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This past year, three buddies and I decided to try our hand (or feet, I guess) at backcountry skiing and splitboarding.  As I’ve made Gunnison, Colorado my second home since 2018, it made sense to do this with a local outfitter.  I’d heard that Irwin Guides, in Crested Butte, were some of the best.

For me, the “Irwin” name calls out the wonderful beers made next door to the Guide Service’s office in Crested Butte, Colorado.  Irwin Brewing Company , has been “turning snowmelt into beer”, including my favorite, the Teocalli – Mexican Lager, or “Mexi Lager” as it’s known throughout the Gunnison Valley, since 2017.  I figured the kind of attention to detail I’ve tasted in their beers couldn’t be a bad thing for a company running backcountry ski trips in avalanche country!

We booked our Februrary 2020 trip in early fall 2019 and scheduled a “hut-based” trip, one in which we’d spend a couple nights in a backcountry hut in the seasonal town of Gothic, the site of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.  

The “hut,” which turned out to be a brand new, very modern 4-room lodge with heated floors, indoor plumbing (including hot showers), a full kitchen and Wi-Fi, sat right in the middle of thousands of feet of vertical backcountry bliss, standing ready to challenge our newly acquired “uphill” skiing/skinning skills and to provide, in reward, turn after turn of untracked powder.

None of the four members of our team had ever backcountry skied, or, in my case, splitboarded, before.  Two of us bought our own gear – me, as the only splitboarder and my buddy, Rob, who is an expert skier.  The other two, Mike and Ted, rented gear from the Alpineer in Crested Butte, which offered a good selection of skis, boots, and backcountry safety gear. 

Rob and I had the opportunity to try our new gear out by taking advantage of the Uphill Skier Route at Crested Butte Mountain Resort on a few occasions and the other two members of our team, Mike and Ted, came in a day early to get their gear and to also do one run up the mountain before heading into the wilderness.  

Gearing up for “practice day” skinning uphill at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

“Uphill Skiing” or “Alpine Touring” skiing has grown more and more popular in recent years with many ski resorts offering uphill routes and allowing skiers to ski uphill at the resorts, often before or after the lifts close.  Be sure to check your local ski area rules, but skinning uphill and skiing down allows you to get in a great workout, avoid lift lines, and wave happily at your less-evolved brethren yelling down “you’re going the wrong way” from the chair lift.

On the day our adventure began, we met our guide, Will Nunez, at the trailhead. Will, like the whole Irwin Guides team, was really great at communicating via text and email prior to the trip, answering our multitude first-timer questions with practiced patience.  

After meeting, discussing the trip, doing a quick equipment check, including checking out our avalanche beacons, we loaded up our packs and started the 2-hour trip along the snow packed road to the town of Gothic.  The skin in to Gothic is mostly flat or slightly downhill, so we all, somewhat inexpertly, got our skins on our boards and started the not-to-tough trip back to the hut.  Two hours later, we glided our way into Gothic, dropped our gear, and then headed out for a few afternoon turns on Day 1.

Crystal Hut in Gothic was our home away from home for the weekend. Beds, hot water, and Wi-Fi gave “roughing” it a whole new meaning.

For those of you considering trying backcountry skiing or splitboarding, it’s somewhat similar to Nordic skiing.  You take your otherwise ready-to-work-with-gravity skis (or your splitboard in ski mode), apply “skins” to the bottom, which are ski-shaped lengths of material with glue one side, that holds the skin tight to the ski, and velvet-like “fur” on the other that will slide when pushed forward against the snow, but will hold tight when backward pressure is applied.  In this manner, you can push back with one ski on flat ground, while gliding forward on the other, making for a fairly efficient way to move across packed or even very loose, deep snow.  When heading uphill, you’re able to slide one ski forward while the other ski grips the snow or ice and prevents you (in most cases) from sliding backward.  Be sure to avoid lifting the skis off the ground, sliding them back and forward instead as, lifting a heavy ski and binding hundreds (thousands?) of times during the day will quickly exhaust oxygen-starved muscles.

When heading into the hut, we all had fairly heavy packs filled with sleeping bags, pillows, multiple layers of clothes, our toothbrushes and other sundries, and lunches/snacks for the next couple days.  While not super heavy, skinning in with the packs in place definitely added a different element and, if you’re planning a trip, you should load a pack up and practice Nordic skiing or skinning with a pack on.  

Will, our guide, pulled a sled full of delicious food, including enough steak to feed a small country’s biathlon team, and we were able to drop everything at the hut, significantly lightening our packs, for the afternoon out on the snow. 

It is necessary to carry a pack at all times when backcountry skiing, so you should also practice with a moderately heavy pack when downhill skiing or snowboarding.  While out for the day, you’ll need a couple extra layers, two pairs of extra gloves, water and snacks, in addition to the mandatory avalanche gear – a shovel, probe and beacon.  

Leaving the hut for our first try at “earning turns.”

On the afternoon of Day 1, we headed up the valley about 30 minutes and then skinned up a 45 minute climb to the top of what would have typically been a blue, or blue-black, run inbounds.  While there were a few (obviously unmarked) obstacles, the snow was soft and it was easy to control speed.  For most of us, who rarely get decent powder, or soft conditions of any type, inbounds at a resort, getting use to the different style was challenging.  Challenging, but really FUN!  We had a blast, made a couple of runs (up and down, you definitely earn your turns) and then headed back to the hut for some pasta and an early night.

Our team heading up for our first turns on the afternoon of Day 1.  We took about 45 minutes to skin up to just below the small cliff to the right of the dark trees in the center and made several runs down.  Earning turns is just part of being in the backcountry.  The views are out of this world!

On Day 2, Will decided we needed to see what the backcountry was all about and he took us on a 4+ hour climb up Avery’s Peak to ski/board down a gigantic chute he called Avery’s Swath.  

The way up was tough.  Really tough.  The slope was steep, with countless, slippery switchbacks, the lack of oxygen played havoc with our moderate fitness, and learning how to keep the one ski from sliding backward, while trying to make a 180-degree turn was an artform totally foreign to all of us.  The steepness of the slope was unlike anything we’d done inbounds, so it really was completely different than anything we’d done before.

“Steep” doesn’t really do it justice and this was on the way up!

We admitted, only later of course, that, well before we reached the top, every one of us had doubts whether we’d make it.  However, because we were ascending through trees and terrain that we also all doubted we could ski down (and we are all accomplished skiiers/boarders, who routinely ski double black terrain) we really didn’t have much choice but to keep going.  

And, of course we were all so happy that we did.  

At the top awaited one of the most beautiful lunch locations ever and the skiing on the way down was spectacular.  

Lunch with a view!!! Looking out at Gothic Mountain in the center (our hut was way down at the base of Gothic Mountain) and Snodgrass Mountain to the left.  Crested Butte Ski Resort drapes the side of Mount Crested Butte, the lone, pointy mountain on the left.

Even though conditions that day were such that the snow was a bit crunchy, having an entire mountain to ourselves, and riding the adrenaline rush of the effort to get to the top, as well as the steep, challenging terrain to get back to the bottom, was something that none of us are likely to soon forget.

Back at the hut that night, we enjoyed steak dinners (and a couple bottles of wine I snuck unto Will’s sled the day before) and talked non-stop about how we never thought we’d get to the top and about how getting down was so much fun.

On our final day, after 5 inches of snow fell during the night, we had a quick breakfast, loaded non-essential stuff onto the now, almost-empty sled, skinned partway out, and then left the sled at the bottom of Snodgrass Mountain.  Snodgrass was about a third of the way out and the perfect place to enjoy the fresh powder.  We ended up making 4 laps up and down yet another pristine, super fun, powder-covered mountainside.  

What a blast!  

After the runs, and after belly laughing at some incredible wipeouts caused by our lack of powder prowess, we skinned back out to the trailhead already planning our next backcountry adventures.  All four of us had already decided to take some beginner avalanche safety courses and we all agreed that this had just been the first of many backcountry trips.

THE TRIP

I highly recommend Irwin Guides for any backcountry trips in and around the Crested Butte area.  They know the area and are super willing to share their knowledge even before you book a trip.  I worked with Madison, at the Irwin Guides Office, setting up the trip. She was awesome – always patient with our newbie questions and she made booking our trip really easy.  

We did the 3-day Backcountry Hut Trip, which is listed as the “Maroon Hut” on their website, but we actually stayed in the brand new “Crystal Hut,” which I highly recommend for many reasons, not the least of which is the indoor modern toilet (as opposed to an outdoor park service-type outhouse at Maroon).  

The trip, for 4 people, was $2865, and it included the hut, the guide (who was excellent!), and breakfasts and dinners.  We brought our own lunches/snacks. You can rent avalanche gear, if you don’t have it, from Irwin or from the Alpineer (https://alpineer.com). 

THE STUFF

In getting ready for the trip, I did a lot of research, and tried out a number of splitboard setups, as well as backcountry ski backpacks, gloves, and other items that can make the difference between a good (or not so good) trip and a really great trip into the backcountry.  

The following are the items I ended up with along with a few comments about each one.

Splitboard:

Burton Family Tree Flight Attendant X Splitboard (This year’s model is ON SALE NOW!!!)

I ended up purchasing a Burton Family Tree Flight Attendant X Splitboard.  I’ve always been partial to Burton and Arbor Boards, and I was able to pick up a new, 2018-2019 model for $1049, which was about $450 less than a new model.  The board rides remarkably like a standard, camber based twin board, though it is directional and has some rocker near the nose.  It’s very responsive, more so than the traditional, all-mountain Burton board I ride inbounds, and still floats really well in powder.  I could easily use this board both inbounds and in the backcountry.

Bindings:

Burton Hitchhiker (ALSO ON SALE NOW!)

I went with the Burton Hitchhiker bindings.  Being new to the sport, I decided to keep it in house with the matchy-matchy board/bindings setup.  However, Burton basically uses Spark R&D’s Tesla T1 system and labels it as its own. 

The only gripe I have about the binding, which otherwise performed flawlessly, is the hi-back adjuster.  Instead of going with the flip up/flip down style binding that Spark uses on its Surge Pro (like the ones my wife uses), Burton used a more traditional adjuster.  When my wife wants to switch from skinning mode to downhill, she just leans the hi-back forward and flips the adjuster down.  When you want to change it on the Hitchhiker binding, you have to lift up the locking lever and slide the unit down, just like on a traditional snowboard binding.  However, the issue here is that you’re adjusting this every time you transition from skinning, to boarding, and back.  These get really iced up and packed with snow, and, frankly, it’s just a pain in the butt to switch them.  That said, the binding itself is light, strong, and worked flawlessly, other than the nuisance of the adjuster.  Not a big enough pain to switch to a different binding, and, frankly, I’d buy them again if I found them on sale, but something Burton should consider changing.

Boots:

Burton Tourist X (Burton Tourist Model ON SALE NOW)

I purchased these when I first started splitboarding.  They’re awesome.  In fact, I think I like them better than my regular Burton boots even for inbounds stuff.  THAT SAID, if you are being money conscious, and you already have boots you like, I’d try them splitboarding for a day or two before buying splitboard specific boots.  I’m not sure you really need anything “designed” for splitboarding unless your regular boots are really, really stiff.  I tried the Tourist and the Tourist X models.  I got my Tourist X boots on sale, but I’d probably go with whichever ones were less expensive.

Skins:

Burton Family Tree x G3 High Traction Skins (ON SALE NOW)

These are perfect!  Enough Said.

Wine and Whiskey Transport – GSI Outdoors Highland Fifth Flask (buy a half dozen of these because they are awesome!!!)

Backcountry Backpack

This was a tougher decision as each of the 4 packs I demoed were great. I tried:

Black Diamond Cirque 35L

Jones Minimalist 35L

Orthodox Haute Route 40

I tried out all of these backpacks hiking, but not while splitboarding.  

All of them had features I liked, but, upon doing a trial run packing the backpack with the following items, I decided I really needed a minimum 40 liters of storage:

  • Lightweight Big Agnes Pluton UL 40 degree bag (currently 30% Off at Backcountry.com) – AMAZING lightweight down bag for inside the hut or Spring/Summer/Fall mild-weather trips; packs down smaller than a 1 liter water bottle and is on sale right now through Backcountry.com!!!)
  • Mammut Merin IN Hooded Down Jacket (40% Off at Backcountry.com!)  Also LOVE this jacket to put on over or under your shell and also on Sale right now.  Tough, light and super warm.
  • Feathered Friends Down Booties – These are great to wear around the hut and even for quick trips out on the snow.  They are really cool because they have an inner down bootie that you can wear in your sleeping bag if your feet are cold.  The outer layer provides a little more durability and has a tougher sole with a foam insert for walking around.
  • Lunch and snacks
  • Two water bottles – one Nalgene and one insulated to carry hot tea, coffee, or water.
  • Pieps Pro BT Avalanche Set – I bought this set after trying several models in stores around the Gunnison/Crested Butte area.  Frankly, I got it because it was on sale and, also frankly, most of the “Pro” level sets are very similar.  The beacons all use three antennas and work the same.  “Pro” models have a little more range and some, including this one, have longer than average battery life.  Otherwise, the probe and shovel, so long as they’re not super heavy, are almost the same in all brands.  I’d be sure to check weight, though, and don’t carry any more than you have to carry AND I’d get a shovel that has a “hoe” function, which will make more sense once you’ve had basic avalanche training.
  • Homemade first aid and backcountry repair kits

Ultimately, I ended up going with the Ortovox Haute Route 40, which had 40 liters of storage and held everything listed above (just barely).  Of course, once items were dropped at the hut, the bag had more than enough room. 

Unfortunately, Ortovox has discontinued the bag.  The Ortovox Haute Route 38 is almost the same, but the pack is designed for slightly smaller frames.  I’m 6’1” and 185 pounds and it fits me, but just barely.  

All three of my buddies on the trip used an Osprey Kamber 42 pack, which I also liked a lot and, with the top pack, actually held considerably more than the Ortovox I had.  I probably would have gone with the Kamber had I tested it before the trip.

And, finally, Gloves:  I used old gloves I had on hand.  The key is to take THREE PAIR:  

  1. A heavy, Gore-Tex pair like you’d use inbounds at a resort for going downhill.  I have long used, and really love, the Outdoor Research Alti Glove. These worked great for keeping my hands warm on the downhill runs. They shell is super thin, so, in a pinch, you can pull out the liner and use the shell to work on your skis or board, or even to wear while skinning in.
  2. A good, waterproof lighter pair like you’d use Nordic skiing, or doing any heat-generating activity in the snow (waterproof is important as you’ll inevitably use them during transition, when everything is covered with snow, and they’ll soak through instantly if they’re not waterproof or heavily water resistant).
  3. A warm backup pair that you could use skinning or downhilling in case either or both of your other two get wet. 

I know three pair seems like overkill, but, until you’ve done this, it’s hard to understand the temperature differences between the uphill and downhill activities. Just imagine jogging uphill the next time you finish a downhill ski run. Imagine how sweaty and wet your gloves would get.  Then imagine wearing them all day in sub-freezing conditions.  And, thrown taking your skis or snowboard apart in waist deep powder at the top and bottom of the hill.  Take three pairs.  You’ll thank me for it later!

I’d love to hear about your backcountry experiences, or answer questions, in the comments section below!!!