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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
"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
"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
"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
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
"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!"