Just in time for winter, a backcountry ski guidebook for the San Juan Mountains around Silverton developed by Fort Lewis College students can now be accessed through the convenience of a cellphone app.
“It’s a fantastic tool,” said Andy Sovick, a Fort Lewis College graduate who kick-started the idea that eventually became “Off-Piste Ski Atlas.”
The app can be downloaded through RAKKUP, which can be purchased on the iTunes store.
From 2000 to 2004, Sovick, a Fort Collins native, went to Fort Lewis College, not just for the education in the classroom.
“When I moved here, I was completely excited to get into the San Juans and spend as much time as I possibility could up in the hills,” Sovick said. “It was definitely the ulterior motive to going to Fort Lewis.”
During his time in college, Sovick developed a strong core of friends that would regularly take trips up to the backcountry to ski the San Juans.
“Every once in a while we talked about creating a photographic guidebook for the area,” he said.
After graduation, Sovick said one of the friends followed through with the idea, making a photographic guidebook for several ski runs in the Teton Range.
Sovick took his friend’s format and applied it to ski runs in Crested Butte, where he was living at the time. A few years later, in 2014, he published the first edition of Backcountry Skiing Silverton Colorado.
The guide was updated for a second edition in December 2016, and the app went live a few months ago, Sovick said.
Essentially, each guidebook features aerial photographs of backcountry ski runs, which allows skiers to scout their lines beforehand.
Then, the guide supplements information about trailheads, as well as ascent and descent information.
Sovick’s format allows other backcountry skiers to easily research and write other guides. His friend from Washington, for instance, authored a book on two popular ski areas in Washington.
For the Silverton guide, Sovick and his friend and local guide Josh Kling, also an FLC grad, went up in a friend’s plane to take pictures of specific ski runs around the San Juan high country.
The guide features about 60 runs and is by far his best-seller, with about 3,000 copies sold. Copies can be found local bookstores, including Backcountry Experience, Maria’s Bookshop, Ski Barn and Pine Needle Mountaineering.
It’s also the first photographic guidebook of its kind for this section of the San Juan Mountains, Sovick said.
“There wasn’t anything like this on the San Juans,” he said.
Keith Roush, former owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering who has been backcountry skiing in the San Juans since the 1970s, said Sovick’s guidebook and app can be a great tool, if used responsibility.
“One of the problems with using a phone or GPS, if you can’t already use a map or know how to navigate terrain, it can get you into trouble,” Roush said.
Roush said since the 1970s, backcountry skiing wasn’t all that popular. On any given weekend, he’d see only a half-dozen parked cars from Durango to Silverton, and because it was a small town, he knew who owned which car.
But around 2008, backcountry ski gear became better, lighter and more affordable, which lead to a major uptick of people in the backcountry.
Now, Roush said there’s regularly 100 cars parked between Durango and Ouray.
“In terms of safety, I suppose there’s not a big difference,” Roush said of the increase. “But the main difference is people push to find other places, and that might cause them to make judgments that are less founded on experience.”
“When there’s accidents,” he said, “ski skills usually exceed snow travel skills.”
Sovick agreed: Anyone traveling into the backcountry needs to have a strong knowledge of snow and avalanche dangers.
Sovick, 36, now lives in Gunnison. A carpenter by trade, he said he’s amazed how that original group of friends has gone onto careers based on their outdoor lifestyle through college.
“At the time, it seemed to us and our parents to be a distraction from school and professional development,” he said.
“It’s interesting that mountain lifestyle and those friendships we developed became part of our careers and education. They really do go hand in hand.”