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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Earning Your Turns: Why Students Love Backcountry Skiing

One writer talks to both novice and experienced backcountry skiers, and even gives it a try herself.

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The sub-freezing temperatures common throughout winter in Hanover push many of us inside to bury ourselves under a pile of blankets with a warm drink in hand. But for many in the community of skiers at Dartmouth the cold brings excitement and exercise in the form of the sport known as “backcountry skiing.” 

Unlike alpine skiing, in which skiers ride a lift to the top of the trail, backcountry skiing entails a long hike uphill through the help of specialized skis — in which the heel lifts up from the ski to make walking easier. To avoid sliding backwards, backcountry skiers stick long strips of detattachable mohair or nylon, known as skins, to the bottom of their skis. The fibers on the skins allow the skis to glide forward as the skier walks uphill while also preventing the ski from sliding backward once you complete a stride.

Co-chair of the Winter Sports Club Lizzy Hanson ’25 grew up skiing in Maine, and she had a strong foundation in alpine skiing before learning to backcountry ski from her dad during her junior year of high school. She acknowledged the importance of having access to gear when trying backcountry skiing. 

“I didn’t have my own gear at first, [so] I borrowed my mom’s [gear] because both my parents were really into it,” Hanson said. “Eventually I saved up [and] bought my own gear.” 

Unfortunately, the necessary backcountry equipment is expensive and poses a significant barrier to newcomers. Without her mother’s gear, learning to backcountry ski would have been much more difficult, acknowledged Hanson. Julia Patterson ’24, a novice backcountry skier, also highlighted the financial burdens of skiing — both alpine and backcountry — and how they make the sport inaccessible to many people. 

“The biggest issue with [skiing] is that it’s inaccessible financially to almost everyone. We're certainly really lucky here to have the Skiway … and rentals at the DOC,” Patterson said. But even with all of that, it’s still pretty inaccessible.”

Patterson bought a used setup this past fall in preparation for her first season backcountry skiing, which she thought was a great way to bypass the expense of new skis and bindings. 

“Look on Facebook Marketplace, Ebay and Craigslist for used setups … it works totally fine. You don’t need to have fancy gear to [go skiing],” advised Patterson. 

Meg Keating ’26, a member of Dartmouth Ski Patrol, agreed with Patterson regarding the financial barriers backcountry skiing poses. 

“I think institutionally, there are huge barriers and it totally creates discrepancies, in that some people just can’t have a [backcountry] setup,” Keating said.

After interviewing all these skiers, I began to think about my own experiences. I’ve been lucky enough to grow up skiing with my family, but in all my years of experience, I never thought to hike up the same trails I fly down. When chairlifts exist, why would you want to ski uphill? 

Evan Bloch ’24 emphasized the community aspect of backcountry skiing. Chatting with friends — old and new — is a great way to make the uphill just as fun as the downhill. You might even make a new friend by the end of the run.

“When you're backcountry [skiing], you’ve got to enjoy the up, because oftentimes, the ski run down isn’t even that great … It’s very similar to going on a hike, except you get to come down a lot faster,” Bloch said. “When you’re out there with a small group of people, there’s a lot more conversation than if you’re just at a resort.” 

For those who own skis with the proper bindings, skins and boots, along with the myriad of other tools necessary for skiing, the backcountry community at Dartmouth is very welcoming. The Winter Sports Club aims to introduce as many people as possible to backcountry skiing by frequently running beginner trips to the Skiway and local glades. Although the Winter Sports Club cannot fully remove financial and expertise barriers from the sport — notably you need to own ski boots to go on their trips — their equipment and the Trailhead trips they run markedly help. 

“The Winter Sports Club is super helpful if you are doing organized trips with them [because] they have lots of free gear for you to use,” Bloch said. 

In addition to formal trips, Bloch says that there’s also a lot of “sharing amongst [peers],” such as offering to give rides for an impromptu outing. Students who met through the club will often go skiing together in an informal setting, according to Hanson. 

“I will see a lot of times in the Winter Sports Club groupme or in our leader groupme people saying ‘I’m going here for the day … Anyone want to join me?’ It’s really nice when kids just informally get together and like, that’s how I met some of my friends,” Hanson added.

Keating added that people will often go skiing with each other even if “they aren’t even friends” initially. 

However, this winter activity isn’t just limited to skiing. For snowboarders looking to go backcountry, specialized “splitboards” were introduced in the 1990s. 

“The board is split into two halves directly down the center. The two halves come apart and then you actually switch [the foot each side uses] because there’s a connection point on the inside,” Ryan Tanski ’25 explained, an avid splitboarder and leader in the Winter Sports Club.

But, Dartmouth’s ski community is not just for those with prior experience. Students looking to learn about backcountry skiing can almost always find someone to teach them, whether through a Winter Sports Club trip or a lap on the Skiway with a friend. Tanski grew up snowboarding in New Hampshire, but had not begun splitboarding until arriving at Dartmouth. Similarly, Patterson began backcountry skiing this term through the help of Hanson. 

“The people I’ve met through the [DOC]  have certainly been very kind and generous with their time [in] teaching me … They have been willing to step outside of the DOC and teach me in other settings,” Patterson said. “Even people I’ve met randomly, like some of my friends from Freshman year … are happy to teach me.”

For a novice like myself with only a downhill setup, backcountry skiing seemed intimidating and unapproachable. But this weekend, with the guidance of two leaders from the Winter Sports Club on a beginner trip,  I clipped into backcountry skis for the first time. I quickly felt at ease on my borrowed skis and fell into conversation with a group of people I had never met before.

But community isn’t the only draw to the sport. According to Tanski, the opportunity to exercise in nature is one of the main appeals of backcountry skiing and splitboarding.

“I think the idea of “earn your turns” is kind of a joke … but I think it’s more rewarding to have to work and then you get the privilege to go down after climbing up,” Tanski said.

Even with a sport like backcountry skiing, which is known for its exclusivity, many Dartmouth programs give students of all skill levels the unique chance to explore the outdoors in every season. Through organizations like the Winter Sports Clubs, the sport can be made more accessible to all students, even providing a new, welcoming community for some. 

“[Backcountry skiing] is a really fun thing to take away from Dartmouth. It's a good skill to have, and this is a great place to learn,” said Patterson.

After several hours spent trudging up the Skiway sweaty and out of breath, I struggled to see the fun of this laborious activity. But when I reached the top and looked back down the slope I skinned, I knew the ensuing run was going to be the most rewarding skiing I’d done in a long time.