4 Ways to Start Experiencing the Backcountry
So you've read our Top 5 Reasons to Consider the Backcountry post, but you’re still not sure whether alpine touring is for you. Luckily, there are a growing number of places where you can get a feel for what it’s like to be in the backcountry without a huge up-front investment. A few of our favorite spots for getting started include:
1) Resorts with Lift Accessible, Natural Terrain. Many resorts provide chairlift-accessed, in-bounds terrain that is left in a natural, ungroomed condition. Three of our favorite spots include:
“The Hobacks” at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. This area features over 2,000 feet of vertical drop across terrain reminiscent of the backcountry like open bowls, hidden powder stashes, steeps, rocks, cliffs and trees. While the dangers should not be taken lightly, these double-black runs can be reached via the Sublette Quad or the Aerial Tram, and ski patrol monitors the area and conducts avalanche mitigation. See our Jackson Hole Expert Itinerary here for a full day of fun on Jackson's steepest and deepest terrain, including an afternoon in The Hobacks.
Tucker Mountain at Copper Mountain only become lift accessible with the opening of the Three Bears Chairlift at the start of the 2019-2020 season. With more than 270 acres of bowls, chutes and open meadows all above 12,000 feet, there tends to be tons of fresh powder. This area was previously available by hiking or snowcat only, but the resort plans to preserve its natural state, which should be achievable with its north-facing slopes.
Brackett Basin/Burnt Mountain at Sugarloaf. This 650-acre expanse offers access to terrain that very closely resembles backcountry – though it is patrolled and maintained by Sugarloaf Mountain Ops. Skiers can access Brackett Basin via the King Pine or Skyline chairs. Those who want to head even deeper off the beaten path can follow the Golden Road trail from the entrance of Brackett Basin to the base of the Burnt Mountain trail. The hike to the top and the ensuing run down are unlike anything else on the East Coast.
2) Resorts with Hike-to, In-bounds Terrain: Plenty of resorts have had “hike-to” backcountry-like bowl terrain for years but have recently started offering cat access to harder to reach places. These cats, sometimes for a nominal fee, open up vast terrain and transition time spent hiking
to time spent in the powder. Two of our favorites in Colorado include:
Keystone Resort offers access more than 1,000 acres of lift-free skiing. Choose from multiple hiking zones scattered across five separate bowls (Independence, Erickson, Bergman, North, and South). Cat Service is available to Independence, Erickson, and Bergman Bowls from The Outpost building on North Peak ($20). There are also full-day snowcat tours from the peak at The Outback.
The Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands offers ~270 acres of terrain with 18 named fall lines. With pitches in the 35˚ - 48˚ range, these are some of the steepest descents in all of Colorado. The Summit at 12,392 feet is 782 vertical feet from lift-serviced Loge Peak and required a 45 - 60 minute hike. Conditions permitting, you can take a snowcat for the first third. Straps are essential.
These areas have well-marked gates, identifiable trails, and are monitored by ski patrol. Nevertheless, you’ll still encounter many of the same dangers you’d find in the backcountry including tree wells, variable snow, hidden rocks, and cliffs. You don’t need full avalanche equipment or training, but you should always still go with a buddy and wear a transceiver.
3) Natural Terrain Resorts. Resorts like Silverton Mountain (Colorado) and Mt. Bohemia (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, of all places) unapologetically offer nothing except ungroomed, backcountry-style terrain inside the resort boundaries. Although both resorts provide ski patrol and avalanche mitigation, they have minimal lift operations (Silverton has one chairlift and Mt. Bohemia has two) and you’re urged to have a professional guide.
4) Human-Powered Ski Areas. Getting ready to open for its first full season, Bluebird Backcountry, creates a unique backcountry experience at a 1,200 acre resort that skips the lifts entirely, while still providing ski equipment, safety training and touring guides. They even provide some infrastructure like warming huts, a food truck, port-a-potties, ski patrol and avalanche evaluation for parts of the resort. There’s an additional 3,000 acres of guide-mandatory terrain. Passes will be limited and will require reservations, but season passes are available for a reasonable, early bird rate of $299 with the option to include AIARE courses for an additional fee.
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