And you thought they all meant the same thing
Off-piste: an ungroomed run, always inside a resort, always patrolled and avalanche controlled
Out-of-bounds: any lift-served area outside a resort, never patrolled or avalanche controlled
Backcountry: unmanaged public lands outside the ski resort boundary
Squaw Valley USA
TAHOE CITY, CALIFORNIA
Right from the start, 1949, Squaw Valley skiers were cliff jumpers, and Warren Miller was there to film them hopping off cornices built up across the main ridge by the prevailing west winds. From the top of the Granite Chief, Emigrant, or Headwall Express lifts, a short hike takes you to dizzying launch pointsall with beautiful views of Lake Tahoe below. Granite Chief Peak and the treacherously steep and sheer Squaw Peak Palisades, which formed the training ground for freeskiing revolutionaries like Rick Sylvester, Scot Schmidt, Tom Day, and C. R. Johnson, are still immensely popular. So if you're looking for more tranquil rippin' grounds, head to the locals' favorite peak, KT-22. It's less crowded than the main ridge and offers 40-degree pitches across its entire northern exposure. Most runs haven't been regularly groomed since the Swiss Army bootpacked them in preparation for the 1960 Olympics. Though locals sometimes poach the backcountry behind KT-22, Squaw doesn't allow it, and resort managers have no plans to open the ski resort boundary. S.M.
Northstar was born as a family-oriented (read: intermediate) ski area in the central Sierra, but it's matured nicely. Last season the resort opened 200 acres and 1,200 vertical feet of expert plunges on Lookout Mountain, far north of the intermediate-level traffic. From its 8,120-foot summit, Lookout offers views north to the Martis, Boca, Stampede, and Prosser reservoirs, for which the runs are named. On the afternoon of a powder day, the trees between the Stampede and Prosser groomers are like eastern glades (tight) holding light western snow, and you can do laps on the Lookout Mountain Express lift. Gooseneck, the fifth of five black-diamond Lookout runs, hews close to the lift line, making its trees the steepest, and sometimes most skied, in the group. While you're skiing Lookout, your rookie friends can ski the 1,860 vertical feet of fast cruisers and glades off the Backside. Its gentle, 14-degree pitch and generous 15-foot spaces between trees mean the only thing they'll hit is planing speed. S.M.
Sugar Bowl Resort
The American River Gorge lies just south of Sugar Bowl's main summit, Mount Lincoln, and channels Pacific storms right into its sharp ridgeline. The heavy ocean air drops its condensation and piles up more snow here than anywhere else in the central Sierra. This winter, with the inauguration of Mount Lincoln's Express Quad, skiers will eat more pow and log more vertical feet than ever before. And we do mean vertical.
From the new lift you look straight down at The Sisters, a 500-foot-wide, 50-foot-tall broken cliff band that acts as a speed bump on 40-degree Fuller's Folly. Down Lincoln's west shoulder are the wide, smooth, and steep chutes of The '58, named for a 1958 avalanche, and The Palisades. Both are bare of trees and too steep to get bumped up. At the beginning or end of the season, thin snow leaves them skinny and rock-studdedenough so that ski mountaineering brothers Rob and Eric DesLauriers use them to tame hubris in their freeskiing clinics.
The snow piles up just as deep off Crow's Nest Peak, a gentler hike-to preserve along the resort's western boundary. Here, Crow's Face and Strawberry Fields trace shallow ravines past thickets of trees. Ski them during a storm and airy fluff fills in your tracks after every run. S.M.
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIFORNIA
Ride the Panorama Gondola to the top of Mammoth, just 20 miles east of Yosemite National Park, and skate out along the ridgethe damned thing is seven miles long. At least 13 named runs, and a handful more off-piste runs, all of wildly varying shapes, plummet between rock buttes. On a powder morning, peer down Climax's 800-vertical-foot drop, near the gondola off-loading area. If it's tracked, shuffle one slot west to Hangman's Hollowrocky ridges make it a vertical half-pipe. Or head east to challenge the scimitar curve of Huevos Grande. When a three-day storm blows in and closes the upper lifts, drag out your widest boards, and hit Mammoth's lower summits. Cinder cones like Lincoln Mountain, Hemlock Ridge, and Dragon's Tail sit at timberline, so their wind-sheltered slopes harbor perfect powder. S.M.