The Mountain Times

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Enjoying backcountry snow tele and AT style

In the past two decades, the access to "powder stashes" versus skiing on groomed trails has become a "special experience" and even a quest for experienced adventurers.

According to Snowsport Industries America (SIA), there were 2.6 million backcountry skiers accessing ungroomed terrain both within and outside resort boundaries in 2011. There were also 1.1 million non-resort backcountry skiers accessing pure backcountry terrain from trailheads and logging roads.

A newer term "sidecountry" is also common now and refers to terrain accessed by use of a resort's lifts so as to reach ungroomed terrain and powder stashes.

Another recent term is all terrain or AT skiing. AT also stands for Alpine Touring. AT skiing has its own specialty equipment which makes exploration of the back- or sidecountry easier and more efficent for aficionados.

AT gear is a fast-growing segment of the hard-goods market, however, recreational skiers can also use their own equipment to access some of the "powder stashes" in the East, but must beware of the topography so as not to end up in the flats requiring a trek out.

The attraction of backcountry
Skiers in the East have been accessing the backcountry (non-resort, non-lift serviced slopes and woods) and sidecountry on Tele skis for many years now. In fact, 1930s' and 1940s' Pico skiers climbed to the summit using 'skins,' (which attached to their skis giving traction) for the thrill of skiing down the long Sunset Schuss trail as there was no lift to the top then.

Today, however, those who skin uphill for the thrill of "earning their turns" are interested in getting away from the crowds and accessing fresh, untracked snow. They enjoy the exercise involved in uphill climbs as well as the camaraderie of like-minded friends to reach a peak, noted JoAnn Kavouksorian who has co-owned and operatored Mountain Travelers Hike and Ski Shop with her husband Peter for 37 years.

Why AT
Asked why people choose AT, Kavouksorian said, it is for both "the uphill fitness workout" and for the "ability to climb up with free heels and ski down with locked heels Alpine style.

"It is a logical way for an Alpine skier to make the transition to going uphill, as opposed to learning to Tele [Telemark ski]," she added. (Tele involves equipment that allows a free heel for the graceful bent-knee driven Tele turn downhill.)

Noting that Alpine skiers are already familiar with the step-in style binding, she said the AT binding can "lock their heels and have the 'release' they are accustomed to" for downhill runs while they can free the heel for ease in uphill climbing.

Why Now
Kavouksorian noted that AT is "huge out West in Colorado, Utah and Washington State as well as Europe" but "not so well known here in the East. It has always been in the 'Outdoor Industry' (like Telemark) instead of the 'Ski Industry.' They are different markets which are just recently crossing over in the last five years.

"Before that, we were always separate when it came to equipment…  Peter and I sold climbing skins in the late 1970s. And we have been going 'uphill' for 35 years on Telemark skis, though not on AT," she explained.

Who is Doing Backcountry
"Local backcountry skiers in the East [traditionally] are mostly Telemark skiers, with a few AT now," Kavouksorian added.

"Backcountry skiers in the West are more AT and a few are Telemark."

The adventurers who access the "big terrain" backcountry and sidecountry of Western/Canadian/Alaskan Resorts as well European Tours like 'the Haute Route' prefer Alpine Touring equipment (guides may require it). It is extremely popular in Europe, she said.
Kavouksorian noted that AT gear has been less popular in the East (that is changing now) where lightweight Telemark gear has historically been most often used to go to places like Mt Washington's Tuckerman Ravine and the Great Gulf.

"We are still skinning and earning our turns, but on lighter, more flexible equipment," she noted.

Today, tele skiers are joined by many alpine skiers on AT equiptment and, also, by a few snowboaders who have "split boards" allowing them to climb up with skins, too.

AT equipment
"We are selling more and more AT every year. A typical package runs $1,800-$2,000, and our most common customer is from down country- CT, NY, MA. Many are from Stratton and we see a few locals.

"Skis run $700; boots, $600-$700; bindings, $500-$600; and climbing skins, $175 + $20 to trim to fit (Peter trims 50 to 100 pair of skins a year).

"Peter sells primarily Scarpa AT boots. They have a much more flexible upper cuff than a downhill boot and are more comfortable. Many have a Vibram type hiking sole and some models also have a separate DIN sole that can be screwed on instead of the AT sole.

"Many race coaches love them because they are so comfortable to wear all day long, hiking around the hill," she noted.
Peter K's take on the alure "Most of our AT customers and friends have no interest in learning to Telemark ski well enough to handle the kind of terrain they are comfortable on with Alpine gear. So AT is their best option.

"I will ski AT gear occasionally, usually while testing the new skis, boots and bindings that are offered by the industry. My interest is in how efficient the gear is for climbing as well as the downhill characteristics. A lot of the new equipment being offered by the big Alpine companies is geared toward 'sidecountry' use. The emphasis is on the 'down' not the 'up.' True AT gear is much lighter and more suitable for long or multiple climbs and descents.

"The popularity of Alpine Touring gear stems from the allure of wild snow. More skiers are in the woods after storms than ever before. Most ski areas promote tree skiing now and have glades thinned and marked on the trail maps. Now advanced skiers want to get even further away and are willing to climb to get those turns.

Many of us climb and skin for early-season turns before the ski areas open, skin for powder runs mid-winter, and the travel to the White Mountains or the Adirondacks in the spring.

"Skinning for turns is a great cardio workout for many of us, too. Most of the AT and Telemark skiers we know are interested in staying fit year round. They run, bike, or hike to stay in shape. So 'skinning' is the winter alternative that has the fun factor of skiing added.

"Many of my customers travel to skin and ski destinations out West, Canada and Europe. They may ski at resorts, too, but like the option of exploring the backcountry.

"Just today [January 27], I skinned up a local mountain with my son. It took over two hours to climb almost two miles and 1800 feet. We thoroughly enjoyed being in the woods. Climbing up in 4" new snow on top of a solid base, we took our time to savor the views and enjoy the time together.

"Lift serviced downhill skiing is a blast, but trekking up the mountain gives us a different and rewarding experience as skiing back down seems a lot more fulfilling and fun. Lots of stops to enjoy each other's turns and our time together in the mountains. Now we can eat a lot and sleep like babes!

"Alpine Touring offers the same experience but can be done by almost any fit Alpine skier. Hence the appeal!"