Rocky Mountain Dry, Free At Last

Champagne powder, feathery light fluff—there's a reason for the clichés. They're true.

Powder burn: first tracks on Aspen Mountain     Photo: Abrahm Lustgarten

No-Frills, All Thrills

In 1992, Aaron Brill, a 21-year-old snowboard bum, said to hell with McSki Resorts that try to sell themselves as all things to all skiers and began planning his own downhill utopia in southwestern Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Nine years later, his one-man crusade to bring pure, unrestricted off-piste skiing to the masses has resulted in the 210-acre Silverton Outdoor Learning and Recreation Center, the nation's first "commercial backcountry ski area." The place isn't big on luxury—there's a canvas base-hut and a warming station on top of 12,297-foot Storm Peak—but that's the point. The ski area drops 2,000 vertical feet through beautiful glades and 1,000 acres of valleys and cliffs on adjacent BLM land. All of this 25- to 60-degree avalanche-controlled terrain sees 400 inches of snow per year. The 475 individuals allowed on the mountain each day must sign a liability waiver, pass a backcountry safety exam, and show their beacons, probes, and shovels before being let loose on the slopes. When the lone double chair cranks up in January (Brill will allow skiers to skin up beginning this month), lift tickets will sell for just $25. How so cheap? According to Brill, the whole shebang cost him "less than a nice condo at Vail." —Jason Daley

Alta/Snowbird
ALTA, UTAH

On an average fresh-powder morning at Little Cottonwood Canyon (and there are lots of them), the snow at Snowbird is tracked by noon. But it's no big deal. What remains is dry and easy to bury an edge into, and you can still find great lines between the trees on Soma Trophic Hormone (aka STH or Steeper Than Hell), or in the wide-open spaces of the Cirque. And starting this season, you can buy the Alta Snowbird Ticket, which lets you ride the new Mineral Basin lift to the top of Sugarloaf Saddle. From there you cross over into Alta Ski Resort, and then hike and traverse about 30 minutes toward the open steeps of East Devil's Castle, the off-angle face that ski patrollers open when the snowpack has settled.

The new dual-resort passes are for skiers only; Alta still stiff-arms snowboarders. But any experienced group of two or more boarders or skiers can cross through gates above Snowbird's Gad II lift and explore the 2,200-acre White Pine Canyon backcountry. After huffing your way to the top of chutes like Birthday (1,000 feet) and Tri (1,500 feet), you may find a crowd of heli-skiers beat you to the prize. Don't sweat it. There's plenty of snow, and you get it for $600 less than they do. —Peter Oliver

Park City Mountain Resort
PARK CITY, UTAH

The closest thing to raw terrain inside Park City's closed boundary lies above the sprawling corduroy off Jupiter Peak, the most prominent feature on the resort's major ridgeline. Because the peak is accessible only by scrambling—at least ten minutes from the top of the Jupiter lift—the 45-degree chutes on the east face (the steepest at Park City) remain untracked for days after a storm. Once those are worked over, head farther east along Pinyon Ridge to the new Black Forest Glades, a low-angle intermediate area with widely spaced trees. If you need a sure powder fix, head west from the top of the Jupiter lift, and then traverse and hike 25 minutes along Pinecone Ridge. On clear days, sunshine quickly turns the west-facing slopes to slush, but so few skiers venture in this direction that fresh tracks are almost guaranteed. —P.O.

Vail Mountain
VAIL, COLORADO

Vail's commercial success (1.6 million skier visits last year, 20 percent more than any other U.S. resort) is based on the front side's groomed cruisers, but it's the adjacent backcountry, unmanicured Back Bowls, and now Blue Sky Basin that bring in the experts. Blue Sky Basin, which opened amid much controversy over the last two winters, features 645 acres of powder served by four high-speed quads. The terrain faces north and stays largely ungroomed because every run weaves through trees. Huge and varied though Blue Sky is, some locals feel it's a relatively minor addition to the 2,700 acres and 1,850 vertical feet of the Back Bowls that they've carved for years. These monsters stretch six miles east to west, the biggest single swath of lift-served terrain in North America. Southern exposure means the snow here changes fast: If it dumps on Monday, you'll ski powder on Tuesday, crust on Wednesday, and junk on Thursday—the entire palette of off-piste snow in a few days. For an epic final run, link in-bounds off-piste with thousands more feet of backcountry. Blue Sky Basin, Game Creek Bowl, and Mongolia Bowl all have inconspicuous access gates opening onto thousands of acres of unpatrolled wilderness that lead down to roads. —Seth Masia

Telluride Ski Resort
TELLURIDE, COLORADO

This year the new Gold Hill lift will take skiers directly over what used to be a hidden stash that locals dubbed Claude's Couloir. From the top of Gold Hill you'll be able to dive into Claude's and other formerly hike-to chutes like Electra, Dynamo, and Little Rose. If by chance the snow is stable (which usually isn't the case; the San Juans of Telluride are the most avalanche-prone range in the Lower 48), the ski patrol will let you trudge out of bounds up the ridge to Palmyra Peak for a 40- to 50-degree descent down 3,000 feet of open summit slope. Last year, after Telluride announced its intentions to install two new lifts, it opened this backcountry access gate for those mourning the development of the other new lift, Prospect. (If you're not an avalanche expert, stick to Prospect: It drops you above intermediate glades and beside four short double-diamond chutes.) Head up Palmyra unprepared and locals will chew you out—not because they care about your fate, but because you might trigger an avalanche above them. —S.M.

Aspen
ASPEN, COLORADO

Aspen, with its Learjets and $20 million mountain hideaways, still lives up to its reputation as the Gomorrah of the Rockies. But don't be fooled. With four mountain resorts only 15 minutes from town—Aspen Mountain (sometimes called Ajax), Buttermilk, Snowmass, and Aspen Highlands—and vast backcountry, much of it in the 181,000-acre Maroon Bells­Snowmass Wilderness, the Aspen area remains one of the best places in Colorado for serious big-mountain skiing.

Expert locals and a handful of adventurous visitors head beyond the warning gates on the western perimeter of Snowmass, where rock-lined couloirs plunge 4,000 feet into the East Snowmass Creek drainage. Or they hike five minutes from the High Alpine lift to reach the bowls of West Willow Basin, equally steep and hazardous, but where they're less likely to get stranded above a cliff.

Two years ago, Aspen Highlands extended its boundaries to include Highland Bowl, a steep, east-facing, avalanche-prone swath of mostly treeless terrain atop 12,382-foot Highland Peak. This used to involve a 45-minute experts-only hike from Loge Peak lift to the top of Highland and Bowl. Now it's a 20-minute experts-only free snowcat ride and a 20-minute hike. —P.O.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Comments