Ski the backcountry

Ungroomed terrain offers a bigger fitness challenge.

At resorts nationwide, athletes often travel down pistes, or runs made of compacted snow. But backcountry skiing requires you to venture outside the resorts’ boundaries into ungroomed, natural conditions, says Darcy Conover, a local expert skier for Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado. The sport almost always calls for hiking up the mountain rather than taking a lift, but you can also get there via snowcat, snowmobile, or helicopter.

The backcountry is particularly alluring for athletes as navigating your way down a rougher mountain terrain demands more endurance and strength in the legs and core than skiing down groomed slopes does. On the latter, you can usually see everything in front of you, Conover says, but the backcountry is full of variable conditions (like bumps and powder) that show themselves unannounced. “You must be prepared for anything.”

Before considering the backcountry, master green and blue slopes and gain experience on powder or moguls, which require more fitness. Then, advanced-intermediate and expert skiers with good technique are ready to venture into the unknown.

Note: “When you go beyond that boundary, you ski at your own risk,” says Keith Reid, lead guide at Extremely Canadian Backcountry Adventures in Whistler, British Columbia. The lack of ski patrol, signage, and lifts comes with a higher likelihood of avalanche. Experts always suggest going with a professional guide or, at the minimum, taking an avalanche safety training course.

As they say, with great risk comes great reward. “The vastness and beauty of the backcountry alpine environment is the ultimate attraction,” Reid says. Experts favor these four spots.

Photo: D. Scott Clark/Tandem

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  • Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, British Columbia

    Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, British Columbia

    Take in the terrain of the Coast Mountains during a day of introductory backcountry skiing. Whistler Blackcomb is one of the few places in North America where you can go from town to high alpine environment in 20 minutes, says Reid. He suggests starting on the Whistler side, where the terrain is slightly friendlier to new backcountry skiers.

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  • Mammoth Mountain, California

    Mammoth Mountain, California

    Californians need only head to the Sierras for backcountry adventure. Even when stormy days close the lifts at Mammoth Mountain, you don’t have to stay indoors. Instead, book a half-day backcountry program that includes a primer on basics, avalanche gear, and an accessible climb to the mountain’s nearby backcountry area rich in untouched powder. Your guide will choose the best spot for the outing on the day-of.
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  • San Juan Mountains, Colorado

    San Juan Mountains, Colorado

    Start at Silverton Mountain, the highest and steepest peak in North America at 13,487 feet, says says Angela Hawse, co-owner of Chicks Climbing and Skiing in Ridgway, Colorado. You’ll have access to panoramic views of the high ridges of the San Juan Mountains and the chance to ski from hut to hut for a few days, pursuing deep powder with expert guides. Or, begin in nearby Ouray where you can take an introductory class with avalanche basics, then spend your day(s) practicing ski control techniques in new terrain.

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  • Snowmass Mountain, Colorado

    Snowmass Mountain, Colorado

    Conover suggests Long Shot on Snowmass. A short hike from the top of the Elk Camp chairlift is required to reach the beginning of the trail. Your reward: five miles of scenery on your way down. “The length of the trail makes you feel like you’re all alone in the middle of the woods, not on one of the largest ski resorts in the world,” she says.
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