Back Country Skiing
"Back country" is the catch-all term for all terrain that is "out of bounds" on a ski hill. It's a broad term and it covers everything from a snowboarder who cheekily pops under the ski boundary tape, to a group of folks who go off on a huge ski/hike expedition into the wild. Most commonly it means skiing in an unmarked area, often off the back of regular ski area.
Close to the Park City area, Utah backcountry is accessible via lift from four ski areas: Alta, Brighton, The Canyons and Snowbird. Itís worth remembering that although the start of your run may be at the top of a lift, you most likely wonít finish your run anywhere near one. Thatís why itís called back country. Be prepared to hike.
Riding this sort of terrain is appealing for a number of reasons, the most important being that once you get away from the ski hill you get the mountain to yourself. Aside from the fresh tracks, it's all solitude and peace and quiet; it's the mountain as mother nature made it. No groomers, snow machines, ski boundary signs....nothing but the rugged outdoors. There's even wildlife! If you're an advanced skier who has never done any back country skiing, the setup of the mountains around Park City is the perfect place to start. Plenty of accessible terrain, not too intimidating and not too crazily remote.
A word of caution though: back country skiing is a serious business. The danger of getting lost, caught in an avalanche or falling into a crevasse is very real. Itís not an activity to take lightly; you should never ride on your own, and you must always carry a probe and beacon in case of avalanche. Do not do this without somebody who knows the mountains very well indeed. Hiring a guide or going on an organized excursion is the right way to go here. Be smart.
Local Back Country Guides: Exum of Utah
It's exactly as it sounds: a helicopter flies you off to some remote peak which you then ski/ride down. The chopper picks you up at the bottom (making you feel like a member of the A-team in the process, and it lands right next to you on the snow so you can all jump in), then takes you to the top again.
Youíve never made fresh tracks like this! It's definitely one of the most unique and exhilarating ways to experience a mountain. Think of your favorite bit of amazing ski or snowboard footagewith a single solitary figure carving beautiful sweeping tracks through untouched snowand youíll be thinking along the right lines. On the right day it is absolutely breathtaking, and even on an average day itís better than anything youíll access via a chair lift.
Heli started in the mid-fifties in Canada, when an Austrian by the name of Hans Gmoser began using planes to reach remote skiable areas in the Canadian Rockies. Before long, people had graduated to helicopters, and an industry was born. Nowadays an estimated 20,000 people a year give it a go, so although it has grown a good deal in popularity, itís still definitely not a mass market activity. One of those reasons is the price; a day trip heli-skiing in Utah will set you back around $1,150 or so. That price is for six runs and generally includes lunch and specialist equipment like avalanche beacons. Youíll need to bring your own ski gear, though most outfits will rent you powder skis or a board if conditions merit it.
Trips leave from Canyons Resort, a few miles from Park City, or from Solitude over in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Youíll need to block out the whole day, with the early part of the morning devoted to safety training. Trips are also very dependent on conditions as choppers canít operate in high winds or snow storms, but you wouldnít want them to, in truth.
Back country and heli are two amazing, high adrenaline ways to put a new twist on any ski trip. Both have great upsides. Back country is cheaper, but a lot more work and you need to really know what youíre doing before taking the plunge, whereas heli is a lot more expensive but the ultimate once in a lifetime, fully guided tour. Now go shred!
Local Heli Operators: Powderbird operates from Solitude and Canyons and Diamond Peaks operates out of the Ogden Valley.
Visit Ski Utahfor more information on both!
[Photos: Kai MacMahon]