CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN, WASHINGTON
Before marketing flacks ever used "freeskiing" to describe a supposedly new style of carving backcountry terrain, powder hogs were doing just that at Crystal Mountain. The resort's combined 1,000-acre North and South Back have a well-earned reputation for untracked snowÂ—heavy powder, but steep and long enough, around 1,200 vertical feet, to keep the tips bobbing. Sheer runs like Brain Damage, a 45-degree pinnacle, punctuate half a dozen open bowls that funnel either to the main base area or to a shuttle stop on the resort road. So far, the 10- to 30-minute traverses from the tops of Green Valley and High Campbell lifts, intimidating warning signs, and common sense have kept these haunts off-limits to the masses. But this December, the Forest Service will rule on a $60-million resort revamp, which could change everything. The plan would double Crystal's lift inventory, stringing a tram to the summit and a new lift to the top of Snorting Elk, centerpiece of the double-diamond North Back. Bottom line: Ski Crystal soon. Â—R.C.J.
MOUNT, BAKER WASHINGTON
Baker didn't build a terrain park until last spring, for good reason: The whole North Cascades resort is oneÂ—full of contorted side hills, U-shaped gullies, uneven creekbeds, rocky faces, and treed slopes. Management would have bulldozed these hazards into smooth, groomable runs, but because Baker can get more snow than anywhere in the world (100 feet fell here in the '98Â'99 season), the mountain is naturally transformed into a gigantic, powder-cushioned obstacle course. Within resort boundaries, skiers can jump turn on the open, double-black expanse of Pan Face, dodge branches on the tree-studded Sticky Wicket, or struggle to maintain composure among the house-size boulders on the Gabl's cliffatorium beneath Chair 5. Add the out-of-bounds bonus, the wide-open glades of Shuksan Arm, and Baker offers the total package for anyone who likes to color outside the lines. Â—R.C.J.
Whistler Blackcomb Mountains
WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
You could spend a lifetime discovering all the ins, outs, and way-outs of 7,071-acre Whistler Blackcomb, a pair of sister resorts in the Canadian Rockies. (They share the same base area, so you can ski both for the price of one.) Off-piste tyros should immerse themselves slowly. First, ride Whistler's Garbanzo Express lift to Club 21, Side Order, Unsanctioned, and In Deep, four thin glades cut two years ago for intermediates. Then, take the Harmony Express to the top of Harmony Bowl, where you'll find a couple dozen in-bounds routes through the moderately steep treed bowl below. And then there's all the rest: at least a dozen other in-bounds stashes visible from the same vantage point, and a dozen more chutes on ridges that stretch to the horizon. Garnet and Ruby Bowls in the Blackcomb Glacier area and Whistler Bowl in Whistler are the standout off-piste double-diamonds. They're big, long toe-curlersÂ—some reached by narrow chutes. Since fog often cloaks the base while wet snow or rain falls up top, ask around about where the weather's best. Â—R.C.J.
Skiers come to Schweitzer, a nine-lift resort in the Purcell Mountains, for the groomed runs and leave raving about the powder. Last year, after installing the six-person Stella lift, Schweitzer management redrew the ski-area boundary to include 150 acres of formerly out-of-bounds glades. The Northwest Territory is perfect for intermediates. The trees are far enough apart to make you feel like a trunk-dodging pro, the pitch is moderate, and, like all other runs at this hideaway resort outside Sandpoint, these runs are usually uncrowded and covered in snow that is drier and lighter than that at resorts near the coast. Hit the steeper tree runs and open slopes off the main summit lift, Snow Ghost, and if you're not enshrouded in fog, views of 43-mile-long Lake Pend Oreille stretch out below. From there you can see tracks down Big Blue and Little Blue peaks, the best dividends from a three-year-old open-boundary policy. Follow a local through roughly 1,200 vertical feet of "snow ghosts," head-high trees flocked with snow and ice, and then pick your way back to Stella. Â—R.C.J.