Monday, March 14, 2016

Introduction to Family Backcountry Ski Touring

I've participated in many conversations on the topic of taking  kids "backcountry skiing"over the last year or two with questions centered around when the kids would be ready, how to keep it safe, how to build a pair of backcountry skis for a child (or whether it was even necessary,) and if it was really all that necessary to take kids into the backcountry at a young age (always my biggest question since kids don't have to try every experience under the sun before they're even 8 years old!)

When and How do you Introduce Children to Backcountry Skiing?

Hesitations in Taking Children Backcountry Skiing

Gear -Backcountry skiing usually requires a special alpine touring (AT) ski set up with bindings that act like cross country skis on the way up (heels flexible to move up an down,) and that act like downhill skis on the way down (with heels locked in.)

Downhill skis work just fine when kids are young
Having AT skis is optimal in the backcountry but our son already has downhill and cross country skis - and he's only 7! Why would we buy or make a third pair of skis for somebody so young? That would be like having three separate bikes for a child (again, a crazy idea for somebody so small.)

While costly to buy or make a special AT set up for children, it's really not so much about the start up cost with me as it is about the size of the child (who's constantly growing.) If I go out and buy a new pair of skis, I know that my skis and boots are going to last me many years. A child however is going to need a new pair of skis and boots every year or two as he or she grows.  And yes, AT skis require their own custom boots so you likely won't be doubling up with downhill ski boots.

Avalanche Danger - Most backcountry ski areas cross avalanche slide paths or require spending significant amounts of time in areas prone to avalanches. It is my personal opinion that children should not be skiing in areas that pose avalanche risk. While I would consider crossing a small slide path quickly, carefully, and without stopping, I would not spend prolonged periods of time in avalanche terrain with children.

Skiing across the meadows before Chester Lake (avalanche risk-free)

Skill and Ability - My husband and I both agree that children don't belong in serious backcountry terrain until they posses the following abilities:

Fortunately, there are easy backcountry places to explore
  • Ability to ski intermediate and advanced terrain at an alpine resort in a mixture of conditions including fresh powder, heavy spring snow, moguls and bumpy terrain, and even the dreaded "death cookie" type chunks of snow frozen in place after a favourite powder run has been skied out and then frozen solid overnight

  • Ability to ski intermediate to advanced glades at an alpine resort (obviously without hitting a tree and in a variety of conditions)

  • Ability to cross country ski on advanced groomed/track set trails. Cross country skis work well on many backcountry trails if the trails is not too steep, but children need to be able to conquer the difficult hills on a groomed trail before heading out on a natural trail. 

 By the criteria above, my 7 year old is not ready to go into the backcountry seeking out turns.


Where to Begin When You're Ready for that First Backcountry Trip

Hesitations aside, where do you begin if you are ready to embrace the challenge and "try" some easy backcountry skiing as a family?

Start small - Choose an easy to intermediate light touring trail that is not tracked or groomed. Have the kids hike or snowshoe up and carry their downhill gear. Bring helmets for the descent and a tow rope for the flat sections.

If the trail doesn't have a lot of height gain and isn't overly steep (or has many flat sections,) children could use cross country skis as well with the use of a tow rope or snowshoes for the way up.

Note RE tow ropes: They work well with cross country skis when kids can help by shuffling along while you pull them up hills,  or they work for very short sections on downhill skis but don't expect to tow your child on downhill skis uphill for an hour. They have to lean back quite significantly when the hill is steep and your back will not thank you the next day.

Moving across the flats at Chester Lake

Chester Lake with  downhill gear
Work up to it - We just did Chester Lake as a family. My son hiked up the 300 metre ascent and he did the descent with downhill gear. This wasn't our first ski trip of the season though. Noah had already logged 100+ km on skis this winter and he has done many intermediate/advanced trails on cross country skis this year. We introduced him to easy tree skiing at an alpine resort earlier this month and he comfortably skis blue runs at resorts. While he isn't ready for serious backcountry skiing, he was ready for Chester Lake (a trip that good skiers can do on cross country skis.)

Other Suggestions:

  • Use AT skis or have skins for your cross country skis if towing your child up hills.

  • The supervising adult should be very comfortable in backcountry terrain and in full control. My husband used AT skis on our recent trip up to Chester Lake because it gave him the most control and comfort. I used cross country skis but I wasn't doing as much towing and didn't have to keep up to anybody on the way down. The boys waited for me periodically as I snow plowed down to save my life.

  • Helmets should be imperative for children (and adults if skiing through heavy trees or if you are new to this sort of skiing)

Chester Lake in Kananaskis

Where to Start near Calgary

The following trails are great for families wanting to introduce the children to soft backcountry skiing in safe areas that do not enter avalanche terrain (also known as ski touring as opposed to backcountry skiing in search of turns.)

Chester Lake, Kananaskis - This is the trail that we just did and it worked well for snowshoeing or hiking up, and then skiing down with regular downhill gear. Adults towing kids will want AT skis or skins on cross country skis. If using cross country skis, you will want to be very confident on steep twisty trails through trees. I kept my skins on for the steepest part down from the lake until I was on the lower loop part of the trail. (all photos in this story up to this point have been from the Chester Lake trail.)

The only real down side of this trail is that there are many flat sections up by the lake which require a child on downhill skis to be towed on the way out. Once you hit the downhill part though, it is super fun and a very easy run down to the car for those on full alpine gear. Kids would need intermediate resort skills but the trail is usually well packed down so they likely won't be skiing through much powder.

Chester Lake on a clear day

Boom Lake, Banff National Park - This trail only has 175 metres of height gain over 5.1km (one way distance.) It is a great trail on cross country skis if looking for something that's not maintained or track set. Children may need help getting up some of the steeper hills (with tow rope or just walking) but downhill skis should not be necessary. If children are using downhill skis, prepare to tow them for significant portions of the trail where it is not steep enough to get up much speed.

You will come to a sign that says "end of official ski trail" shortly before you descend down to the lake. Know that there is one avalanche slide path past this point if you go straight (avoided by turning left and descending steeply to lake level on a well broken trail.) Once at the lake, enjoy the views and turn around. 

Read more here: Family Backcountry Ski Touring in Banff: Boom Lake 

Boom Lake on light touring skis 

Paradise Valley, Lake Louise - This is a great intro. backcountry trip that can be done on cross country skis by competent skiers. You begin by skiing up the Moraine Lake Road at Lake Louise, up the Fairview Trail (all groomed and track set to this point) and then continuing on the summer bike trail into Paradise Valley where you enter backcountry terrain. 

We usually go as far as the second bridge and return (no avalanche danger this far.) Depending on conditions, we either follow the summer trail through the trees between the two bridges or we ski straight up the creek from the first bridge (my preference.)

This trail would be challenging on downhill skis purely because of the amount of time spent on groomed trails. It is best done on light touring skis (cross country skis with metal edges.) Children would have to be competent on narrow twisty trails and I'd recommend helmets. Bring a tow rope for the uphill sections on the way in or plan to have kids walk the steepest parts.

The above story also includes skiing to Ross Lake off the Great Divide Trail.

Paradise Valley Ski touring at Lake Louise 

Other Suggestions

  • Goat Creek Trail, Canmore to Banff  - This trail is occasionally groomed and track set but is usually pretty "natural" in feeling. The 19 km long trail (best done from the Spray Lakes Road to Banff) is very remote and has a few good hills on it as you descend close to 300 metres over the entire distance.

  • Lake O'Hara Road, Yoho National Park - This 11 km long road is periodically track set but unless you time it just right, it will be skier-tracked without grooming. It's great practice for backcountry trails and you can stay the night at the Elizabeth Parker Hut. (Please note if staying at the hut, you will likely be in avalanche terrain if you stray too far above the hut without knowledge of where to ski safely.)

  • Rummel Lake, Kananaskis - This trail is 10km return with 400 metres height gain. Kids could hike up and ski down using downhill skis. There is no avalanche danger if you stop at the lake. 

Cascade River Bridge bridge on the Cascade River Trail

Other suggestions? Leave a comment below because we'll be looking for ideas next winter as we try more of this kind of skiing.

Skiing across Bow Lake in Banff - a great intro to natural skiing without tracks or grooming

Disclaimer: Please know the risks going in if attempting a ski trip into backcountry terrain with children. Try the trail as an adult (without the kids) first, and respect your kids' abilities. If you don't know where to ski without entering avalanche terrain, please take a course first so that you can safely evaluate your surroundings. Travel with more experienced friends if new to backcountry skiing and know your limits. 

For the purposes of this story, I am assuming you will NOT be entering avalanche terrain. If you are, that puts you into a whole different realm of backcountry skiing that I am not prepared to talk about at this time. Again, if you do not know where to safely ski in the backcountry, please take an avalanche safety course.

For more information about avalanche safety please visit the Avalanche Canada website. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow great information! I'd love to hear your suggestions for how to start kids on ski's in general. What age, what type, and where? I've never ski'd myself so what is the best way to give my kids the chance to learn when I can't go with them?