Why go high in winter? Because going down is so much fun.
“YOU’RE CLEAR!” my partner shouts. Or was it, “You’re not clear!”? Between the whipping wind and my pounding heart, my ears are picking up every third word. My skis hang over the edge of the cornice overlooking the central Tyndall Gorge in Rocky Mountain National Park. Below the drop-off, the narrow, near-vertical Dragon’s Tail couloir twists between granite spires like a bobsled track. Despite fantasizing about this exact moment for the few hours it took to climb here, my brain offers a final, firm protest against madness and gravity. Then, my partner gives the thumbs up, our signal that he’s in position to watch me (a safety precaution). My stomach drops. I take a deep breath and will myself forward a few long inches. Time to fly.
Objects in free fall accelerate at 9.8 meters per second. Squared. Thankfully, I land after a mere 4 feet—far less than my fear seemed to suggest—and suddenly my muscle memory kicks in. I send a series of quick turns through the rock garden to regain my balance and let my brain catch up with what’s happening. Speeding through the technical piece, my confidence surges and I remember how much I love skiing—fast. I streak down the 50-degree slope toward the chute, granite walls closing in around me. I fight the urge to kick a tail out to scrub speed—I didn’t spend my whole morning climbing this mountain to ease down the best part. In seconds, I skirt a corner around a jagged crag and the gully widens to 20 feet before it deposits me in the White Room.
Glee replaces nerves as I soar, arcing huge turns on the dreamy-soft, 30-degree face. When I cruise to a stop on the frozen lake, I topple over into a cloud of golden spindrift, giggling like an idiot.
A SKIER (SINCE I WAS FIVE) with a relatively newfound zeal for hiking, I nearly defected completely from the traffic-choked world of resort skiing when I discovered its backcountry superior a few years ago. What better way to maximize winter than to take the best of hiking—solitude, exercise, exploration, scenery—and combine it with skiing? There’s a sort of humility required in the sport that drew me in, too, because there aren’t patrol teams managing risk for you in the backcountry. You need to manage your own, carefully, through route-planning, studying the snowpack, waiting for the weather to align just right, and trusting your partner. I appreciated the reminder about the power of wilderness, so, two winters ago, I bought climbing skins, touring bindings, and safety equipment (all of which you can rent), to transform my resort setup into a backcountry-ready system.
My first tour involved a 5-mile skin to a broad, 25-degree slope—the equivalent of a resort green-circle run. It didn’t matter, though. The anticipation of plowing my own tracks through ungroomed snow drove me up the mountain (a physical effort that fends off cold toes even down to -25°F, in my experience).
Today, we skinned 3 miles covering some 3,500 feet of elevation gain to finally send the Dragon’s Tail. By most counts, the exchange rate in backcountry skiing is poor. For every descent, you owe the mountain gods a demanding, hours-long cardio workout. In return, you get lonely, often untracked slopes.
We pushed the pace through the spruce and fir forest so we might be able to lap the descent before the afternoon (when the sun often bakes the snowpack into avalanche-prone slabs) and reached Emerald Lake before 7 a.m. In summer, it’s a turquoise pool seated below Flattop Mountain’s granite, diadem-like spires; but today, it’s a staging area below some of the state’s most dramatic couloirs. They can hold more than 20 feet of snow.
We’d already ascended 800 feet, but we needed to triple that in the next half-mile. I started up the mountain, cutting a trail through the snow. Lifting my heel, I dragged my leg forward while maintaining as much of my ski’s skin-covered base on the snow’s surface as possible for traction. By the time I stood below the granite corridor, the sunshine painted the walls a brilliant orange. I clicked out of my bindings and strapped my skis to my pack—the slope above was too steep for skinning. I could have turned around and cruised down the 30-degree white apron, slashing turns in the pristine slope, and it’d still be worth it. But, I’d been meditating on the 50-degree couloir for the entire climb, so I kick-stepped up the chute.
At the top, I began shivering, but I wasn’t cold. I inched to the lip of the cornice and breathed. My partner gave the signal.
Go further, ride better, and have more fun by using science to optimize your cold-weather fueling strategy.
It’s an undeniable fact: winter backcountry activities require a lot more calories than summer ones. But fill up your ski pack with snack cakes and whatever else happens to be in your pantry, and you might not like the results.
Better idea: Use the power of science to optimize your snacking strategy and make the most of your powder days. We interviewed nutritionists, chefs, and guides to find out what snacks are best for backcountry touring.
Pack foods that don’t freeze or squish.
There’s nothing worse than trying to gnaw your way through a frozen Clif Bar on a chilly day. Charlotte Austin, an international mountain guide and alpine climber, carries packets of energy gel and nut butter in the chest pocket of her parka. “I often instruct clients to carry snacks on their bodies instead of in backpacks,” she says. “Body heat keeps foods warm, and you’re more likely to consume the calories you need if they’re easy to access.”
Outdoor food doesn’t have to mean bars and gels, either. Jono Stevens, the founder of Cab9 Snowboard School in Meribel, France, reminds his clients to “bring some local cured meat and cheese to add to the experience.”
Alternatively, pack foods that get better when they’re frozen. “Sometimes I keep a bag of Skittles in an outside pocket,” says Jackson-based ski guide Richard Morse. “They freeze in the cold and make a great treat.”
Start eating before you start working.
If you feel dizzy, nauseous, fatigued, or experience muscle weakness or blurred vision, then you might have low blood sugar. The best way to prevent low blood sugar is to eat 3-4 hours before you begin touring. Taking in a carbohydrate dense meal before exertion will top off your muscle glycogen stores so you have plenty of energy to burn.
Starches and sugar are good sources of carbs. “Dried fruits are good sources of sugar and bananas actually have a decent amount of starch, says Daniel Freidenreich, Professor of Health & Exercise Science at Rowan University. “People can also make homemade fruit leathers on a food dehydrator. Freeze-dried corn is a good source of starch, but still has a nice sweet taste for palatability.”
Keep up the pace once you’re on the trail or skin track: A study of NOLS participants published in Research in Outdoor Education concluded that outdoor recreationists should eat small bites every 15-20 minutes during exercise, and consume a snack 20-40 minutes after exertion when their cells are most open to tissue repair.
Freidenreich clarifies that skiers should focus on carbs during hard exercise like steep uphills. “Protein and fat should be saved for meals during rest breaks,” he says.
Remember the 4:1 carb-to-protein ratio.
Carbohydrates give you energy while protein builds and repairs body tissues (like skin, bones and muscles) that get broken down over the course of a long tour. Eating the two in the proper ratio will keep you energized without weighing you down.
It’s easier to stick to the 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio if you make your own snacks. The Executive Chef of Killington Mountain School, Rhonda Benoit, says that she recommends “slow-burning fuel like granola or oatmeal” to athletes on the go.
Julia Mallon Delves, the founder of Trailside Kitchen, suggests portable meals like quinoa patties, and adds that meat won’t go bad quickly in cold weather. “If someone is concerned with food going bad, a dry-aged salami, as well as an aged hard cheese, are both shelf-stable and can be eaten easily with a MunkPack or similar oatmeal squeeze pouch for complex carbs,” she says. “If frozen food is a concern, slice the cheese and salami into bite sized pieces at home before leaving so that it warms up between your hands faster outside.”
Watch your salt levels.
Salt maintains blood pressure, balances fluids, transmits nerve impulses and activates muscles. If you see salt streaks on your clothes, you may need to raise the levels of salt in your blood.
By the time you are thirsty, you have already lost 1-2% of your body weight from sweat loss. Because backcountry tourers are prone to low levels of salt in their blood due to sweat loss, Freidenreich says that drinking water isn’t enough.
“The best practice would be to add 3.5 grams of common table salt to every liter of water, he says. “Use a kitchen scale to measure the salt amount accurately.” Slightly salty water can still freeze, so a bottle parka or vacuum bottle is a must. According to Freidenreich, Gatorade isn’t an acceptable substitute: “They actually have to put less salt in the Gatorade since they put a lot of carbohydrate in it.” Ready-made electrolyte mixes from companies like Hammer Nutrition and GU will also work, or just snack on salty foods like pretzels and peanuts.
Don’t forget fat.
PR issues aside, fat is a great source of energy. It has the most caloric value at nine calories per gram, as opposed to four calories per gram for protein and carbohydrates. What that means: You can get more caloric punch in a smaller package—a must when you’re working hard in the cold. Fats also insulate your body from cold, as well as boosting your immune system and transporting fat-soluble vitamins.
The kind you eat matters, too. It’s important to eat a variety of fats in order to get a mix of saturated as well as poly and monounsaturated, medium chain, and omega-3 fats. Each fat has a different benefit ranging from heart health to brain function, to healthy skin.
Danielle Schaub, a registered dietitian with Power Supply and a consultant with the US Healthful Foods Council, recommends packing foods such as string or Babybel cheese “because they help keep you feeling satisfied and aid with muscle repair. The calcium in cheese is also good for your bones.”
Looking for a good place to start putting these recommendations into practice? We’re fans of Patagonia Provisions, the new food line from the eponymous outdoor giant, which does the hard work of picking your trail menu with fruit+almond bars, buffalo jerky, and salmon.
See more–and have more fun–this winter with these gear and technique trips.
In relatively gentle terrain–Yellowstone’s northern valleys, say, or a mellow approach to one of Colorado‘s winter huts–there’s no better mode of transportation than a pair of backcountry touring skis. Lighter and more comfortable than alpine models, but much faster than snowshoes, these beefed-up cross-country skis let you glide over rolling, off-trail routes with ease.
Level ground Use the classic kick-and-glide: As you slide one foot forward, push down with the opposite pole and “kick” forward lightly with your back foot to start gliding. Lightly plant the opposite pole in front of you with each stride, and work on keeping an even rhythm. On gentle downhills, use “double poling” for more efficient skiing: Crouch in an athletic stance with your skis parallel and plant both poles in front of you at once, pushing with both arms to propel yourself forward.
Uphill Switchback up long slopes rather than trying to power straight up, and don’t try to climb too steeply–15 degrees is where textured bases start slipping. Put your weight on your uphill edges to keep from backsliding. On short, steep uphill stretches, use the herringbone step: Duckwalk to the top with your toes pointed out and your weight on the inside edges, forming a backward, downward-facing wedge with your skis.
Downhill Choose a gentle path (no more than 15 degrees for beginners) free of trees, rocks, and other hazards. Lean back slightly to keep your tips from diving under the snow’s surface and assume an athletic stance with you feet shoulder-width apart. Steeper slope? Traverse it to keep speed under control, with your weight on the uphill edges, or use the classic “snowplow”–skis in a forward wedge–to slow down.
Turns Use the step turn on gentle terrain: Completely pick up your ski and put it down facing the direction you want to go. To turn while going downhill, ease into a snowplow and put more weight on the outside ski. As you turn, move your skis back into parallel position to pick up speed.
Always pack extra water, food, and a survival kit; frigid temps can quickly escalate the consequences of a simple accident. Be avalanche aware: Get educated before you hit the slopes by taking an avalanche class. Steer clear of exposed slopes steeper than 25 degrees (most slides occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees), snow cornices, and gullies. Not sure? Stay away.
The dogwood buds decorating the branches around my campsite are like kernels of corn ready to pop. They surround a panorama of blue: Lake Ouachita, Arkansas’s largest body of water. I watch as the sun peeks over Hickory Nut Mountain, setting the lake on fire. A loon calls from somewhere, and I spot it bobbing 100 yards away near a wooded island. I’ve found a rare piece of backcountry solitude in this part of the state, one that I owe to the 40-mile Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, a relatively new path that snakes around the southern shore of its namesake. Like its name suggests, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail offers near-constant water views—and if you want to see it all, you’d better arrive before the dogwood flowers do.
From the Watchable Wildlife trailhead
1)Follow the Watchable Wildlife Trail boardwalk .2 mile west through a swamp where hundreds of wintering birds like coots, loons, and bald eagles reside.
2)Veer north to take paved Trails End Lane .4 mile to the western terminus of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail.
3)Follow the Vista Trail to a junction near mile 6.9.
4)Turn north onto the Eagle Vista spur—a 1.6-mile lollipop-loop—and follow the “stick” of the lollipop .6 mile.
5)At the junction of the loop, head .2 mile east to camp.
6)Next day, close the loop counterclockwise and retrace your steps back to the Vista Trail at mile 8.5.
7)Continue 8 miles east through budding hardwoods to emerge at the Hickory Nut Mountain trailhead at mile 16.5.
Eagle Peninsula (mile 7.7)
Make camp in a site with water views on the peninsula’s eastern edge, backed up to the oaks, loblolly pines, and dogwoods. Set an alarm for sunrise to watch color seep over the Ouachita foothills on the lake’s east edge. (There are no designated sites here, so if this one’s claimed, keep hiking counterclockwise to find another site.)
This itinerary ticks off just the westernmost piece of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail. Completed in 2014, the whole thing stretches 40 miles across the winding southern shore of 40,000-acre Lake Ouachita from the Watchable Wildlife Area at Denby Bay to Avery Recreation Area, just below Blakely Dam. Tack another night or two to complete it.
DO IT Shuttle car 34.5619, -93.4227; 10 miles west of Crystal Springs on FS Rd. 7426 Trailhead 34.5435, -93.4728; 18 minutes west of the shuttle car on Trails End Ln. Commercial optionOuachita Rides & Guides ($30) Season Year-round Permit None Custom map ($15) Contact