Wicked Pitch of the West, Free At Last

You ain't sick, rad, or bad until you drop these ski-movie steeps

Nov 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

Big Sky Resort

No single summit in American skiing is more aptly named, or offers more steep lift-served skiing—2,160 acres of advanced or expert terrain—than the solitary pyramid of 11,150-foot Lone Peak at Big Sky in the Madison Range. Some two dozen off-piste chutes and couloirs fall more than 1,400 vertical feet from the top. Wind and high-altitude sun can blast and scorch this monument to adrenal thrills, but more often, you surrender yourself to the sky-blue ether, affixed to Mother Earth by only a thin metal edge. The gnarliest chute of all is Castro, a summit-to-lift elevator shaft that hits 50 degrees, but all of the A to Z Chutes on the north summit ridge are nearly as steep, if only slightly shorter. Reach them by passing through a checkpoint at the base of Lone Peak Tram, where the ski patrol will make sure you're armed with a shovel and transceiver and a partner who's not inept. Then climb 20 minutes to the A to Z, or ride the tram to the top and carry your skis out along the vertiginous ridge. Though Big Sky's boundary is firmly closed, these runs are like in-bounds backcountry. Lower down, in a tamer universe, resort management cleared two new glades over the past two summers— Bearlair and Congo—as tests for additional in-bounds off-piste expansion.—P.O.
Bridger Bowl

It's not the Bowl that put Bridger on the map. It's The Ridge above it. Ski The Ridge before you die. Five hundred vertical feet of glades, cliffs, couloirs, and other impending disasters loom over this unpretentious Bozeman commuter area. Bridger newbies should join the $90 tour offered by the ski school. If you decide to hook up with locals at the gates above Bridger lift instead, you must convince the ski patrol that you and your teammate know the area. They'll check for your shovel and map, and pass a sensor over your chest to verify that your avalanche transceiver is transmitting before you're allowed to throw your skis over your shoulder, bootpack 20 minutes up the trail, and drop into 450 acres of steep runs. When one of those subzero Montana storms dumps a foot of powder, jump-turn down near-vertical chutes like The O's and Sometimes A Great Notion. Then do it again. And again. A new ski-patrol-only Poma lift ensures The Ridge will be avalanche controlled more often this year. (Bridger management doesn't plan to open the lift to the public or allow out-of-bounds skiing anytime soon.) If you need a warm-up before dropping into extreme terrain, head to The Fingers, a sort of lesser Ridge comprising four expert chutes at the southern edge of the ski area. A new triple chair, Pierre's Knob Lift, will quickly shuttle you to the beginning of the ten- to 15-minute hike. Take your pick, and take our advice: Visit when Montana State University's 12,000 ski fanatics are in school.—Ron C. Judd

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

Look at the Tetons from the east and it's tough to pick out the Jackson Hole ski area. Eighty-four mostly expert runs blend seamlessly into the mottled facade of granite, limestone, spruce thickets, and open slopes, all jumbled together at different angles and exposures. It's a rocky muscularity you simply won't find at any other ski resort in America—and if you think Jackson's in-bounds terrain is challenging, wait until you get outside the ropes.

Since 1999, skiers have been legally venturing through the gates on Rendezvous Mountain to explore thousands of square miles of unpatrolled, unmanaged backcountry. The most accessible extreme terrain is in Granite Canyon, a ten-minute climb up the headwall behind the gondola off-loading area, and Cody Bowl, a half-hour hike south from the top of the tram. Cody's lower, east-facing slope, No Shadows, features superb open-bowl powder skiing and a small cornice jump, although the run is relatively short. Head ten minutes farther up the ridge and along a cornice to sheer and narrow Four Shadows and hair-raisingly treacherous Central Couloir. Still not satisfied? Schlepp a half-hour around the south side of Cody for even more open bowls, rock-lined chutes, and well-spaced trees. A word to the wise: Hire a guide for at least your first adventure—avalanche danger is high and it's easy to end up stranded one valley too far south. And warm up on a relatively easy in-bounds run like, say, 50-degree Corbet's Couloir.—P.O.