Understanding the Hybrid Skier – A Matter of Safety

Backcountry skiing in Crested Butte.
Backcountry skiers often use snowmobiles to venture deeper up the Slate River Road to a deeper and safer snowpack.

In recent years, the term “hybrid skier” has evolved. This term generally refers to a skier or snowboarder who accesses the backcountry using a snowmobile.

Why do we use snowmobiles?

There are lots of reasons hybrid skiers use snowmobiles.

In some zones, “sled-laps” are the norm. This means that people go up on a snowmobile and come down on skis. However, this is not the norm in Crested Butte. The geography of our terrain makes sled-laps difficult except in the most prime of conditions.

In Crested Butte, the primary use for snowmobiles by hybrid skiers is to attain access to a deeper area of the backcountry. Some may argue they want to use mechanized travel to get to places where there are less people. In some cases, this may be true. But, what is more true, is that they wish to use snowmobiles to access a deeper snowpack.

By using a snowmobile to travel up a public dirt road that is closed to cars in winter, hybrid skiers can access a snowpack that is approximately three-times deeper than the backcountry terrain close to town. Those who know their avalanche basics are aware that a deeper snowpack makes a safer snowpack because the pack is more likely to be isothermal, and therefore less prone to avalanche-causing facet layers.

Accessing deeper snowpack

But, not all drainages provide this advantage. A deeper snowpack can be accessed via the Slate River, Washington Gulch, Kebler Pass, and Gothic drainages. Currently, Gothic is closed to motorized travel in the winter, and motorized travel in Washington Gulch is restricted. Terrain accessed by Brush Creek and Cement Creek drainages does not often provide a deeper snowpack like our other drainages.

Now, some individuals and organizations are proposing additional motorized restrictions, or bans, for the Washington Gulch and Slate River drainages. This will force hybrid skiers out of many of their safer zones, causing more congestion in the motorized zone of Kebler Pass. It will also force many backcountry skiers to ski the terrain closer to town which tends to be hollow, prone to facets, and much less safe. If our access to our favorite backcountry ski zones is further limited and we are forced to ski in a snowpack that is less safe, it is highly likely we will see increases in avalanche deaths in Crested Butte.