There is nothing like the exhilaration you feel after your first big run down untracked powder. Skiers try to chase that sensation the rest of their lives and are increasingly looking for it backcountry, where untracked runs are the reward of a steep hike uphill.
As a result, resorts and guide services across North America are offering more courses and trips that emphasize the education (especially avalanche awareness), techniques and tactics needed to safely navigate the backcountry. Most of these programs require that you be comfortable skiing black-diamond runs within a ski area and be in good physical shape to handle the demands of uphill travel. Here is a sampling of the best places to get a taste of off-piste adventure but keep the training wheels on.
BACKCOUNTRY SKIING CLINICS
▪ Bolton Valley, Vermont: Petra Cliffs Mountaineering School offers monthly weekend group clinics for new-to-the-backcountry skiers and snowboarders, as well as private trips on request, in the extensive terrain that borders Bolton Valley ski area.
“We’ll get you comfortable on your skis, show you how to put in a proper skin track and explore different ways to manage terrain,” said co-owner and head guide Steve Charest. Skiers should be at least intermediate level and comfortable skiing in treed areas. For those ready for more challenge, Petra Cliffs offers guided trips into the backcountry at Smuggler’s Notch, reached by lift from the ski resort, and the area around Jay Peak, among other destinations.
Cost: $165, includes guide; $185 per person for a private trip with two people; petracliffs.com.
▪ Backcountry Adventure Center, Sugar Bowl, California: When Sugar Bowl, northwest of Lake Tahoe, opened its Summit lift in 2009, skiers disembarking at the top of Judah Ridge got an enticing view into what John Monson, director of sales and marketing, calls “marquee backcountry terrain.”
Anticipating that guests would be tempted to access the untracked slopes through the resort’s open boundary policy, resort management decided to focus on education and contracted with Alpine Skills International, a respected local guide service, to run tours and teach avalanche certification classes.
Among the guided outings is the Four Peaks Tour, introduced last winter. Begin with a chairlift ride, then ski down and skin up the backsides of Sugar Bowl’s four summits strung along the Pacific Crest. The tour includes navigating terrain like chutes and bowls, as well as information related to backcountry travel, snow science and proper use of gear.
“You’re not just going out and having a guided run through powder,” Monson said. Alpine Skills International (alpineskills.com) also offers its own backcountry courses for skiers and splitboarders in the north Lake Tahoe area, including the Intro to Backcountry Skiing ($199 with gear) and two recently introduced tours, one up Silver Peak near Squaw Valley and the other to Razorback Ridge, accessible from Sugar Bowl.
Cost: $165, includes guide; sugarbowl.com.
▪ Expedition: Kirkwood, Kirkwood, California: Kirkwood ski area, south of Lake Tahoe, is known for its challenging slopes, abundant snowfall and miles of accessible backcountry terrain. It’s also rated Class A (most dangerous) for avalanche potential. This program was established to help adventurous skiers and boarders explore more safely through avalanche education courses, introductory backcountry skills classes and guided snowcat skiing.
New this season is the Discovery Series, Saturday sessions for skiers and snowboarders that are held within resort boundaries but focus on the techniques necessary for tackling the steeps, cornices, bowls and chutes outside the gates.
“We learned over the last few years that we have a lot of people who aspire to be in the backcountry, but they first need to acquire the skills to get through that type of terrain,” said Kevin Cooper, a spokesman for the resort. Also new, for skiers or riders already comfortable with off-piste conditions, are private half- or full-day guided tours to three backcountry bowls that spill off the ski area’s main ridgeline and offer pristine powder skiing. Tours begin with a lift ride and then require skinning uphill.
Cost: $195 per person for Discovery Series sessions, includes lunch; $435 to $635 for private guided tours, with a maximum of four guests per guide; kirkwood.com.
▪ Big Mountain Center, Kicking Horse, British Columbia: Much of the inbounds terrain at this resort in Golden, British Columbia, feels like the backcountry, with 85 chutes designated on the trail map and acres of ungroomed steeps and glades on the upper mountain. In other words, it’s a perfect training ground for developing the skiing or riding skills necessary for the backcountry, especially under the watchful eye of a guide from the resort’s Big Mountain Center, who will teach intermediates and above how to manage high-alpine terrain while sharing tucked-away powder stashes.
Afterward, consider booking a guided ski trip on Rogers Pass, 50 miles to the west. It’s long been a center of ski touring in British Columbia. Starting this winter, Kicking Horse also offers two-day basic avalanche safety courses taught by members of the Canadian Avalanche Association and scheduled on nine weekends throughout the ski season, a frequency that’s hard to find at other resorts.
Cost: About $509 for guided skiing for a group of up to six; $177 per person for avalanche courses; kickinghorseresort.com.
▪ Ski Fantasy Camp and Elevate Women’s Ski Camp, Jackson Hole, Wyoming: For backcountry skiing luxe, the new Ski Fantasy Camp, offered Jan. 6 to 12 through the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Jackson Hole, fits the bill. It includes two days of lift-served out-of-bounds skiing/snowboarding and two days of ski or splitboard touring in Grand Teton National Park, with small groups led by personnel from Exum Mountain Guides.
Top professional skiers like Sage Cattabriga-Alosa and Griffin Post, who star in films produced by Jackson-based Teton Gravity Research, will also accompany the groups. During the first two days, you’ll learn how to move efficiently on touring skis or a splitboard before tackling the more remote and expansive backcountry in the park. Because the camp stretches over multiple days (one is a rest day), participants should be very physically fit and be comfortable skiing expert terrain.
“After walking uphill with a pack on, you want the skiing to feel somewhat second nature, so you can really enjoy it,” said Zahan Billimoria, one of the guides who will work the camp.
The women’s camp, Jan. 19 to 23 and March 3 to 7, is for intermediate and advanced skiers and is offered through Teton Mountain Lodge.
Though the skiing is mostly at the resort, instruction includes techniques for tackling backcountry-style terrain and, conditions permitting, one morning or afternoon in the backcountry. The January camp also features the pro skiers Kim Havell, Jess McMillan and Crystal Wright, who ski with the groups.
Cost: Ski Fantasy Camp, $3,500; includes four days of guided skiing, demo gear, lunches, two dinners; fourseasons.com. Elevate Women’s Ski Camp, from $1,325; includes four days of ski instruction, lunches, welcome reception, closing dinner; tetonlodge.com .
▪ Ruby Mountains Heli-Experience Yurt, Lamoille, Nevada: This heli-ski outfitter has been operating since 1977, making it among the oldest in the United States. But it gets a slight makeover this March, with a glamping-style yurt to accommodate backcountry skiers and riders on guided overnight trips. Access is by helicopter, snowcat or a skin of four miles — and 3,000 feet of elevation gain — on a groomed cat track. But from there, skiers and splitboarders are primarily self-powered (they can get a morning lift on the helicopter or cat to jump-start their day).
The owner of Ruby Mountain, Joe Royer, calls the terrain served by the yurt “user friendly.” He says, “It has a little of everything, including great tree skiing that can be used during high avalanche hazard.”
Located at 9,700 feet on a ridge and bordered by white-bark pine trees on three sides, the 20-foot yurt is no slouch, either, with solar-powered lights, propane stoves for cooking and heating and even Wi-Fi access. It accommodates up to eight guests, who can also sleep in two adjacent platform tents.
Cost: $500 per person, per night, with a two-night minimum; includes transportation to and from the yurt and guided skiing; equipment rental is available; guests provide their own food; helicopterskiing.com.
▪ Intro to Backcountry Skiing Camp, and Leave the Boys Behind, Aspen, Colorado: This new two-day camp, Jan. 17 and 18, acquaints skiers with backcountry ski technique and gear, avalanche awareness and mountain weather patterns during guided outings along Richmond Ridge, off the backside of Aspen Mountain. Instruction will focus specifically on essential basics like kick turns, a necessary technique for traveling uphill, and using climbing skins.
“It’ll be very inclusive and not intimidating,” said the Aspen Expeditions owner, Dick Jackson. Leave the Boys Behind, guided by Aspen Alpine Guides, runs two hut trips, Feb. 9 to 11 and March 11 to 13, in the backcountry around Aspen and Vail. These catered outings introduce women to what they need to know to get safely to and from Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Huts, along with a healthy dose of camaraderie.
Cost: Intro to Backcountry Skiing Camp, $395; includes guided skiing and avalanche gear; aspenexpeditions.com. Leave the Boys Behind, $1,195; includes guides, avalanche gear, food and welcome party; leavetheboysbehind.com.