Making the Mountains Your Gym: Backcountry Skiing for Paddling Fitness

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IMG_1413Team NRS paddler Erik Boomer shares his secret for off-season paddling fitness: having fun. For him that means trading the flowing water of the rivers he loves for the frozen water that feeds them by going backcountry skiing. He discusses the parallels with paddling and how to get started.

I’ve been obsessed with rivers for 20 years. My dad introduced me to river running through rafting and fishing, and then kayaking caught my interest. From then on, my dream was to be a kayaker, and I would do anything it took to make that dream come true. I saved up money from lawn mowing to buy my first kayak, and in high school I worked all summer rowing cargo boats down the Middle Fork and Main Salmon rivers here in Idaho.

My love of rivers sent me in search of the endless summer year after year. I would save up just enough money for gas or a plane ticket to head for warmer weather as soon as the rivers started to ice over. I traveled to Nepal, Mexico, BC and Alaska before eddying out in Hood River, Oregon, a place where I could paddle challenging rapids every day and hone my paddling skills. Nothing was better than paddling 300-plus days a year.

Some call it getting old, but I found out that doing any repetitive motion can create aches and pains that take away from the experience.  So, I’ve had to learn how to balance kayaking with other activities, giving rivers a rest in the winter and embracing the off-season sports.

For me, the off-season sport of choice became backcountry skiing.

Boomer notches the first descent of Baffin Island's Weasel River. ©Sarah McNair-Landry
Boomer notches the first descent of Baffin Island’s Weasel River. ©Sarah McNair-Landry

Three years ago, a friend of mine showed me the ropes as we climbed up and then skied off of the 12,966 foot summit of Mount Sopris in Colorado. It was May, the end of the backcountry season, and I left looking forward to the next snowfall.

Why is backcountry skiing perfect for off-season fitness? Because it’s fun, you avoid paying huge amounts of money in lift tickets, and it’s a great workout! As I write this, my thighs ache from two great days of skinning uphill and shredding through knee-deep powder in Fernie, BC.

In the backcountry  you’ll find the best snow, the best lines and beautiful scenery. A day skiing off piste is my yin to the yang of kayaking.

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Why is backcountry skiing such great off-season training?

Whether you’re kayaking, rafting or stand-up paddling, you’re using your shoulders, arms and core muscles to propel you.  A great thing about backcountry skiing is that it works many of the opposing muscles.  Climbing and turning will whip those tiny kayaker legs into shape and prepare you for those big missions that require full-body fitness, such as portaging kayaks 12 miles over a 12,000 foot pass into California’s Middle Kings River. Your shoulders get a different and less strenuous motion using the poles.  And your core also gets tightened up.

I think that working out should be fun. I have never gone to bed dreaming about the gym and woken up early to pump weights. But I do feel this way about backcountry skiing, which gets me out day after day even when I’m hurting and exhausted.

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Ascending thousands of feet in deep snow at elevation is excellent cardio training to help keep you fit till the paddling season. If you end up flipping or taking a swim when you get back on the river, you’ll be glad you can hold your breath so long.

Skiing the slopes is deeply connected to running rivers. Route finding and flowing down the terrain correlates directly to paddling down rivers; reading and running, staying safe and eddying out. Skiing is a way to float and play on the same water molecules that we will be rafting and kayaking on in the spring and summer.

Team work and group communication are transferable skills between whitewater and skiing.  You are only as strong as the weakest link, and you must always be assessing the conditions and environment.

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While I still love running rivers more than any other form of recreation, backcountry skiing has become the main focus of my winters, recharging my body and soul for river running. By the time the snow starts to melt and the spring flows surge, I feel fit and fresh, eager to jump into my kayak.

Convinced yet? Here are some tips to getting out into the backcountry this winter.

  • First and foremost, before venturing into the backcountry on your own, learn how to assess and deal with avalanche danger. You don’t go on the river unprepared, and you shouldn’t go into the mountains unprepared, either. Take a course in backcountry safety and tag along with more experienced skiers until you’ve gained the skills and confidence to lead your own trips. Also, similar to how you always bring your throw bag kayaking, make sure you carry a well stocked mountain pack, including a locator beacon, emergency and safety gear, and food.
  • To make the most of the short winter days, it’s important to get an early start. Things have a way of taking longer than you expect, and if you aren’t prepared to spend the night out, you had better be getting back to the parking lot before it gets dark.

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  • While you’re struggling to keep the oxygen flowing and your legs moving, you also have to be aware of your surroundings. In the same way that you monitor water levels and dangers on the rivers you run, you need to keep aware of what’s happening with the snow, so stab a pole off the trail grab some snow and check out the snow conditions. That helps you to decide whether you will be skiing the trees or open slopes.  In avalanche country, keep apprised of how conditions evolve over the winter, and learn how to dig pits and analyze layers in the snow. Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of taking a class in backcountry safety to learn these essential skills.
  • A typical climb will be anywhere from one to many hours, but now that you’ve reached the top, it’s time to enjoy some well earned turns—and now it really becomes like river running.  Dropping in, you go one person at a time, just like dropping into a rapid, to help ensure you have safety options.  As you move down the mountain, you meet up and regroup in safe zones, which, in a way, are like river eddies protected from the dangers of the main flow.

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Backcountry skiing and river running share many similarities while providing different, but complimentary, workouts. Switching between the two can add a nice rhythm to your year while keeping you fit and strong. Best of all, backcountry skiing in the winter keeps you having fun in the outdoors when you’re taking a break from boating. So if you’re sitting at home complaining that the rivers aren’t flowing, my advice is to get outside and ski.