay warm enough they might learn to hate skiing
· Use mittens rather than gloves.
· Warm boots and feet over the car’s heater or papa’s belly before putting the boots on
· Keep a face mask and goggles handy
· Carry hot drinks and lots of snacks
· Take the time to warm fingers or toes at the first sign of cold
· Keep an eye on their little faces for white marks indicating frostbite
Better yet, choose only the nicest winter days to take the kids into the backcountry. Springtime, with a nice fat snowpack and a few inches of fresh pow, is the ideal time of year to introduce the little ones to the magic of the backcountry. If you’re gonna take kids skiing outside the ski area, keep it really fun, really low-stress and really safe. On second thought, keep it that way in-bounds too!