Changes in back-country skiing in Newfoundland

Keith &
Keith & Heather Nicol
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Andrew Stokes is seen as he arcs a turn in the Tablelands while on Alpine Touring gear.

In the old days of back-country skiing in western Newfoundland (circa 1982) we would head into the Blow-Me-Down Mountains or Tablelands area on light touring skis and low-cut ski boots.

This gear is much like what skiers might use today at the Blow Me Down ski club trails for classic skiing. We often carried our skis up and down the steep areas to reach the flattish upper plateau of the mountains and most of our skiing was done in April and May.

Then with the revival of the telemark turn, some people’s interest changed to the challenge of descending the mountain rather than touring across the flats. Skis became heavier and were built with medal edges and boots became beefier. Now the focus often became descending the flanks of the mountains and skiers began to go earlier in the winter to get fresh snow that would collect in the bowls and gullies. This trend was also occurring in other places in Canada and through the 1980s and early 1990s many back-country skiers were on telemark gear since it allowed skiers to travel both uphill and downhill relatively easily.

But the telemark turn was hard to learn and didn’t necessarily lend itself to the ungroomed snow of the back-country. Telemark bindings have no heel piece and so the control on the descent is much trickier than with a downhill ski binding where both the heel and toe are fixed. Alpine touring boot and binding makers realized there was a huge market of people interested in the back-country if only they could make a durable, easy to use binding that would allow skiers to ascend easily and then clamp down like a downhill binding for the descent. Alpine touring bindings had been around for many years, but they began to get much more attention and refinement as back-country skiing went from a fringe sport to a more mainstream activity. Today many big name binding manufacturers make alpine touring bindings and more are added each year.

On our most recent trip to Whistler Mountain in British Columbia in February 2013 we saw loads of skiers in the lift lines with alpine touring gear that was robust enough to ski on the packed snow of a downhill ski area, yet could easily be switched into ascent mode if there was a powder day and the back-country beckoned.

New first descents

The same changes have been occurring in western Newfoundland. Today there are many skiers who have alpine touring skis and boots and new first descents are being skied each year in the Blow-Me-Down Mountains and Tablelands. And skiers are heading out from December onward to check the snowpack and find early season powder.

Western Newfoundland certainly is an unexplored area for ski touring and there are loads of areas that could see ski tracks over the coming years. Access is a big issue since the steep flanks that skiers want to ski are many kilometres from a main road. In B.C. there are back-country ski lodges that have solved this problem but Newfoundland has no such lodges yet, except for a couple of rustic huts in  Gros Morne National Park which are now heavily booked at times. If interest in back-country skiing keeps rising, there might be a market for a more back-country accommodations in Newfoundland.

Contributors Keith and Heather Nicol live in Corner Brook and are avid explorers of Newfoundland. Keith can be reached at knicol@swgc.mun.ca

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