The Mountain Times

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Killington/Pico Mountain adventures: Safe, sane and extraordinary

Killington is a six-mountain area where the diversity of terrain could keep you busy for an entire week exploring all the trails, glades, and woods to say nothing of the five terrain parks and various bump runs and access to Pico Mountain on your K ticket.
But with this largesse - for which the area has earned a reputation as "the Beast of the East" - there comes an obligation to take responsibility for one's own actions and safety.

This is especially key at Killington and Pico because the multi-mountains layout is unique in the East and because mountain snow sports are based on skill development, experience, and education.

Those ingredients make for great adventures, enjoyment of lifelong sports, and super mountain memories.
However, the lack of skill development, experience, and education, can lead to problems, not the least of which is injury or becoming lost in the backcountry.

Besides providing a look at where the trails are that fit one's ability level and preferences (the color-coded green circles for easy and beginners; blue squares for more difficult or intermediates; black diamonds for most difficult and advanced/experts; and orange ovals for terrain parks, etc.), a map contains a demarcation of an area's boundaries.

Killington and Pico, as with most Eastern areas, do not invite guest to explore terrain outside the noted boundaries, noted Rob Megnin, director of marketing for Killington and Pico. Rather, a lift ticket invites guests to ski or ride within the resort's boundaries, which includes open trails and marked gladed areas.

This is a bit different than in the West where there are gateways to access the backcountry that carry strict warnings - often illustrated with skull-and-cross bone signs - to indicate extreme danger and the possibility of avalanches.

While it is not illegal to ski out of bounds in Vermont, the risks are extreme. A warning on Killington's trail map reads: "VERMONT LAW provides that you are liable for all expenses of search and rescue if you ski or snowboard off the open, designated trails, slopes, freestyle and tree skiing areas or beyond the ski area boundary and a search is conducted."

The use of a map at Killington is critical because Killington has six mountains, not one. While the six peaks are interconnected via trails, they have a complex topography, including ridges, ravines, gullies and drainages that do not all lead back to trails.

Even extreme skier extraordinaire Dan Egan says if he were to go off the back of Killington Peak, he would want to go with locals who know the out-of-bounds routes.

This winter by mid-January, 48 people had gotten lost at ski areas in Vermont, and 46 of them were at Killington/Pico. Megnin noted that it was not the local backcountry expert who was getting lost but rather the "guest who is unfamiliar with the terrain and vast topography of the six mountains."

And of those who did get lost, most admitted to making a deliberate decision to leave a marked trail, he said.

One reason for those decisions is that many kids and adults enjoy skiing trees and think they see a route they could take, or they follow tracks that they see, thinking those tracks will lead them back to the lifts.

However, that is often NOT the case. So unless skiers and riders are backcountry experts who know how to read the terrain, they tend to get lost.

Naiveté plays a large role in people getting lost. Most make a decision to follow tracks, or to go off the marked trail, which is a deliberate one. There is no confusion or uncertainty as to where the trail is.

There seems to be an irresistible urge among some adventurous souls to explore and follow those tracks. The search for powder, fun, and adventure has been so romanticized that people forget that skill sets and experience are not just nice, they are necessary.
As Megnin noted, an attitude of "if they can do it, I can do it" simply doesn't work here.

Most tracks are made by prepared, experienced backcountry experts (usually a local or area loyalist) who often are not planning to come back to the in-bounds ski resort.

These backcountry folks know their routes, and they must, as they are not easy to follow, especially for the occasional guest. So it is critical to NOT explore the off-piste for kicks or out of naiveté, Megnin notes. 

Getting lost could mean spending the night in the woods and, if unprepared, risking hypothermia, injury, or even death. At the very least, it could mean a tough slog back up the hill to follow one's tracks to the trail - and with fresh powder and deep snow, this is particularly tough, it could mean a long, cold, and scary wait for a rescue.

For those who want to ski natural terrain and gain off-piste experience and skills, Killington offers backcountry clinics.
"We don't offer this option to encourage backcountry but rather to educate those who think they want to get into it," Megnin noted. It is a proactive educational experience so that people do not naively get into trouble, he said.

Dan Egan, who conducts these clinics, advocates education as the route to safety in backcountry explorations. People should "go in pairs and know how to ski in pairs. This means keeping in the line of sight of your partner, and doing short sections. It is a pain to have to travel long distances uphill to help someone who has become injured or stuck," he said.

"The danger zone is people who have some information and think they can use it and think I know this." Citing previous deaths in northern Vermont backcountry areas, he said that a "deadly winter can result from a little information." Knowledge of terrain plus experience and skill sets are really mandatory.

Egan noted that avalanches are also possible in the East with two in Tuckerman's Ravine so far this year.

Exploring the Beast clinics - offered Feb. 15-16, Feb. 17-18, and March 9-10 -address backcountry skills such as reading terrain, understanding conditions, and picking the best lines down the mountain while exploring glades and natural terrain.

"The way to get better is to take a clinic, ski with an experienced guide, and ask questions like 'what would you do in this situation,'" he said.

Egan also stresses preparedness with a backpack supplied with water and food, space blanket and cell phone, noting the latter are "the two most important" items but adding a "whistle" is helpful also. "If we get separated, and/or I fall, I can let you know where I am," he explained.

There are many other alternatives for those seeking adventure. They include: Meet the Mountains Tours, Monster Freeride Sessions, Women' Camps, and racing, freestyle, and moguls programs.

Meet the Mountains Tours are free and fun. They are familiarization tours offered at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. seven days a week and start by the 'Tour' sign in the Snowshed Courtyard. Anyone of advanced beginner or better ability can take the tour -lift ticket required.

Knowledgeable Ambassadors also ski around Killington's diverse mountain areas, imparting knowledge of terrain, wooded areas, steeps, and even places to eat. They offer great tips and tales. Tours typically last 75-90 minutes but if a group wants to stay together longer, tours have been known to go for 3 or 4 hours, noted John Puchalski, the head of the Ambassador program.

Ambassadors will also "gladly take a run or two with you if you see them on the mountain and ask. And they will let you pick the terrain," Puchalski noted.

Beyond this basic and great way to learn to enjoy Killington's diversity, there are a host of programs that provide more adventure and skill development.

For the cool or aspiring action-sports person, there are terrain parks. A progression of five parks allows one to start small and end "big." The best way to learn is to take lessons or clinics because the basics of the 'smart style' code help you to safely learn to do the cool moves quicker than experimenting on your own.

Action sports athletes Ian Compton, Jeremy Landy and friends offer Monster Freeride sessions to skiers and riders with a chance to take on the park and Stash. Adult 18+ camps are offered Feb. 23-24 and Youth (7-18,) Feb. 16-18, 19-20, and 21-22.

Women's clinics are also offered with Donna Weinbrecht Feb. 18-19 and March 16-17.

Ski and snowboard lessons offer a host of programs designed to address your particular needs, from glades to bumps, freeride to parks, carving to children's lessons. There's nothing like midweek instruction - just communicate your needs and goals and enjoy greater skills and confidence!