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Zach Grant (right), Cindi Lou Grant, and Yoda head for the Park City ridgeline via Guardsman Pass.

Image: Mike Schirf

With Park City’s roots as a thriving silver-mining town, it should come as no surprise that skiing here predates ski lifts. Local ski pioneers wouldn’t have called it “backcountry,” of course. To them it was simply skiing and, in the early days, more about getting from one place to another versus having fun. But what might be news is that the equipment Park City’s “back-in-the-day” schussers used to access the surrounding peaks and bowls under their own steam was, at least in concept, surprisingly close to the modern-day gear fueling today’s resurgence of all things backcountry.

Skis from the pre-lift era were mostly made of pine. For bindings, skiers would wedge their boots into a toe piece attached to the ski, then stretch inch-wide inner-tube strips through the toe piece up around their ankles. Mel Fletcher, an early disciple of backcountry skiing in Park City who as early as 1937 was leading ski tours from Park City to Brighton and Alta, added his own innovation: “I screwed screen door hooks into the sides of my skis so I could keep my boots tighter in the skis,” he told me when I interviewed him in 1993 for a Park City Magazine profile. “You couldn’t really break your leg, because the ski or binding would almost always break first,” Fletcher added with his trademark grin. Before climbing skins came along, he and other local skiers would wrap their skis in canvas to give them grip on the uphill trek and then remove the canvas for the descent.

Fast-forward to 2015. Backcountry skis are made of strong, lightweight carbon composites, boots are plastic with custom-molded liners, bindings are space-age metal, and climbing skins are nylon or mohair. But the basic concept—flexible boots to accommodate hiking or skiing, bindings that allow the toe to hinge for easier climbing, and an under-ski add-on to help skis grip the snow on the uphill—hasn’t changed much. What has changed is reliability, ease of use, weight, and the throngs of skiers crossing over from traditional alpine gear to backcountry setups. The advent of splitboards—snowboards that detach down the middle vertically to allow uphill skinning as a skier would—has brought the same ease of access to backcountry snowboarding.

The combination of easy-to-use gear, a yearning for untracked snow, and the idea of a more personal mountain experience is leading a whole new generation of skiers beyond the lift line and into the wild. While the number of backcountry skiers is hard to measure, Snowsports Industries of America calls backcountry the fastest-growing segment in winter sports, and nearly all industry experts acknowledge that backcountry is the only segment of skiing that is growing.

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Image: Mike Schirf

The Central Wasatch Range has long been a mecca for backcountry skiing and winter mountaineering. Park City resident Andrew McLean follows a long tradition of backcountry icons who have called the Wasatch home. McLean has bagged first descents on all seven continents, and his book, The Chuting Gallery: A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch Mountains, helped cement the Wasatch’s reputation as a proving ground for backcountry skiers.

McLean has lived and skied here since 1990 and says “the popularity has exploded” in the past decade. Referring to the backcountry shots right behind his house in Summit Park, he notes, “It used to be I could go back there and see a few tracks and maybe a couple of locals from the neighborhood. Now I see people from all over.” Though he recently referred to the Wasatch backcountry as Was-Angeles in one of his tongue-in-cheek blog posts, McLean is quick to point out that you can almost always find untracked powder outside the boundaries of the resorts. “You just might have to get up earlier and go farther to find it,” he says. 

Of course, one vital component to a backcountry ski experience is access to undeveloped terrain. Unlike the Wasatch Front’s numerous backcountry trailheads in Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood, and Millcreek Canyons, most of the land on the Park City side of the range is private. That said, an authentic bottom-up backcountry experience can still be had here on the Wasatch Back. Skiers can tour up and over Empire Pass between Deer Valley and Park City, go farther north to Summit Park, or cross over Parley’s Summit to Lamb’s Canyon or Mt. Aire. There is also backcountry access from Wasatch State Park in Midway or farther south toward Sundance Resort.

Ironically, the most frequented backcountry area around Park City, known as The Monitors, is entered through an access gate near the top of Park City Mountain Resort’s (formerly Canyons) Ninety-Nine 90 chairlift. This kind of lift-accessed out-of-bounds skiing presents another set of issues, however. Resort operators and avalanche professionals alike discourage the use of the common term “sidecountry,” fearing it may lead skiers to believe terrain adjacent to a resort is safe from avalanches and other risks. It isn’t. “Even if you can see a chairlift, you’re backcountry skiing if you are out of the ski area boundary,” says White Pine Touring’s Scott House, who teaches avalanche education courses locally (1790 Bonanza Dr, 435.649.8710). “It’s imperative you have some working knowledge of the backcountry experience and snowpack as well as proper gear before you go into the backcountry,” he adds.

Which leads us to the most important aspect of backcountry skiing: the need for proper safety equipment, including an avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, and pack, as well as the education, knowledge, and practice to know how to use them. Utah’s go-to source for all things avalanche and safety is the Utah Avalanche Center, which provides daily avalanche advisories, mountain weather forecasts, and a list of local avalanche education providers.

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Image: Mike Schirf

The surge in number of skiers and riders venturing into the backcountry brings into sharp focus an issue that has long held the attention of veteran skiers like McLean: the need to speak out on behalf of preserving the remaining undeveloped backcountry terrain in the Wasatch, particularly on public lands that belong to all of us. Two years ago McLean and a small group of concerned backcountry skiers formed the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance to protect the mountains’ remaining open spaces and serve as a central information venue for the backcountry community. The group already has more than 1,600 members and has become a major voice in public processes like the Mountain Accord, where decisions about future development and preservation are at stake.

In the end, backcountry skiing is about a different ethos: self-reliance, personal expression, and freedom. It’s the same spirit Park City’s ski pioneers like Mel Fletcher brought to these mountains when skiing under your own power was the only option. I think Fletcher, who passed away in 2010, would be happy to see a new generation discovering some of his secrets.

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