Part of the fun of snowboarding is exploring new areas in the mountains that are away from the groomers and the crowds. The feeling of ripping through untracked snow over natural terrain is really exciting and addictive. The backcountry snowboarding experience brings into play a new set of skills and way of looking at the mountain that you won’t get on lift serviced areas. But like any other type of adventure, you need to have an understanding of what you’re getting into.
When you head off into unmanaged areas where there is no ski patrol, be sure you have strong riding skills and are in decent physical shape. Black diamond runs should not be a problem for you, nor should riding in deep snow. You should also be able to ride switch for those times where you may not have enough room to get into your normal riding position.
Heading out into the backcountry requires wearing different clothing than what you might wear at a ski area. At a ski area you can always get back to the lodge or your car to change into dry or warmer clothes in a short amount of time. So wearing cotton could be an option. When you head out into the backcountry wearing cotton is not an option.
Whether you’re splitboarding, snowshoeing, or using approach skis you will be perspiring to one degree or another, and cotton will soak that sweat up and keep you wet. That moisture on your skin will be your undoing. It will quickly lower your internal body temperature and you will start to go hypothermic. Hypothermia can disorient and immobilize you in a short period of time.
Most people who die in the mountains succumb to hypothermia, also referred to as “exposure” in field reports, either due to being underdressed or wearing the wrong type of clothing.
Make sure you are wearing moisture wicking base layers when in the backcountry. These garments will pull the sweat off your skin and transfer it to the outside where it can evaporate. You should also wear moisture wicking mid-layers that you can easily take off or put on to manage your temperature. 20K/20K waterproof shells are also highly recommended. They tend to be best at keeping dry on the inside and outside at the same time very light weight.
Hydration and Food
Hypothermia can also occur due to dehydration. Your body will be expending a lot of energy as you climb up the mountain. Your muscles need a lot of hydration and some serious protein and carbs to keep it operating properly. If hydration is not maintained, the body will begin to shut down exposing you to greater risk from the elements. So bring plenty of water and snacks. If I’m going to be out for an entire day I like bring a water filter where I can refill my bottles at a stream.
Never venture out into the backcountry alone. Always try to go with experienced backcountry riders. If something goes wrong and you or someone you’re with cannot make it off the mountain, then someone needs to take that burden on, or at least go get help. A broken leg high up on the mountain means that you’re probably not going to make it back down without a rescue effort. So think of worst-case scenarios as probabilities and prepare for them as best you can.
Where To Go
You probably don’t want pick the biggest mountain in the range when first starting out in the backcountry. On the East Coast we don’t have too much of a problem with this unless you’re climbing to the very top of Mt Washington for the first time. Mount Cardigan, Doublehead Mountain and Mount Moosilauke all have very manageable terrain and well defined trails for going up and coming down. The Tuckerman Ravine trail on Mount Washington will get you into the bowl and you can ride the Sherburne trail back down to the parking lot. On the other side of Mount Washington you can hike up the cog rail path and lap that a few times to get your legs and lungs in proper shape.
Take it slow to start and get an idea how the snow, weather conditions and terrain change and interact with each other as you hike through the different sections of the mountain. You’ll often feel a need to stop and rest, hydrate, eat, take off layers or put some on as you go higher. Enjoy it all, as Jeremy Jones says, “the journey is the reward.”