I want to take up skiing in the sierra this spring. I've done some easy cross country skiing and I've done a bit of really easy downhill at Squaw, Heavenly, etc. but I'm really looking for a good way to backpack and get around in the mountains in the winter and early spring. I've snowshoed around, and winter camped and backpacked, but not so much with the skis.
What is this type of skiing called? I don't want to ski down couloirs or do any of that - just getting from point A to point B. For example, I'd like to take HWY 120 from the valley up to Olmstead point or spend a week in Tuolumne in the winter.
I keep hearing about backcountry skiing, AT skiing, Randonee, telemark, etc. What are the differences, and how do I select a rig?
Thanks for answering, and any additional information or tips are appreciated...
I think you're on the right track by thinking a lot about the type of skiing you want to do. It sounds like you're looking to travel around, often called touring, without as much emphasis on super crazy downhill performance. Some key decisions:
-Fundamental school of skiing: telemark style bindings & boots (free heel always) or randonee style bindings & boots (free heel with resistance free pivot most of the time, locked down heel when going downhill). You could even consider NNN style stuff.
-Traction options: you have to go uphill and traverse flat stuff. To do you this you can use full length skins (max grip, min glide), partial length or "kicker" skins, traction patterns build in to the base of the ski that let you push forward but still glide normally (min grip, max glide), or combinations of these (smart!).
IMHO for your purposes I would consider a Randonee or Alpine Touring (AT) style boot that is very lightweight and also easy to transition from touring mode to downhill mode, e.g. Scarpa F1, Dynafit TLT 5 . Add some lightweight "tech" bindings (e.g. Dynafit Speed), and some skis with metal edges, decent width, a built in traction pattern in the base (e.g. Karhu Guide, Rossignol BC125, Voile Vector BC), and some skins, and you can tear around really fast on flats and up mellow hills, climb steep hills with your skins, and still make normal alpine style turns on the downhill. Most of these things can be found online for cheap (relative term), but a really good idea I think would be to visit Mammoth Mountaineering and demo a lot of different things before buying anything.
"Backcountry" skiing usually means skiing outside resorts looking to get in at least some turns--from roadside laps to overnight trips. In Canada they call this "ski touring"; in CA usually touring is more synonymous with "cross-country" skiing and means covering ground for the pleasure of traveling, seeing what's out there and spending time in cool places--hiking on snow--but much faster than snowshoes.
There are skis designed for everywhere along the spectrum; if you have the $$ and develop the interest you will end up with a quiver. Sdtrackrunner's post is a great basic outline and a good recommendation for a package that will do most things pretty well. When I was where you are 15+ yrs ago, telemark was the default for backcountry skiing in the US, but AT/randonee (two words for more or less the same thing) equipment has at least caught up and most people would say surpassed tele for the combination of weight and versatility--and AT/randonee skiing is easier to learn and more like what you may already have started at the resorts. I'm sticking to telemark until my knees won't do it anymore (could be soon), but if pushed I have to admit it's just style, or a bad habit. The skis sd names are sometimes called "waxless" or fishscale, because the bases are designed to go uphill without wax (not talking here about the wax you put on skis to go downhill but wax that will get you uphill). For what you're talking about, you could cut your initial investment and experiment on waxless skis without skins--you can get to Tuolumne and back from the eastside that way, for instance. If you are convinced you won't get into more turn-oriented skiing (but beware; it's hard to resist turns), you could forgo the Dynafit boots and bindings and save some money by going with more strictly cross-country gear, like NNN-BC.
The Bay Area alternative to Mammoth Mountaineering is Marmot Mountain Works in Berkeley--the only place I know in the Bay Area where you can count on finding staff knowledgeable about backcountry skiing; they also have purely touring gear.
TelemarkTips is a good site to mine for backcountry ski info, notwithstanding a not-great search function, repetition, quarreling and a wide range of subject matter: http://www.telemarktalk.com/phpBB/viewforum.php?f=1 Ttips also has gear "classifieds", where you could save some money.