Backcountry access is now a service at more cross country ski resorts (see story at http://www.xcskiresorts.com/resort-features.php#Anchor-6262) and whether you refer to it as backcountry, out-of-bounds skiing, sidecountry, or off-piste skiing, such terrain accessed by skiers and snowshoers equipped with a sense of adventure, the latest powder gear, and exuberance to descend a mountain side in deep powder is intoxicating. But xc skiers can end up in dire circumstances, completely alone and on their own in trouble.
Some xc skiers have an insatiable appetite for untracked powder, which can override educated decisions when determining the acceptable risks. How to combat the possibility of catastrophe when accessing the backcountry within or outside the ski resort’s terrain, requires arming yourself with knowledge and the basis for sound decision making. The factors involved in off trail mishaps also often include human behavior and Mother Nature.
As more skiers and snowshoers access the off-trail terrain other issues such as increased use may impact safety. If a slope has been trafficked by dozens or hundreds of other backcountry users, it does not always mean that it is safe. Snowpack stability, route selection, and potential terrain hazards are all significant in the decision making for safety. While some ski area managers try to minimize the risk to off-trail users (such as “cleaning” gladed terrain areas), there are realities that include the skier’s individual choice and self reliance. Of course, there is a much better chance that help is nearby if a skier is in trouble within the ski area boundaries, but it still may take a while before help arrives.
It is important to for skiers and snowshoers to be educated and prepared and be able to assess the risks of backcountry activity even within the ski area boundaries. In these litigious times, there may not be ready-made pamphlets to promote safety in the backcountry because few writers and publishers want to be liable. But one example is, the Falcon Guide entitled “Cross-Country Skiing,” (see story at http://www.xcskiresorts.com/equipment.php#Anchor-1010), which has sections on Route Finding, Winter Hazards, and First Aid that provides useful info.
These are just some of the issues to be considered as more people ski or snowshoe off trails and more issues will arise as more ski areas open access to ungroomed terrain.