Free At Last

North American resorts have expanded boundaries, opened gates, and liberated skiers to revel in ungroomed wildness. Our guide to the great stuff you won't find on the trail map.

Good and gone: ripping Telluride backcountry     Photo: Whit Richardson

BACK IN THE Age of Innocence—let's say winter 1974­'75—we used to exit the ski area all the time. During late season at Bear Valley in California's Sierra Nevada, the best sliding was often beyond the ropes in Horse Canyon.

Actually, there were no ropes. So when we slipped out the back way, through the trees, we didn't feel like outlaws so much as pioneers. The corn snow in Horse rolled away beneath us, untracked by man or machine. We skimmed the pates of buried boulders, swept across meadows, and checked hard—throwing crescents of frozen spray down the steeps. And we inevitably came back in-bounds changed by these ventures to outer realms.

Maybe we should call those days the Classical Era. That is, pre-1977, before the case of James Sunday v. Stratton Mountain (in Vermont) changed everything. A jury awarded Sunday, a novice skier paralyzed in a simple fall, $1.5 million, and the whole notion of risk assumption in skiing was turned on its head. Out came the ropes and signs, the Skiers' Responsibility Codes, and the dire warnings on lift tickets. Ski patrols were cast unhappily in the role of border guards. Lift-served skiing lost its sense of adventure and entered a kind of amusement-park Dark Ages.

Now things are changing again. The nineties brought revolutions in equipment (snowboards, fat skis), technique (carving and jibbing), and attitude—the stuff flaunted in films like Blizzard of Ahh's and Mind the Addiction. While boomers dropped out, the pool of younger experts grew, and grew more demanding. True experts, like large carnivores, need a lot of terrain.

Clueing in to the economic necessity of providing the extreme element, ski area management has heeded the call. Resorts are still liable for their in-bounds skiers, but they can't afford not to offer double-diamond steeps to the new passel of experts. Chutes and cliffs are now as de rigueur as bumps and blue boulevards, resorts are thinning forests to offer more tree skiing, stringing lifts to new steeps, and opening boundaries to allow skiers, once again, into the backcountry.

But there's no hand-holding in this new age. Aspen's Highland Bowl Guide asks that you "Please do not underestimate this terrain or overestimate your ability." Meaning: Get yourself in trouble and it's unlikely a sled will show up soon. We're still not talking European go-anywhere laissez-faire. Ski patrols will continue to perform avalanche control and mount rescues inside and sometimes even outside permit boundaries. And there will still be closed zones.

Call the early 2000s the Semi-Enlightened Era. We aren't quite back to the unfettered ways of the seventies. But we can celebrate the new freedom, which encourages exploration and experimentation and here and there opens doors to skiing's wild, timeless heart. —Peter Shelton

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