I’d have never found Zero Gravity couloir on my own. One of the classic lines in the backcountry just beyond the Jackson Hole ropes, Zero-G is a 50-degree notch through a 100-foot high cliff. Especially on a big snow year, it’s good to go, but the entrance looks just like a lot of spots in the Jackson Hole backcountry—gentle, snowy slopes that soon roll off a terminal cliff. Guessing wrong could mean an arduous and sketchy climb back up to safety, or worse, a tumble off the cliff. It’s no problem for my group—we just follow the guide.
“Ski to me, one at a time, and stop right here,” says Jim Kandolin, our Jackson Hole ski guide. He points to a small tree just above him, a few turns above the entrance to Zero-G. I spot him while he ski-cuts the top of the rock-hemmed cute, and then spins a few turns downwards and out of sight into a safe zone behind a cliff wall. I’m with a group of four other Jackson locals who’ve peeled off $140 apiece (not including lift ticket) to hire Kandolin on a 10-inch powder day to show us around. We also get to cut the lift lines. Thanks to Kandolin, we are able to log six rides on Jackson’s famous tram by 2 p.m. That’s 24,000 feet of skiing, almost all of it on terrain far steeper than most heli-ski outfits will let you ride.
Equipped with avy gear, we reel off lap after lap down Rendezvous Bowl and out the ski area boundary, threading our way through cliffs and floating down aprons of untracked snow, only to duck back into the resort base and do it again. With its relentless verticality, Jackson is uniquely equipped to deliver lift-service backcountry runs. It’s no wonder that their guide service emulates those of the famous French resorts like Chamonix and La Grave, where a guide not only can show you to the hidden goods, but can also keep you alive in the crevasse-riven terrain. Today, I’m thankful to be shown the safe line. I draw the long straw on this run, and get to drop in first, slashing a turn against the far wall and plunging down the steep canal with powder billowing up around my waist.
Here’s a few other resorts where hiring a guide will be well worth your time.
Kicking Horse, British Columbia
The British Columbia standout is known for its array of steep in-bounds couloirs, many of them with hidden, rock-strewn entrances. A guide from the Big Mountain Center can show you the way through while getting you to the head of the line and offering some valuable coaching on how to ski the steeps. They can only operate within the resort, however, so if powder is scarce inbounds, book a day with Adrenaline Descents, a company of certified Canadian mountain guides who can guide you through the steep Dogtooth Range backcountry just outside Kicking Horse for $165 apiece for a group of four, not including a lift ticket. Head south past the avalanche-controlled Terminator 2 bowl to the wilder T3 and T4 bowls and then loop back into the resort.
For those willing to slap on a pair of skins, head north past Rudi’s Bowl, to the Molars and Repeater Ridge. The further you go, the fewer the tracks. Wanna make a weekend of it? Adrenaline has a basecamp of woodstove-heated wall tents set up 12 skiing-filled kilometers north of the resort boundary, the perfect place to dry your gear, tuck into a guide-cooked meal, and then get up the next morning and make more fresh tracks.
Alta and Brighton, Utah
Some of the best backcountry terrain in the lower 48 lies on the divide between Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, on the boundary between Alta and Brighton resorts. The 50-degree chutes of Wolverine Cirque are the stuff of ski films, but there is plenty of milder stuff for those seeking untracked powder over cliff drops. Utah Mountain Adventures can show you around the terrain behind either resort with the benefit of single-ride lift tickets for about a third the normal cost. To access the goods at Wolverine, Figure Eight Hill or Pioneer Ridge from either resort you’ll need your own avy gear and skins. A full day with the guides for a group of five will run you about $160 apiece.
Whistler, British Columbia
Extremely Canadian guide service has combined lift-line priority with top notch instruction on Whistler’s legendary steeps for years. Two years ago they added a backcountry program for people willing to earn their turns further outside the resort boundaries in Garibaldi Provincial Park. The backcountry program requires avalanche gear and utilizes the resorts lifts for a single boost at the beginning of the day or for hot laps on sections of the resort where its easy to hook back in bounds after snaking the powder just outside the resort ropes. Both programs start at about $199 per person. “We end up with all sorts of clients–seasoned veterans who know where they want to go, to people ski touring for the first time,” says co-owner Peter Smart.
Revelstoke, British Columbia
Revelstoke is huge, and chock full of gnarly, cliff-riven terrain. Which is a great thing for advanced riders provided you know where you are going. The Inside Track program can usher riders safely into some of the resort’s spicier zones, avoiding the terminal cliffs, and then get them to the head of the lift line for another lap with no waiting ($128). Or, bring your avalanche gear and book a day with the backcountry program for excursions further into the Selkirk range from the top of the Stoke Chair. Guides can work with any level of experience, from first-timers to avalanche terrain, to expert riders looking to harvest fresh powder lines while avoiding spending a night out in the notoriously confusing backcountry terrain ($258, includes lunch.)