Into the Backcountry with Donny Roth

February 05, 2016

Earlier this winter, our friend and ambassador of human-powered skiing, took the Skratch crew on an little trip into the Colorado backcountry to learn, play and just plain enjoy our beautiful backyard. -words and pictures by Annie Dwyer

Being in the woods on a snowy winter day always has a magical feeling to it. My favorite way of moving around in the coldest months is downhill on a pair of skis... ideally through deep, light, untouched snow. So I could hardly contain my excitement at the fat flakes falling from the sky when we got to the coffee shop on Saturday morning to meet Donny Roth, ski guide at Irwin Guides in Crested Butte, at Independent Descents in Chile and extended Skratch Labs family member. 

Skiing with Donny was a treat. As a professional ski guide and avalanche safety course instructor, he’s skied all over the world and has a wealth of knowledge about snow, which is deceivingly complex. Snow is constantly changing, and assessing the safety of skiing on any given day in any particular place requires a specific skill set and consistent attention to what has happened and is happening to the snowpack. If I've learned one thing as a backcountry skier, its the importance of continuing to learn, so I couldn’t pass up Donny’s offer to share some of his expertise.

We grabbed coffees and gathered around to check the avalanche report and discuss the plan for the day. Donny pointed out that every ski tour should begin with a conversation, whether over breakfast or in the car while driving to the trailhead. It's important to set baseline expectations and establish an objective, knowing it could change depending on the conditions or what the weather does during the course of the tour. Having agreed upon our goal, we headed out into the still-falling snow.

I was practically giddy by the time we clicked into our skis and headed out on the trail. It takes time to settle into the rhythm of skinning, but we did, swapping stories and shedding layers as we went. We made it to a frozen lake, a perfect space for Donny to illustrate how avalanche beacons work and allow us to practice searching quickly and efficiently. We headed to the slope above the lake to dig a snow pit to get a snapshot of the conditions. Donny showed us the weak layer at the base of the snowpack which, particularly if affected by the weight of a skier or snowmobiler, could trigger a dangerous slab avalanche. 

We slapped our skins back on for a short, steep climb on shallow snow and over rocky, bare ground. It was hardly a preview for what we found on the other side of the ridge. I chucked a few Sport Energy Chews at each member of our crew as we transitioned to ski mode and excitedly scoped our lines. The snow was excellent and deep, and we hooted and hollered as each person took their turn weaving through the trees. We laughed, we face-planted, we high-fived. We made our way back to the cars and headed for après drinks and snacks. It had been an excellent and educational day out. 

Each day in the backcountry is an opportunity to learn, to think, to explore, to be challenged and to have a blast. I love ripping around at a ski resort and I’m slow and clumsy going uphill, but I’ve come to love the sweat, the hard work, and the satisfaction of hiking for turns. It’s always an adventure. Not all sports are so intertwined with understanding and assessing risk, and it can be intense to face that reality, but few things match the feeling of the smiles exchanged with new and old friends after a set of great, hard-earned turns in a beautiful place. 

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