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Steamboat Magazine

The Backcountry Beckons : At the intersection of beauty and danger

02/23/2021 12:15PM ● By Deb Olsen

Kelly Northcutt snowboards through deep powder in the Buffalo Pass backcountry. Photo by Noah Wetzel.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – Serenity and peril lie in the wilderness that borders Steamboat Springs. Enticed by the solitude, wildness, pristine snow, awe-inspiring views, wildlife and fresh air, people discover the backcountry anew each winter. Since the onset of COVID, interest in this winter wonderland has skyrocketed. 

“The feeling of fresh powder, getting away with people you’ve chosen to go with, a deep, fresh, untracked field of snow – those are my favorite days,” says local science/math teacher Mindy Mulliken, who has been backcountry skiing for 20-plus years. 

The opportunity for people to test themselves in the face of danger is also part of the backcountry’s allure. Rapidly changing weather, sudden and violent avalanches, unknown terrain, and the possibility of bodily injury far from help are among the risks backcountry users must contemplate. 

Managing those risks and still enjoying the experience is the key to a successful backcountry outing. How do you manage that as a newcomer to the wilderness? Is it even possible? Absolutely. 

“Take small bites, test the water, move into the sport with caution, and leave a little margin for error,” advises Eric Deering, avalanche instructor and CEO of Steamboat Powdercats, which provides both motorized and nonmotorized backcountry tours on Buffalo Pass. 

“Focus on patience,” Mulliken says. “Backcountry skiing is not an instant gratification sport. It takes time, effort, education and keeping up with it. But the harder you work for something, the bigger the reward.” 

1. Gear

Like any sport, backcountry skiing is going to require a few toys. Fortunately, Steamboat Springs has a host of ski shops with experts to guide you through the process of selecting skis, poles, boots, bindings and skins. The newest and most technologically advanced is AT (Alpine Touring) gear, which is readily available to rent or buy. 

Next you will need the requisite safety gear, which at a minimum includes a shovel, probe, map, first aid kit, emergency blanket, water, food and a fix-it kit. “You’ll also need to create a tour plan that takes into account the overall objective of your trip, how long your trip will be, maps of the area, the route you wish to travel and the snow conditions,” says Kent Vertrees of Steamboat Powdercats. “Also, tell others where you are going so if you don’t come back at a certain time, they can help initiate a rescue if needed.”

2. Education

“Sometimes people think you get the gear, you’re good to go,” Mulliken says. “Gear is not your ticket. Take a class.” Ski Haus, Colorado Mountain College and Steamboat Powdercats all offer classes in avalanche safety. Colorado Avalanche Information Center is the go-to resource for both education and updates on conditions. Take your equipment out to a meadow or flat snowfield and practice until using your probe, beacon and shovel are second nature, Mulliken says.

3. Get the forecast

As anyone who has spent any time in Colorado knows, the weather changes rapidly and dramatically. Dress in layers. No matter how sunny it is when you leave home, bring your goggles, weatherproof outer layer, mitts and warm socks. No matter how cloudy it is, bring your sunscreen. 

More important than the weather itself is its impact on the terrain. Avalanches happen unexpectedly, and wind, snow and changing temperatures often trigger them. Mulliken suggests that all backcountry users should have the CAIC app on their phones. 

4. Choose your partners

The best way to learn about the backcountry is to go with someone who knows it. Find a mentor; backcountry enthusiasts are often happy to share their experience with you, especially if you offer to bring lunch, buy the gas or provide the après-tour beer. Steamboat Powdercats offers guided non-motorized backcountry ski tours tailored to participants’ individual skill levels. All backcountry skiers should have intermediate, if not advanced, skill levels. 

Backcountry skiing is a great choice for families, provided the parents have the necessary experience. “Especially if you’re making wise decisions, skiing with family and friends is one of the best activities,” Vertrees says. 

5. Plan your tour

Beginners have a couple of good options for first-time backcountry adventures. One is Bruce’s Trail on Rabbit Ears Pass. It is well-marked, near the highway and is groomed in early season. Its gentle rolling terrain through the forest is an ideal first step. Another possibility is Emerald Mountain, adjacent to Howelsen Hill. Park at the Blackmere Trailhead or at the rodeo grounds to access this trail network. 

The next step could be Bear Tree Ridge, accessible from Dry Lake Campground on Buffalo Pass. “It’s nice, user-friendly, nonmotorized terrain with low-angle trees,” Vertrees says. It is located on the north side of County Road 38, east of Dry Lake Campground. Follow the trail that runs parallel to the campground and veer right up the hill to the ridge. It is not well-marked. 

Another option is Walton Peak, just off U.S. 40. It is marked with blue posts and offers a wide open shot down the face of the peak at the end of the climb. Beware, however – it slid in the recent past. 

Parking on Buffalo Pass, Rabbit Ears and in North Routt County is limited. Plan to arrive early. If no parking is available, resist the attempt to ditch the car and ski anyway. You will be ticketed, if not towed. Instead, have a back-up plan. Go shopping, get a cup of coffee, or go snowshoeing and come back later in the day. 

6. Stay safe

Routt County does not have the reputation for avalanches that other areas of the Rocky Mountains have. But that does not mean they do not occur. If anything, the low angles of local backcountry terrain have a tendency to lure skiers into lowering their guard. Check the CAIC reports, be prepared to change plans accordingly and cross open snowfields one at a time. 

Do not go into the backcountry alone; always let someone know where you are going to be. 

In short, know before you go. 

Steamboat Springs is ideally situated for backcountry exploration, with public lands to the north and east of the city. A one-day winter tour in this spectacular wilderness will result in a lifetime of memories. 

Backcountry resources

Colorado Avalanche Information Center –

Steamboat Springs Chamber –

Routt Powder Riders –

Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest –

National Weather Service –