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Keep it Mellow with Light Backcountry Tours

Simple Terrain is a Must-Have on Your Run List

By Andy Sovick
Low-angle turns on a bluebird day
Finding the best terrain for the conditions
Cruisy skiing = more fun with friends
With Great Stoke Comes Tough Decisions

For backcountry skiers, a massive amount of snow in a short amount of time awakes a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, a skier cannot help but get excited about deep, deep pow. Images start appearing in our heads (and on our social media) of skiers porpoising way down into the white room, gloves and poles barely exposed above the surface as if they are the only way to catch a breath of air on behalf of the submerged powderhound. On the other hand, a lot of snow in a short amount of time means that avalanche danger is likely to rise, thus keeping us from venturing out into the steep-and-deep to realize our dreams of flying through the subnivean zone.

Heading up the front side of Snodgrass mid-storm
Shredding low-angle pow on a sunny day after the storm
New Perspectives Inspire New Ideas and Exploration

It was during one such crazy storm cycle, during January of 2017, that I stopped into Wild Snow Headquarters to chat with Lou Dawson who runs, which is one of the best online places for quality and comprehensive backcountry ski news. Being the warm welcoming guy that he is, he invited me in for a cup of coffee, where we proceeded to talk about the storm that was surrounding our beloved mountains. We began talking about what we typically do during storms like this. Many people will read the avalanche forecast, see that the danger is very elevated, and they will simply go to the ski area or just stay home. But backcountry skiers like Lou see things a little different. They begin to look for slopes in their area that are too low-angle to slide, but still steep enough to get some slow, yet oh-so enjoyable, turns on the way down.

Lou and I began talking about these tours and how wonderful they are, not only for high-danger days, but also for days with novice friends, or quick before-work tours, or days when you’re nursing a pulled muscle. In our conversation, we soon came to realize that we don’t even need an excuse to go hit the “light tours” of our area…we just plain like them. Our conclusion was that it’s just always really good to have a list of your local light tours in your back pocket.

So was born, the idea of creating a book that showcases some of our state’s light tours. It is said Colorado has 300 sunny days a year. Combine that with several thousand mountains, and a winter climate that’s downright temperate. The result: one of the best places on the planet for ski touring. Of course nothing is perfect. Colorado challenges backcountry skiers with limited public access options and various climatic factors. The state’s mountains can be prone to dangerous avalanches for much of every winter; yet, options exist.  

Fast-forward to late March of 2023. Colorado has been getting dumped on for what feels like the entire season. At this point of a normal season, skiers would be dawning their lightest layers while zooming down the slush covered slopes one last time before the resorts close for the season. This year, the snowpack is so solid that some mountains have extended their season, a few are even expecting powder days in the next couple of weeks! The snow has been unbelievable, but this also means that high-risk avalanche conditions are more prevalent this Spring than they have been in a long time. Having access to light tours that mitigate danger will provide great value to those that are still seeking fresh turns in the backcountry.

What Exactly is a "Light Tour"?

While it may seem like a general term that can be loosely thrown around, Beacon Guidebooks uses a well defined set of criteria that has to be met for a run to be considered a “light tour”. This all depends on what the ATES Scale (Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale) tells us about the characteristics of a certain run. To be labeled as a light tour the terrain must fall under the ATES 1: Simple category. This distinction implies that backcountry users will primarily be exposed to “low-angle or forested terrain” that includes easy exit points. “Some forest openings may involve the runout zones of infrequent avalanches and terrain traps may exist“, but there are “many options to reduce or eliminate exposure“. For the Light Tours of Colorado ski atlas, we identified many of the prime routes in the state that meet these criteria. For the places in our book where the skier might encounter a small, limited amount of avalanche terrain, we make a point to draw attention to it and describe it for the reader. Choosing to ski light tours doesn’t mean that you should venture out unprepared. It’s still paramount that you and your ski partners have avalanche training and are well equipped and knowledgable. 

Watching mounds of snow pile up on the ground can be exciting and intimidating for many backcountry enthusiasts. Many are eager to enjoy these spoils while they’re fresh, but the serious reality of avalanche risk can steer many away from journeying into the backcountry. The beauty of light tours is that they provide an alternative to your more challenging routes while still delivering delightful turns to those that are willing to sacrifice a rush of adrenaline for a lower risk option. Let’s say you’re looking to test out some of your new AT gear while getting some exercise in the outdoors; light tours serve as the perfect option for accomplishing this task. They may not suit the prototypical “instagram-worthy” experience that garners social media attention, but at the end of the day, no amount of likes is as valuable as one’s life.

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2 Responses

  1. Really good information here, can’t wait to make the most out of the end of ski season!