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.
BACK IN THE Age of Innocencelet's say winter 1974'75we 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 hardthrowing 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 attitudethe 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
Rocky Mountain Dry,
Champagne powder, feathery light fluff—there's a reason for the clichés. They're true.
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 scramblingat least ten minutes from the top of the Jupiter liftthe 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'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 Thursdaythe 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
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 outnot because they care about your fate, but because you might trigger an avalanche above them. S.M.
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 townAspen Mountain (sometimes called Ajax), Buttermilk, Snowmass, and Aspen Highlandsand 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.
Range of Light,
Sun feels damn good when you're atop a 12,000-foot peak, staring down a 40-degree face
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.
Wicked Pitch of the West,
You ain't sick, rad, or bad until you drop these ski-movie steeps
Big Sky Resort
BIG SKY, MONTANA
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.
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
TOTEN VILLAGE, WYOMING
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.
East Beats West,
If you love tree skiing, there's no better place to do it…even in an ice storm
Jay Peak Resort
JAY PEAK, VERMONT
If you're looking for powder east of the Mississippi, Jay Peak is your place. Last year, storms whacked this remote resort, eight miles from the Canadian border, with 571 inches of white stuff. That happened to be a record, but the five-year average is still 428 inches, a figure that many resorts in Colorado can't match. Thanks to minimal crowds and numerous hidden glades, untracked snow is as common in-bounds here as it is out-of-bounds at other places in New England.
Like the 22 glades and chutes elsewhere at Jay, one-and-a-quarter-mile-long Everglade, the mountain's longest run, wasn't carved out to match some developer's master plan. It was thinned according to the angle of the fall line and the natural paths between trees. Jay's resort boundary has also been changed to make the most of local timber; it was recently stretched to embrace backcountry favorite Beyond Beaver Pond, an enclave of birch, spruce, and maple trees. And this winter Deliverance, a 20-acre glade, opens.
Outside the boundary, Jay boasts atypically rugged terrain and offers guided tours into the most accessible swatch of backcountry— the Dip, a roughly 1,300-vertical-foot backside run down to Vermont 242. Locals leave their salt-corroded pickups here for the shuttle back to the base area. They're happy to give you a lift, especially on a powder day.—P.O.
Mix seven decades of skiing tradition, the tallest mountain in Vermont (4,395-foot Mount Mansfield), and locals who surreptitiously brush-cut new lines in the summertime, and you've got some of the best glade skiing in the world. Skiers accustomed to unobstructed slopes should warm up on a run like Tres Amigos, a moderately steep forest with trees spaced like slalom gates. Then, if you're lucky, some chainsawer will steer you to his or her private line (perhaps around Chin Clip, near the summit, or the Kitchen Wall, above Nose Dive).
But what really makes Stowe special are the steep and narrow chutes on the east face of the Chin. These runs are accessible only after a 35-minute grunt to the top, and few places in the East serve up so many obstacles—everything from stubbled trees to wind-scoured ice to cliffs—or threaten such drastic consequences. Navigating the tight quarters and obstacles off the Chin—like those of the perfectly named Hourglass and Hell Brook— demands technical finesse, precise turns, and line selection that separates tree skiers from open-bowl cruisers.—P.O.
Ski Sugarbush's Castlerock and you can ski anything in the East—or, for that matter, almost anything anywhere. The Rock's ten narrow trails all weave through patches of granite and ice, and drop 1,669 vertical feet. Some chutes, like Middle Earth and Coutillion, fall as much as 40 degrees and are skied only by a handful of kamikaze experts. One trail, the infamous Rumble, snakes through a patch ofoverhanging branches so dense that, when seen from below, it looks like virgin forest. When you're ready to dull your edges elsewhere, duck the boundary rope near Lincoln Peak and continue up the mile-long ridge—a section of Vermont's Long Trail—to great unpatrolled out-of-bounds terrain. There, the Saddle follows a gully through the trees, while a rocky outcropping known as the Church features a number of lines that require air time. Finally, hit Lincoln Peak's Paradise glade, often a powder cache, or hire a Sugarbush guide to lead you through Slide Brook, an out-of-bounds National Forest Service basin north of Castlerock with scores of tree lines.—P.O.
CARRABASSETT VALLEY, MAINE
Vacation brochures justifiably brag about the unique thrills of Sugarloaf's above-timberline skiing. But more significant was Sugarloaf's quiet decision to adopt a “boundary-to-boundary” policy in the mid-1990s. With that, everything within the resort—all the unfenced glades and thick forests between trails—became fair game. Now, when midwinter wind blows snow off the peak and makes the summit Snowfields an ice rink, you can ski the spruce glades below, where all that snow ends up. Snowboarders especially love these tight spaces; unlike skiers, they don't catch their tips on exposed saplings, and they can turn easily to slough speed as openings disappear. Down below, the brush thickens into an impenetrable forest.
So, a standout Sugarloaf run goes like this: Start on the Snowfields, pick a line through the trees for another 400 vertical feet, and then connect with Rip Saw, a rough-cut trail in the King Pine area, for a final 1,000 vertical feet to the bottom. It's off-piste and on-trail merged seamlessly in a single descent.—P.O.
Soggy coastal weather may suck, but there's a flip side: epic dumps up high
Live to Ski
BEFORE DUCKING a rope or heading out a gate, find out if the ski patrol manages the slopes. Then ski them as if they don't. Even if the slopes are controlled, your “Dude, I'm invincible” buddy can still trigger a seven-ton slide, pinball through the trees, and lemming over a 50-foot cliffâ€”great for the home video, but bad for the bod. Last winter, avalanches in America killed seven backcountry skiers and snowboarders and injured a handful more. Below, seven rules to follow when heading out-of-bounds.
1. Never ski alone. Who will answer your cry for help?
2. Bring the right equipmentâ€”avalanche beacon, shovel, avalanche probe, first-aid equipment, extra food, water, and bivouac gearâ€”and know how to use it.
3. Don't ski closed areas or trespass a c…
CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN, WASHINGTON
Before marketing flacks ever used “freeskiing” to describe a supposedly new style of carving backcountry terrain, powder hogs were doing just that at Crystal Mountain. The resort's combined 1,000-acre North and South Back have a well-earned reputation for untracked snowÂ—heavy powder, but steep and long enough, around 1,200 vertical feet, to keep the tips bobbing. Sheer runs like Brain Damage, a 45-degree pinnacle, punctuate half a dozen open bowls that funnel either to the main base area or to a shuttle stop on the resort road. So far, the 10- to 30-minute traverses from the tops of Green Valley and High Campbell lifts, intimidating warning signs, and common sense have kept these haunts off-limits to the masses. But this December, the Forest Service will rule on a $60-million resort revamp, which could change everything. The plan would double Crystal's lift inventory, stringing a tram to the summit and a new lift to the top of Snorting Elk, centerpiece of the double-diamond North Back. Bottom line: Ski Crystal soon. Â—R.C.J.
MOUNT, BAKER WASHINGTON
Baker didn't build a terrain park until last spring, for good reason: The whole North Cascades resort is oneÂ—full of contorted side hills, U-shaped gullies, uneven creekbeds, rocky faces, and treed slopes. Management would have bulldozed these hazards into smooth, groomable runs, but because Baker can get more snow than anywhere in the world (100 feet fell here in the '98Â'99 season), the mountain is naturally transformed into a gigantic, powder-cushioned obstacle course. Within resort boundaries, skiers can jump turn on the open, double-black expanse of Pan Face, dodge branches on the tree-studded Sticky Wicket, or struggle to maintain composure among the house-size boulders on the Gabl's cliffatorium beneath Chair 5. Add the out-of-bounds bonus, the wide-open glades of Shuksan Arm, and Baker offers the total package for anyone who likes to color outside the lines. Â—R.C.J.
Whistler Blackcomb Mountains
WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
You could spend a lifetime discovering all the ins, outs, and way-outs of 7,071-acre Whistler Blackcomb, a pair of sister resorts in the Canadian Rockies. (They share the same base area, so you can ski both for the price of one.) Off-piste tyros should immerse themselves slowly. First, ride Whistler's Garbanzo Express lift to Club 21, Side Order, Unsanctioned, and In Deep, four thin glades cut two years ago for intermediates. Then, take the Harmony Express to the top of Harmony Bowl, where you'll find a couple dozen in-bounds routes through the moderately steep treed bowl below. And then there's all the rest: at least a dozen other in-bounds stashes visible from the same vantage point, and a dozen more chutes on ridges that stretch to the horizon. Garnet and Ruby Bowls in the Blackcomb Glacier area and Whistler Bowl in Whistler are the standout off-piste double-diamonds. They're big, long toe-curlersÂ—some reached by narrow chutes. Since fog often cloaks the base while wet snow or rain falls up top, ask around about where the weather's best. Â—R.C.J.
Skiers come to Schweitzer, a nine-lift resort in the Purcell Mountains, for the groomed runs and leave raving about the powder. Last year, after installing the six-person Stella lift, Schweitzer management redrew the ski-area boundary to include 150 acres of formerly out-of-bounds glades. The Northwest Territory is perfect for intermediates. The trees are far enough apart to make you feel like a trunk-dodging pro, the pitch is moderate, and, like all other runs at this hideaway resort outside Sandpoint, these runs are usually uncrowded and covered in snow that is drier and lighter than that at resorts near the coast. Hit the steeper tree runs and open slopes off the main summit lift, Snow Ghost, and if you're not enshrouded in fog, views of 43-mile-long Lake Pend Oreille stretch out below. From there you can see tracks down Big Blue and Little Blue peaks, the best dividends from a three-year-old open-boundary policy. Follow a local through roughly 1,200 vertical feet of “snow ghosts,” head-high trees flocked with snow and ice, and then pick your way back to Stella. Â—R.C.J.