WOOSH. The curtains swing open exposing a white winter wonderland. Massive flakes plummet to the ground at a solid pace. Today is going to be epic backcountry skiing Lookout Pass! Long before our Idaho arrival, we researched the terrain and its snowpack for access. Every season has its share of good and bad days, but Idaho has the best of both worlds with their type of snow. It settles like a maritime snowpack yet is dry like their inter-continental neighbors.
What’s our plan? It’s snowing hard and we’re inexperienced in these mountains. For us, every backcountry mission, regardless of location, starts with the avalanche forecast, period! Reviewing all the information, we decide the mission is a ‘Go’, but we would avoid all North facing slopes and anything over 30°. Speaking with the Marketing Director at Lookout Pass Ski area, we learn the forested area across the Highway from Lookout Pass is a great introduction to what the region has to offer. With the zone picked, avalanche forecast reviewed, and plan set, it was time to head out!
“Hello. Is anybody out there?”
We swing by Lookout Pass Ski area to give the Marketing Director our route plan, part of our backcountry avalanche safety checklist. Pulling up to the trail head entrance, we notice not a single vehicle around. Are we really the ONLY ones venturing into the wilderness? Hopping out of the car, our feet hit the ground with a large POOF. While the resort across the way is only reporting a few inches, it’s nearly a foot deep where we’re standing. With nobody around, we feel both nervous and excited that no one is here. To ease our fears we review the plan again and make sure we’re not missing anything. “Snow? Check. Route option to avoid North slopes and stay away from terrain greater than 30°? Check.” With our plan still in tact, we start putting on our gear.
How do you climb a mountain in the backcountry?
For those inexperienced with heading into the snowy wild, you might ask how do we climb up a mountain without having to post hole the entire way up? Simple. There’s a piece of equipment called ‘skins’ which attach to the bottom of your skis, allowing you to go up instead of down. Originally made out of animal skin, these are now made of synthetic material that act very similar to cross country skis. When you slide your ski upward, the bottom surface is smooth but once you put weight on them leaning back, they lock into the snow allowing you to schuss up a 40° slope without sliding back down. (It’s not really that easy but practice makes better.) Once you reach the top, all you have to do is pull off the ‘skins’, throw them in your pack and ride down!
What’s a splitboard?
Besides ‘skins’, another amazing invention, if you love to snowboard, is the splitboard. It’s ultimately a snowboard cut in half. With a locking mechanism, you use it as skis to climb up the mountain, then clip the skis back together to make your snowboard and shred back down. Sweet idea!
Best place to try Backcountry Skiing
With the ‘skins’ on our splitboards, we begin to plug our way up. After a few minutes, we quickly exit the thick forest and enter a huge burn area. The slope isn’t too steep but we could tell it was going to be perfect for those huge swooping-like turns.
6″ in Idaho is like 4′ in Tahoe!
After about an hour, we reach the summit. The view is spectacular, but surveying the area, we literally can’t see more than a 100 yards in front of us. With the weather deteriorating, we decide it is a ‘one lap kind of day.’ Enjoying every minute of it, we pull off our ‘skins’, snap our splitboards back together, and we’re set to drop in!
The snow is nearly thigh deep, cold, and most of all, perfect to take nice easy turns all the way down. 6″ in Idaho really is like 4′ in Tahoe! Turn after turn come easy as we head back into the forest. Letting the boards float, we arrive back at the car slapping high fives.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! It may have only been a small mountain and a couple hours of work, but it felt like Mt Everest in triumph to us. A new mountain with unfamiliar snow and conditions – we studied, we planned, we conquered! With the day still young, it’s time to celebrate with lunch at the Blackboard Café.
Local Freshies® tips: What to know about backcountry skiing Lookout Pass
- Easiest introduction to backcountry – One of the coolest things about the Lookout Pass backcountry is the now defunct rail grade that slowly meanders its way to the summit. No need to engineer a zigzag skin track all the way up – you get a perfectly graded road-width path. This makes it the EASIEST backcountry ascent I’ve EVER done. Nice slow sweeping turns allow you to climb easily while enjoying the serenity.
- Not just for backcountry skiers – Be aware this area is also snowmobile accessible so be sure to stay on the side of the trail if you’re there on a busy day. When we visited there wasn’t a single person, motorized or not out there, but you never know who or what may show up!