Big Mountain Backcountry Skiing In Bounds?

Written by Greg and Heather Burke • Mar 14, 2016

Are you seeing more backcountry skiers climbing up and skiing and down in bounds at ski resorts, on groomed trails? It’s an ironic yet significant trend. Also side-country skiing, which I can best describe as resort-controlled ungroomed earthy ski terrain, is all the rage. It’s amazing how many skiers want to explore beyond traditional groomed manicured trails, but still want the comfort, confines, amenities and alpine services of a ski resort. Big mountain skiing, without the big hike or big risk, is booming.

Ski resorts are offering backcountry tours within their ski resort boundaries, allowing skiers to hike, traverse, even take a snow cat, to reach ungroomed natural but patrolled ski terrain. I’ll admit I have enjoyed the “extreme” of “off piste” skiing with the security of being in bounds, not far from a lift, a ski patrol shack, and a lodge for that matter. I like to ski edgy untouched au-naturelle terrain, but I don’t like having to camp or climb or risk catastrophe for it.

Copper Mountain in Colorado has cool snowcat Tucker Mountain access, delivering batches of 12 skiers halfway up Copper Bowl. From here you hike another 30 minutes along West Ridge on 12,337’ Tucker Mountain for big mountain skiing in bounds, but on untouched chutes and glades like double black Nacho, Taco and Valentine’s. Copper’s free snow cat ride operates Friday to Sunday 10-2pm, run by patrol, and a patrol is stationed at the summit. Tucker Mountain’s hike and the steep terrain is not for the average skier – it’s an adventure in high alpine – very cool though – thank you Copper. When I skied Tucker at Copper, I was the only gal in the cat, and the snow in Chute 4 was steep windblown crust down to chalky snowy glades, not unlike some of the heli ski runs I have experienced. You have to expect the unexpected – that’s the joy.

Aspen Highlands has Highland Bowl, a vast 1,040 acre in-bounds bowl at 12,392′. I recommend you catch the occasional (and free) snowcat to save your legs & lungs the 40-minute hike up 700’ vert. from Loge Peak lift. Highland’s legendary un-altered steep snowy chutes G 1-8, G Force, or Steep N Deep all end up back at the Deep Temerity lift base. Skiing The Bowl at Highlands is a rite of passage for powder lovers in Colorado.

Winter Park Colorado has a 399 acre in-bounds double black diamond bowl, Vasquez Cirque, they call The Cirque Territory, which you can reach from the top of the Panoramic Express followed by a long traverse and hike, or catch the Cirque Sled that queues up, $20 for season long rides. The Cirque’s double-black diamond un-groomed terrain is backcountry terrain but patrolled, and no longer off the grid – but great terrain.

Bridger Bowl in Montana has a whole ridge of edgy steep terrain, previously reached only via a hike, accessed by Schlasman’s lift. You must show proof of peeps, transceiver to get on the double chair, smart on Bridger’s part. The Ridge of chutes and bowls at Bridger are as crazy as the views of the Crazies.

In New England, Sugarbush Vermont provides access to Slide Brook – a 2,000 acre glade area, outside of the ski resort boundary, so you are encouraged to hire a guide – say John Egan, former extreme ski film star, for example. You ski Slide Brook at your own risk, and expense if you require search and rescue. Still these pretty, relatively pristine Vermont woods are well-skied, marked, and reachable from the Heaven’s Gate Lift, ending on the German Flats Road where you can grab a Mad Bus free shuttle back to Sugarbush’s Mt Ellen or Lincoln Peak.

Sugarloaf Maine has expanded their skiing to Burnt Mountain, 68 acres of snow fields and glades where they hope to offer cat skiing in the future. This 1,200’ vertical hill to skier left of Sugarloaf’s main mountain of terrain is monitored by Ski Patrol – see their info board for advisories and conditions, but its ski at your own risk.

So there is just a sampling of big mountain skiing within or on the border of ski resorts. Its high alpine adventure with a nearby safety net. I foresee more ski resort offering this low-maintenance high variety terrain, loaded with various warnings, protocols and policies. As skiers are natural born adventurers, and AT ski gear evolves to be even lighter and more adaptable, the boundary lines will continue to blur and skiers will benefit from more big mountain ski opportunities for the price of a lift ticket (with a ski patrol and/or an après ski bar not far away).