This past December, Doug, Manasseh, and I planned to ski together in the Northern San Juans. The days leading up to our tour looked something like this:
— Avalanche danger was rated at considerable by the CAIC for a majority of the week prior. Natural slides and skier-triggered avalanches were both observed throughout the region.
— There was a persistent weak layer lurking near the bottom of the snowpack with additional wind slab forming from strong and sporadic southwest winds.
— No new snow made for variable snow surfaces. Solar aspects were sun-affected and northerlies were faceted out from the cold and clear nights.
— The weather for today was forecasted to be overcast and windy with no new snow.
To sum it up: There was a lot of variability out there. Doug and Manasseh were only in town for a couple of days. We wanted to plan our tour around the conditions, but that’s a tall order with so much uncertainty and variability. Here’s how we approached it.
Doug: ‘Hey Slator. What are you thinking for skiing today? The snowpack is pretty funky around here.’
Slator: ‘Doug! Psyched to get out skiing together. Yeah, there’s a lot of variability out there. I’m hoping for a mellow tour. It would be great to catch up, get some fitness in, and maybe find some good snow.’
Doug: ‘I’m thinking the same. Let’s just take avalanche terrain off the menu.’
Slator: ‘That sounds great! Want to meet at the top of the pass at 9:00 AM?’
Doug: ‘See you then!’
We met at the trailhead and reviewed our tour plan for the day. The three of us planned to ski to a summit above Red Mountain Pass. We connected county roads, pine groves, and a big San Juan summit without ever entering avalanche terrain. All the way up, we engaged in classic ‘skin track chat.’ Once at the top, we looked over an expansive San Juan vista. Skins were ripped, variable snow was skied, and wiggles were made. We ended back at the cars with big smiles, low stress, and lots of terrain traveled.
You don’t need epic terrain to have an epic time. Mellow tours can provide for a quality day out skiing minus the added hazard of traveling in avalanche terrain.
These aren’t the kind of backcountry experiences typically featured in TGR films or showcased on ski magazine covers. There were no blower face shots, no Alaskan-style spines, and no huge cliff hucks. That’s exactly what we hoped for. A mellow tour.
Merits of the Mellow Tour
My idea of a mellow tour is one that doesn’t enter avalanche terrain. Slab avalanches generally occur on slopes 30° or greater. Less than 30° and slopes are not steep enough for snow to slide downhill and cause an avalanche. With that in mind, we can stick to mellow terrain and still have a raging good time. There are a few lifetime’s worth of quality backcountry skiing terrain that never crosses that 30° measure. However, it’s important to still be aware of traveling near or under connected avalanche terrain when out on mellow touring missions.
There are also other risks involved in backcountry travel like exposure to cold weather and skiing-related trauma. Nonetheless, mellow touring can take the edge off of a backcountry experience by limiting the inherent risk involved with traveling through avalanche terrain. It can make for fun and safe outings that don’t risk life or limb. Let’s take a step back and assess mellow touring for what it’s worth.
Pros of the mellow tour
Reduce exposure to avalanche terrain thus lowering risk associated with backcountry travel.
Avoid crowds by exploring new, more mellow powder paradises.
Enjoy a new style of backcountry skiing. We can’t go ski mountaineering or freeride shredding everyday!?
Cons of the mellow tour
Low-angle slopes are tough for our splitboarder brethren with their inability to herringbone and two-poles through flat terrain.
Sometimes it snows too much or our skis are too skinny to manage deep powder. A pair of powder touring skis can fix this quite well.
Diminishing return is real. It’s a mental trap that we must fight against when our seventh low angle lap doesn’t feel as cool as the first and more avalanche-prone slopes beckon from beyond.
How to Plan a Mellow Tour
Here are a few steps for how to plan a mellow backcountry tour:
Use a mapping software like onX Backcountry to plan out a route that avoids avalanche terrain. (However, with all things digital, be mindful of the limitations of mapping software.)
Upload that route to an app on your phone (or just save if using onX), print a backup map, and get a way to measure slope angle in the field. The combination of the app, a printed backup and an inclinometer are great resources for in-the-field navigation and terrain assessment.
Get out for a tour and test your route. Was the terrain too steep? Was the terrain too mellow? How was the snow quality? This constant stream of improvement and self-assessment will lead you better and better mellow outing in the future.
Make it fun!
Have a focus for your tour to spice things up. Some ideas are:
Mission Tour: Plan a tour around an objective like reaching a lake, summit or historical site. Think about loops or traverse with this mission style in mind.
Fitness Tour: Center a tour around fitness. Can you tour for X amount of hours/miles/feet of vertical gain. Planning longer tours on a ski resort is a great way to get out for a fitness tour. The best on resort fitness touring in the US has to be Aspen Snowmass.
Social Tour: Focus a tour around the question of WHO not WHERE. Think about who you want to ski with first, then what you want to ski. Ski touring is a great way to spend quality, present company with old or new friends.
Sharing powder turns with quality friends is one of life’s finer pleasures
A Few Examples of [Very Fun] Mellow Tours
Red Mountain Pass Vista Tour
Length: 2 miles & 1,800′ vertical gain
Starting Elevation: 11,000′ / Ending Elevation: 12,800′
Quality: This is a scenic tour with high potential for low angle wiggles. It begins up a county road, then weaves through a pine grove, and finishes ascending an expansive alpine bowl.
Berthoud Pass Hot Lap
Length: 0.75 miles & 1,200′ vertical gain
Starting Elevation: 11,200′ / Ending Elevation: 12,400′
Quality: Easy outing up and back right from the car!
I have no intention of reinventing the wheel with the idea of mellow touring. People have been doing this for centuries (millenia?). The advent of skiing steep terrain is a much more recent endeavor. I am merely psyched on blowing the dust off a forgotten segment of the backcountry ski world. Let’s celebrate conservative decision making. Let’s relish in the safe serenity of <30° terrain. Maybe one day we'll even get a segment in TGR of some AWESOME low-angle, powder-wiggle skiing in a far flung remote destination. Until then, I'll continue to root around for mellow tours, quality snow, and hopefully share it all with my best pals.
For more ideas on mellow tours, check out Lou’s book Uphill Skiing and Light Tours of Colorado. For thoughts on ideal mellow touring gear, check out the Merits of a Powder Touring Ski.
Slator Aplin lives in the San Juans. He enjoys time spent in the mountains, pastries paired with coffee, and adventures-gone-wrong. You can often find him outside Telluride’s local bakery — Baked in Telluride.