"It's really a festival of fun," says Stirling Cobb, the events and sponsorship manager at Mt. Bachelor. He's talking about Vertfest, one of the few winter carnivals to focus on backcountry skiing, which returns this weekend to Central Oregon for its third consecutive year.
"It's all about the mountain lifestyle where like-minded people can come together and enjoy the mountains," he adds. "The backcountry culture is really growing here and Mt. Bachelor is a big part of that."
The event is a mix of clinics, beer tents and racing—the race portion of which involves climbing up the mountain using skins, and then riding down. Some take it seriously, wearing skintight racing suits, while others are a bit more casual, dressed in colorful costumes.
One of those more serious is last year's overall winner, Aaron Talbot. He expects this year to be tougher.
"The competition is going to be much fiercer this year," he says. "There are some heavy hitters coming out to compete."
An important reason for the intensified competition is the uptick in popularity that backcountry skiing is enjoying. Compared to alpine skiing—which has dropped in numbers during recent years, and nordic skiing, where numbers have plateaued—backcountry skiing is on the rise. This is especially true for Central Oregon where, compared with other regions in North America, the ski genre is in its infancy. Improved backcountry equipment over the past decade, though, and the increased popularity of ditching the crowded lift lines and getting into the wilderness, seem to be driving these trends.
"I think the Northwest is kind of the next frontier of competitive ski mountaineering," says Talbot.
But, as much as the Vertfest is a chance to enjoy the backcountry, it is also an opportunity to point out its dangers. Funds generated from the event are donated to the Central Oregon Avalanche Association (COAA).
Trevor Miller, president of COAA, points out that there have been two fatalities in the past five years in Central Oregon's backcountry. Not entirely coincidentally, there is no avalanche forecasting between Mt. Shasta and Mt. Hood.
"If we can get a forecaster that can educate backcountry users on the current conditions and prevent even one future accident," Miller says, "then it is a worthwhile endeavor."
He also points out that it is not just equipment that prevents backcountry accidents, but formal education in backcountry safety is probably the best preventive step.
In addition to races, Vertfest is hosting greatly price-reduced backcountry clinics. There is an Introduction to Backcountry Skiing Clinic, an Introduction to Split Boarding Clinic, a clinic devoted to identifying avalanche risk in the backcountry, a companion rescue clinic, and even an action ski photography clinic.
8 am-3 pm, Saturday, Feb. 7; 9 am-3 pm, Sunday, Feb. 8
Clinics, $25. Race participation, $10-$35.