Backcountry skiing a peaceful alternative

Most people think of skiing in terms of ski areas with chair lifts to the top of the mountain.

Alpine skiing is a lot of fun, but sometimes it is nice to get away from the crowds and the noise and ski in the backcountry.

Backcountry skiing involves a different sort of gear than alpine skiing. The skis themselves are similar, though usually lighter. But the boots and bindings are quite different. Instead of being held firmly on the ski, cross country ski boots attach at the toe only so the heel can lift up. This allows you to stride and glide down a trail. Turns are made using the telemark technique. You dip the inside knee and edge the outside ski into the turn. Then dip the other ski to turn the other way. Good teleskiers are lovely to watch as they stride their way down a slope.

Some cross country skis have a fish scale section in the middle of the base. The scales allow the ski to slide forward but resist slipping backwards. This makes it easier to go uphill. And believe me, most cross-country trails are uphill both ways! A better alternative are skins. These narrow strips of artificial fur stick on the bottom of the skis to go uphill and are then peeled off to slide down.

One of the best local areas for backcountry skiing is the Gold Lake Snow Park, located about a half mile west of the Willamette Pass Ski Area on Highway 58. The Willamette Pass Backcountry Ski Patrol maintains a warming cabin at the Snow Park where you can obtain trail maps and advice before venturing out.

A good easy trail for beginners is the trail to Gold Lake. The trail starts just across the highway from the Snow Park and runs north for about a mile to Gold Lake.

There is a shelter at the lake and, if you aren’t the first one in, there will probably be a fire in the stove by the time you get there. There are several other shelters located within easy skiing distance of the main cabin. The Bechtel shelter is a couple of miles out and makes a good lunch stop.

A more challenging trip is to the Fiji Mountain shelter. From Gold Lake, cross the National Forest Road #5897 to Waldo Lake (a snowmobile highway in the winter) and climb to the Northwest up Fiji Mountain. It is a good stiff two-hour climb to the top where a large clearcut below the shelter becomes a wonderful snowfield in the wintertime. The view is tremendous.

If you were smart enough to spot a car at the Salt Creek Falls parking lot, you can climb for 2000 feet and ski down nearly 3000 feet at the end of the day to the car.

The Ski Patrol breaks trail into most of the shelters after each storm. If you plan to head off the beaten track, such as up Diamond Peak for a day or two, you’ll be well-advised to bring along a few stalwart friends.

Breaking trail is hard work if you are alone but if you can switch off the lead every few minutes the job is a lot easier. The lead person may be working hard but the third or fourth person in line is skiing on a groomed track.

If you’ve never tried cross country skiing, rent a set of boots and skis and head off into the wilderness. As with hiking, as soon as you are 100 yards from the highway you’ll experience a sense of quiet and solitude that is hard to find elsewhere in this busy world.