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Ditch the Ski Resort to Explore the Backcountry

Going out of bounds

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Watching the snow marker for Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area can be an emotional roller coaster for skiers and snowboarders. One day, the marker will be buried under 11 inches of fresh, powdery snow. A few days later, it may be empty and slick with rain.

Rather than constantly hit "refresh" on Bogus Basin's conditions webpage, more people in the Treasure Valley are venturing into the backcountry.

"It's a growing sport for sure," said Chris Lundy, co-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides in Stanley. "In the ski industry, backcountry is the only aspect that's growing. Ski areas are stagnant or declining. Backcountry gear sales are increasing. You see more people when you're out there. By all measures, it's a growing sport."

Lundy's business offers courses that teach backcountry skiers and snowboarders how to assess snowpack for avalanche risk, travel safely through avalanche territory and rescue techniques should an avalanche break loose. Sawtooth Mountain Guides also offers several guided ski trips throughout the Sawtooths and Sun Valley area.

In the past five years, Lundy said his business has needed to double its avalanche courses to accommodate the uptick of interest in the backcountry.

"I think there's a number of reasons," Lundy said. "I think that chasing snow plays a role, especially at Bogus. Sun Valley makes a lot of snow, but to get ski conditions people are looking for, they have to leave town."

Getting into the sport is more intimidating than buying a lift ticket at Bogus and putting your life in the hands of the local ski patrollers, though.

Abe Vore, the owner and clinical audiologist at Eagle Hearing, decided to get serious about the sport after only two times out in the backcountry.

"I got hooked," he said.

To get the ball rolling, he established the Boise Backcountry Ski Club group on Facebook and hosted its first meeting at a downtown coffeeshop during the city's first snowstorm of the season. A dozen people showed up, clad in puffy jackets, beanies and trucker hats.

The gathering attracted a range of people with varying skill in the backcountry. Each had a different reason for trading their downhill skis for an alpine touring set up or a splitboard—a snowboard that can separate into two skis to make trekking up a snow-covered hillside easier.

For some, it's the solitude that comes with the backcountry. Others are chasing big lines and untouched powder.

"I like the problem-solving of it," said Casey Strunk. "There's more cerebral thinking in backcountry skiing—instead of getting on a lift and getting off and going down and getting on a lift and coming down. It's also nice to have something aerobic to do in the winter."

Other people around the table said getting out in the backcountry helps alleviate seasonal affective disorder. There's a payoff that comes from working for your turns.

"The winter backcountry is one of the most quiet, peaceful places I have ever imagined in my entire life," said Lana Weber, who works as the membership coordinator for the Idaho Conservation League. "I still have a ski pass to Brundage and part of that is having my family with me, my kids. We can all do that together. But they still have just as much desire to get out into the backcountry once they get old enough."

"And ski lodges are gross. They are smelly and sweaty," added Stacey Donahue, who started exploring the backcountry on snowshoes with her snowboard strapped to her back a few years ago. Now she has a splitboard she can't wait to give try out.

Still, the backcountry brings a higher risk than the boundaries of a ski resort.

One backcountry skier who moved to Boise within the past year came to the meeting to expand his network, but he shared a story that left the group quiet and contemplative.

"I once went with a guy I'd never met before. That was the first red flag," said Gabe Finkelstein, who works as a ski patroller at Crystal Mountain and started backcountry skiing in 2000. "The second red flag: We got to the top of the mountain and did a beacon check before we started skiing. His wasn't even on. I said, 'You sure you know how to use this thing?'"

That guy started down the mountain first, staying close to the trees and away from the open bowl, where an avalanche would be more likely. Then Finkelstein took his first turn and felt the snow drop below him, releasing 200-foot avalanche.

"I immediately went into rescue mode. I got my beacon out and put it on 'Search,' and picked up a beep pretty quickly. His legs up a tree, snowboard caught in some branches. He was fine, except for being super scared," Finkelstein said. "It was a great learning experience because nobody got hurt, but we all know a guy who died in an avalanche. The more experienced I get, the more scared I get. Your confidence level might go up, but your comfort level does not go with it."

Vore suggested everyone heading into the backcountry take an avalanche course and practice with their beacons at Bogus Basin's beacon park.

The excitement for the falling snow outside quickly returned as folks swapped emails and phone numbers, itching to break into those untouched powder fields.