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It's lunchtime for a group on an overnight backcountry hut trip in the Crystal Lakes Basin south of Breckenridge, Colo.
It's lunchtime for a group on an overnight backcountry hut trip in the Crystal Lakes Basin south of Breckenridge, Colo. (Kari Bodnarchuk for The Boston Globe)
 If you go: Women's Ski and Snowboard Programs

Mistresses of the high backcountry

Women learn how to enjoy the wilderness

Email|Print| Text size + By Kari J. Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2005

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. -- On the backside of Peak 10, just beyond the lifts and groomed trails of Colorado's Breckenridge Ski Resort, a group of telemark skiers made their way up toward Crystal Lakes Basin, cutting through stands of spruce and across open fields of fresh powder, with views of snow-capped Mount Helen in the distance.

We ranged in ability from novice to expert, but one thing we had in common was a desire to experience the wilderness under the watchful eye of instructors who would guide us safely and teach us useful backcountry skills.

Leslie Ross, a graduate of the University of Vermont and a former ski instructor at Mount Snow in West Dover, Vt., runs this backcountry travel program. She has earned top places in telemark and extreme skiing competitions around the world, and is also a three-time national telemark free skiing champion.

Ross moved to Breckenridge in 1991. Five years later, she founded Babes in the Backcountry and now runs women's outdoor education programs to teach the skills and techniques needed to travel safely in the wilderness. As many as 500 women attend her clinics, workshops, and adventure trips around the world each year, and Ross hopes to begin similar programs in New England in the coming years.

Some of the programs focus more on the nuts and bolts of backcountry travel, like learning how to read the weather and terrain, and how to use an avalanche beacon, which is a transmitter that helps rescuers locate a buried skier. Other programs focus on rejuvenation of mind, body, and spirit through time spent in the wilderness.

''If you're not centered and balanced within yourself, you won't be as tuned in to the environment and conditions," said Ross.

The Breckenridge program had three components: a one-day telemark clinic where we learned the basics of ''free-heel" skiing, a one-day backcountry skills clinic in which we learned how to safely plan a trip through the wilderness, and a two-day hut trip to Francie's Cabin on which we put our new skills to the test.

My instructor for the telemark clinic was Karen Lapides, who had worked for 13 years for the National Outdoor Leadership School and 10 years with Outward Bound, specializing in mountaineering and staff training courses. That explained her wonderful skill and patience as an instructor. Lapides taught us the proper ''tele" stance, then made us leave our poles behind, like kids in a beginner lesson, as we practiced wide, easy turns down a gentle intermediate slope.

''Reach forward and slightly out with your downhill hand, like you're dribbling a basketball, and keep it low," Lapides urged us.

The next day, in the backcountry skills clinic, we learned about the safety aspects and hazards of backcountry travel. Fourteen women signed up for the clinic, including Mary Devlin of Breckenridge, who had never been on skis in her life. The rest of us were a mix of beginner to advanced alpine and telemark skiers, and several were snowshoers.

''I want to learn to make decisions on my own, so I'm not relying on guys or others around me," said Connie Myers of Fort Collins, Colo., who had been skiing for 16 years. ''That way, I can offer input, help determine the route, and be a part of the decision process."

The skills day started with a morning classroom session, where we learned to identify various types of snow, read the landscape and terrain, and identify hazards in order to avoid problems. Ross told us about avalanches -- what triggers them, how to avoid them, and what to do if we're caught in a slide (avalanches can move as fast as 150 miles per hour).

''It's the habits that we live and die by," Ross said. ''So if you learn good skills now, you'll build good habits."

She and Lapides also gave us an overview of the dangers of exposure, navigational challenges, reading the weather, and first-aid skills. Kim Nearpass, a doctor of naturopathic medicine at Breckenridge's Sacred Tree wellness center, discussed the importance of attitude and preparation for backcountry travel from a health perspective.

I had always known that it's important to rest for a day at 8,000 feet and then only go up in 1,500-foot increments per day after that. But I hadn't worked the acclimation time into my schedule. I left my Boston-area apartment at 40 feet above sea level one day and was taking a telemark clinic at 12,000 feet in the Colorado mountains the next morning. I should have built in an extra day or two to rest before skiing and also loaded up on fluids. Instead, I suffered several days of headaches.

We spent that afternoon on the mountain, learning how to ''skin up," or attach climbing skins, strips of nonslip, feltlike material that are waxed on one side and adhere to the bottom of the skis. They enable a telemark skier to climb up a mountain without slipping backward. It was a strange, unnerving feeling to be able to hike up a hill on skis, with the backs of the skis facing right down the fall line.

''You need to learn to trust your skins," Lapides said.

At the base of Peak 8, we practiced kick turns (a quick and easy technique used to change directions) and then made our way through deep snow in the woods to a turnaround point where we stopped to practice drills using avalanche beacons and probes.

''How do you take off your skins in the backcountry?" I asked. ''The snow could be this deep." I held my hand chest-high.

''Ideally, you want to learn to do it without taking off your skis," said Lapides. ''First, I use my skis and stomp down to create a flat, stable platform." She lifted a leg up behind her. ''Then, I pull off part of the skin, put the ski in front of me, and pull off the rest." It was a yogalike move that we proceeded to practice.

The next day, those of us doing the overnight hut trip met for a quick lesson on how to read a topographic map and then headed for the trailhead. For the next several hours, we wound up Spruce Creek Trail, stopping several times to consult our map and get our bearings. Avalanches typically occur in areas where there is a 30- to 45-degree slope (roughly the steepness of a black diamond or double-black diamond run). Our route wouldn't take us through any high-danger zones, but we learned what to look out for -- big cornices and ''sugary," unstable snow -- and studied the anatomy of the terrain as we skied.

Each of us wore an avalanche beacon, for practice and to get in the habit. A beacon sends out a signal. If someone gets buried in an avalanche, his or her fellow skiers set their beacons to ''receive" mode and can pick up the signal that's being transmitted from the buried skier's device. It comes across as a loud, rapid beeping sound that picks up the closer the rescuer gets to the lost skier. Thankfully, we didn't have to put these skills to the test.

Several miles later, we reached Francie's Cabin, one of 10 backcountry huts in Colorado's Summit Huts system that are linked by trails and are accessible to hikers and mountain bikers in summer, and to skiers and snowshoers in winter. This clean and cozy hut offered all the comforts we needed, and then some: a woodstove, solar-powered lights, a wood-burning sauna, an indoor composting toilet, a full kitchen with pots and pans and dishes, and bunk beds with mattresses and pillows.

The afternoon included several excursions to climb nearby hills and practice our telemark turns on the way down. We had sweeping views of the Crystal Lakes Basin, with Mount Helen and Red Mountain looming in the distance. Ross often schedules the overnight ski trips to coincide with a full moon, so we took advantage of it and went for a late-night ski outing, with the moon lighting our way and twinkling on the fresh snow around us.

The rest of the night was spent eating a big, organic dinner prepared by Nancy Hallett, a local gourmet chef; indulging in a wine tasting; hanging out in the sauna; and chatting about backcountry adventures and our new skills. At the very least, I knew I would feel more confident when venturing out into the New England wilderness come wintertime.

Contact Kari J. Bodnarchuk, a freelance writer and photographer in Somerville, at travelwriter@karib.us.

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