Primer on Alpine Backcountry

Mountains in the Alps

The Alps. The quintessential mountain range, steeped in tradition, culture, and not a bad place for a shred!

The alps are a relatively compact mountain range, stretching approximately 750 miles in a crescent shape from France to Slovenia. With such a small size, the range offers a multitude of cultures and enough different snow and weather systems that on any given weekend, you can have a shot of finding a bluebird powder day within a few hours’ drive.

Infrastructure

Simply put – there is no better mountain range in the world with respect to access than the Alps. Downhill skiing itself developed into a recreational pastime in the alps, and the infrastructure of mountain roads, lifts, and huts is incredible.  For freeriding, it’s simply a paradise. With some exceptions, you can skin and ride wherever your heart desires. Mountains are generally not privately owned, and thus the companies which operate the lift do not have a say on where you can and cannot shred. As such, there is no “out of bounds”, nor are there restrictions on skinning up (however, with the huge boom in ski touring in recent years, especially the spandex and skinny-ski types, most ski areas have rules on skinning up on the slopes themselves, for safety reasons – as an alternative there are generally dedicated uphill routes or times for uphill travel).

With the incredible network of lifts and lack of restrictions, you can use existing infrastructure for finding the goods in-bounds, side-country shreds, as well as to gain initial elevation before traversing off into different, untouched areas. Powder hunting is a relatively new/unknown phenomenon in many areas, and for example, in my home area on a powder day, I can still find the fluffy stuff well into the afternoon, especially when it’s not a bluebird day. Utilizing infrastructure for a tour is a massive advantage, cutting down on approaches and allowing you to focus on more technical mountaineering or getting to the best snow, depending on your goal.

Culture

Inhabited for millennia, the Alps both share a common culture and have delightful differences worthy of a vacation: A quick rundown on the big 4:

Switzerland

Picturesque alpine country with efficient transport, huge variety, and incredible natural beauty. Think brown cows, but also the Eiger.

France

Highest peaks, technical mountaineering, and steep skiing

Italy

The best food, even in mountain huts. Seriously, not to be overlooked. Also, amazing diversity in mountain and snow, from the steeps and deeps of Aosta to the spectacular towering dolomites

Austria

Steeped in tradition, Austrians are practically born on skis. Generally lower mountains but colder and (arguably) more reliable powder. Also a very silly après-ski scene.

Alps Mountain Top Log Book

Peaks are often marked with crosses and a log-book for recording your summit

Snow and Avalanche Tips

As any splitboarder or backcountry skier knows, avalanche reports are absolute necessary for planning tours and backcountry travel. Avalanche forecasts are prepared based on political regions. Avalances.org, operated by the European Avalanche Warning Services (EAWS), has a map that links to the report of your desired region. Click on the specific region to find, for example, the SLF (Swiss avalanche forecast) for Switzerland or ARPA for the Italian region of Lombardy. Very generally, wind remains the biggest issue in the Alps, both for the quality of the snow and avalanche danger. Hard crusts littered with chevrons, accumulations, cornices- these are all regular occurrences. Pay attention to the conditions which can result in a slab avalanche.

On the “fun” side, WePowder is an excellent resource of forecasts specifically tailored to finding the best powder to ride. Forecasting 6 days in advance, check out the upcoming major storm systems and maps with predictions on where the dump will be.

Touring

Culture and infrastructure are all well and good, but how about those of us who prefer to leave the crowds behind to explore and find untracked snow? While the Alps are a heavily developed mountain range, getting off the beaten path is relatively easy. Ski touring has a long history, and in particular at this point in time is having quite a boom, which means that standard tours will be relatively well-trodden. However, most of the tracks are put in by skiers interested in the overall “tour”, and not necessarily finding the most rewarding descent. Thus, armed with the right knowledge, you can slightly diverge from the normal route and have at it. More advanced backcountry travelers can use scope couloirs and enticing powdery faces. If you are not an expert, hire a guide! Unlike in the U.S., in Europe are guides are required, by law, to be fully accredited by the national alpine guiding authority, meaning they will have taken all required courses and exams, so you can be sure to be in good hands.

Ski Touring in Alps

Snow-covered glaciers- the alps are a powder paradise Photo: Jake Gersh

Accommodation

From the towns and small cities of the valleys to the quaint mountain hut and unstaffed bivouacs, the alps offer nearly endless possibilities for a good night’s rest. While many mountain ranges require big approaches, winter camping, and heavy loads, most alpine touring involves crashing at a staffed mountain hut. These huts are equipped with a restaurant and bunks- the quality of the food depends on the region, but as a rule, they dish out warm and hearty regional specialties. Rates are generally under 50 euro a night (often less) for a half pension, including a hearty dinner, bunk, and breakfast the next morning. While the huts are heated, you’ll need to bring your own linens. Sleeping bags are fine, but to reduce weight most people bring a sleeping bag liner (either cloth or silk).

To book the hut, call in advance. If you’re lucky smaller rooms are sometimes available. If you’re in a dorm, earplugs are highly recommended.

Swiss Alps Night Sky

Snapped outside the Chamanna d’Es-cha hut in Switzerland. Nothing like crunchy snow underfoot and cold, clean air in the lugs after a good night’s sleep. Photo: Jake Gersh.

An unstaffed hut/bivouac requires a bit more planning. They are generally available on a first-come, first-serve basis; however, the custodian may need to be contacted beforehand. Wood for heating is sometimes provided, but you’ll need to bring proper winter sleeping bags like the Nemo Sonic -20 and your own food.

Now that you’ve got a flavor the alpine backcountry, all that’s left is booking a flight to Munich/Innsbruck/Milan. Enjoy!

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