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Snow Pros Weigh In On the Concept of ‘Sidecountry’

The whole concept of “sidecountry,” that nebulous and perhaps non-existent resort-adjacent terrain that draws the interest of more and more skiers and snowboarders, continues to be a live subject for professional instructors.

Since we published the National Ski Areas Association op-ed declaring that there is no such thing as sidecountry, and a response to that op-ed from Level III-certified alpine instructor David Bond, PSIA-AASI members have sent in their own personal take on the matter.

Here are the latest opinions. Thanks in advance for your additional input. And, to that one instructor who sent such a detailed reply about the subject, we are certainly offering you the opportunity to write your own op-ed on the matter.

I understand "sidecountry" terrain as that which is less frequently but still sometimes avalanche-controlled by a ski area. Usually in the form of hand-thrown charges and less often with explosives fired from a howitzer or another type of farther-reaching, explosive-deploying device. These areas are easily accessible from the ski area and so receive higher skier numbers and more skier pack than true backcountry terrain. This serves up a slightly better-tested snowpack than the backcountry, which is safer in some situations but can still hide significant weak layers.

I have seen this at a number of ski areas. I know they bomb out of concern and I usually appreciate it, but you can't say sidecountry doesn't exist.
Jessica Robinson

I think David makes some great points in his letter. Being from the East, I'd say the issues are really the same. Just this season, snowsports participants in Vermont, particularly around the Killington area, have been driving Vermont State Police, the patrol, and other rescue organizations crazy with rescues. I think there is a real opportunity here across the country for the divisions and member snowsport schools to promote programs that use the "sidecountry" to teach and promote good backcountry skills (and some common sense).

The article in the most recent 32 Degrees about enticing “experienced” participants into programs has some good stuff in it. It might involve more training for skilled experienced instructors, and a formal communication procedure with patrol, as well as avalanche training, depending on the area, but it should be worth it. I'm in the adult ski school at Smugglers' Notch, and we spend a lot of time with upper-level skiers and riders in both half-day and all-day programs that venture into our extensive glades, and even some sidecountry, with time spent on proper planning and safety considerations. Other areas in Vermont do similar things, as there is a real market for that type of experience.

Perhaps putting together a survey of what areas do and how they prepare their staff for leading programs like this would be a good start, leading to more materials on the website and in 32 Degrees. It would be fun to be involved in such a project.
Sherman White
PSIA Level III Alpine
Smugglers' Notch Resort, Vermont

“Sidecountry” most certainly does not exist. Backcountry access gates or “ski area exits” give you lift-served access to the backcountry, albeit backcountry that is adjacent to a ski area. It is my understanding that equipment, whether skis or boots, described as "sidecountry" is simply a newfangled way of being   "all-mountain" and are intended for skiing terrain within ski area boundaries that is essentially left in its natural state, where, aside from possible avalanche controls, the snow is as it fell. We can all think of areas in bounds that are accessed only by hiking that offer a similar experience to being in the backcountry, except for the fact that you're not.

“The Windows” at Breck, where I used to instruct, are a great example of what I think is meant by "sidecountry."

That's my two-cents.
Darren Meyers
Level II certified
New York, NY

I agree with the NSAA article. I find that the only people who call it sidecountry are the hardcore locals not happy about being pushed deeper and deeper out. This renaming is a disservice as it certainly implies less danger. In Jackson Hole, that is NOT the case.

Sure, maybe a day or two after a storm settles the avy danger in the most commonly skied areas most easily accessed from the gates tends to decrease from skier traffic. But, the heavily exposed cliff areas right beside those zones remain untracked and unstable. Now the problem becomes something different: it is more than triggering a slide yourself.  It’s being caught from above by either a local with a Go-Pro popping a cliff line or a backcountry novice who gets lost on a hanging snowfield with no idea of what’s below.

The issue is not about giving an area that was once hard to get to a new name because it no longer requires the effort it once did. That’s called the ski area. The areas outside our boundaries still have the same snow loads, terrain traps, unmarked exposure with no patrol or snow control. It’s true that more and more inexperienced riders are venturing out. I believe that renaming an area based on its perceived sacrifice or lack thereof, to access it, is arrogant and elitist. The dangers are real outside our gates and I have a profound respect for what I will always call the Jackson Hole backcountry, no matter how close I am to the resort.
Mikey Franco
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Backcountry Guide and Instructor of 23 years
AASI Team Alumni
AASI-I Examiner

Well said!
Dan Keiley
Retired PSIA Examiner, Av L2, and Backcountry Enthusiast

 - Peter Kray