Skiing and snowboarding have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years, and this has combined with a dramatic improvement in the quality of skis and snowboards, and ski instruction to produce a larger group of advanced skiers and riders than ever before. Seeking new challenges, these skiers and riders have increasingly looked “out of bounds,” beyond the standard ski resort trails to backcountry experiences; but without extensive training in backcountry travel and avalanche safety, venturing into the winter wilderness is often a very bad idea. Traditionally, the answer has been remote heli-skiing and cat-skiing lodges, but the problem with these is that they are isolated and often affected by bad weather, which usually strands participants in a wilderness cabin with little to do but play Scrabble.
Fortunately, ski resorts have come to the rescue with an impressive array of their own backcountry and, increasingly, “sidecountry” offerings. The term “sidecountry” describes the out-of-bounds areas adjacent to ski resorts, and often reachable from resort lifts, or lifts plus a short hike. The first resort to pioneer this was Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, way back in 1999, when it negotiated the then novel “closed boundary, open gate” policy with the United States Forest Service, which owns the surrounding land. Skiers can ride the resort’s iconic tram to the summit, then exit the mountain’s boundary ropes through marked gates, closed when there are safety concerns, and access 3,000 acres of unbroken powder, as large as the massive resort itself. Many locals do laps all day from the tram through the powder of Rock Springs Bowl, traversing back into the resort on a lower catwalk. It’s still not a good idea to try on your own if you haven’t done it before, so Jackson offers guided sidecountry excursions through its ski school, including all equipment. Jackson Hole is also one of the few U.S. resorts that offer daily heli-skiing, through High Mountain Heli-Skiing, which takes guests into the nearby Snake River Range.
Many other resorts have caught onto this fast growing adventurous trend, and there are more options than ever before. For this season, Colorado’s already-huge Breckenridge Ski Resort has gotten even bigger, with an entirely new area, Peak 6, where two additional lifts access three previously untouched, above-tree-line bowls, and the mountain resort offers guided tours of Peak 6 on a private basis. Also in Colorado, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, known as a real skier’s mountain, is adding private guided tours of truly expert-only chutes and cliffs, with big air potential, on its rugged backside. Over the years, Telluride Ski Resort has greatly increased its hike-to terrain, even installing permanent stairs and cables to make the hikes easier, and has some of the best in-bounds-but-not-lift-served extreme terrain in the nation. Two other Colorado locales, Copper Mountain and Keystone Resort, both offer in-bounds cat-skiing options to otherwise arduous hike-to terrain, and in many cases offer single cat rides. The longtime classic for in-bounds advanced skiing is the hike-to Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands, with many different lines available depending how far you want to hoof it. This is a skiing rite of passage that most advanced skiers can handle and must be experienced.
Alaska’s Alyeska Resort is one of the only spots in the country with both daily heli-skiing and cat-skiing operations based right at the mountain, which gets more snow — by far — than any other major ski resort in the U.S. Under-the-radar Alyeska is less than an hour outside Anchorage, surprisingly easy to reach and a great, fun, self-contained resort. Another hidden gem is Utah’s Powder Mountain, which has a hybrid in-bounds, lift-served backcountry area, the vast “Powder Country,” where you enter an ungroomed section — larger than many ski resorts at 1,200 acres — through a gate and ski any line you want, since they all dump out onto a road where you are picked up in school buses to do it again. Powder Mountain also offers single ride cat trips to another part of the resort (700 acres) reserved solely for cat skiing.
One of the most unique experiences in North American skiing is Ski Utah’s Interconnect Tour, which operates daily when conditions permit (most of the winter), includes lunch and transportation from start and finish, and has a maximum group size of 12 plus the guide ($295 per person). The tour is suitable for advanced (strong intermediate) skiers and above, and lets you ski up to half a dozen major Utah resorts in one day, all by skis (no snowboards), covering an average of 25 miles by combining resort trails and lifts with the backcountry between them: Deer Valley Resort, Park City Mountain Resort, Solitude Mountain Resort, Brighton Ski Resort, Alta Ski Area and Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort.
In Lake Tahoe, California, Squaw Valley Ski Resort, long a favorite for hardcore and extreme skiers, just added its own backcountry access gate off the famous KT-22 chairlift, while in Canada, the gigantic Whistler Blackcomb resort continues to add to a formidable array that already includes both cat and heli-skiing, with new guided sidecountry day tours.
All skiing beyond resort boundaries (and some within them) requires proper safety equipment, at the least an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, plus the knowledge to use them, and ideally one of the new inflatable avalanche air bag packs. Most of these resorts have this gear for rent or included in guided outings.
Photo Courtesy of Aspen-Snowmass