Dropping in at Big Sky. photo by Ryan TurnerBack in the 80s and 90s, North American ski areas were locked down like the Green Zone during Ramadan. Most backcountry gates that accessed public lands were permanently closed. And even the steep and wild terrain within resort boundaries was roped off. The better skiers (and skis) became, the less terrain they had to challenge themselves in. Forced to break rules to feed the beast, steep powder skiing was practically a criminal enterprise.
The history of how the ski industry devolved for a time to nanny totalitarianism involves the early mission of the National Ski Patrol (which with good intentions erred on the side of safety over self reliance for about 30 years) and a legal system that still today penalizes resorts for assuming that we're all responsible for our actions. If ski patrol relished the challenge of opening it, and local judges tended to rule in favor of resorts over stupid people who blame others for their ineptitude, the better stuff got opened. If not, the good stuff stayed closed.
There were exceptions. Big resorts like Squaw Valley and Whistler Blackcomb have always offered steep and challenging ungroomed terrain. But other major players went so far as to close glades for fear that skiers would hit trees. As a skier, it was difficult to get a handle on what was fair game and what wasn't, especially considering that a few resorts escaped the gentrification entirely. Montana's Bridger Bowl opened avalanche-prone, hike-to inbounds terrain in the 1970s and required skiers to carry avalanche beacons to ski it shortly thereafter. By 1995, nearby Big Sky had installed the Lone Peak Tram that serviced the high alpine, ski mountaineering lines Big and Little Couloir with similar restrictions.
Bombs away, well I guess I'm back in love again. A Bridger patroller lets one fly. photo by Simon PetersonElsewhere, forward thinking ski areas like Mt. Baker, Washington changed their rope policy to reflect the changing face of skiing. At Baker, some ropes mark permanent closures, some ropes mean enter at your own risk and pay for your rescue, and some ropes denote true backcountry. In Utah, Powder Mountain, which, because it sits on 11,000 acres of private land, opened "inbounds backcountry" terrain serviced by snowcats and shuttle buses without spending millions on lifts and jumping through government permit hoops.
And then 10 years ago this season, Silverton Mountain in Colorado broke ground on their "backcountry ski area." There are no cut trails, no groomers, and no roads. Despite dire predictions, Silverton escaped the storm of liability lawsuits naysayers expected to rain down on them. Three winters ago management opened up the terrain in the shoulder seasons to unguided skiers looking for wild backcountry conditions. All you get is a lonely double chair, the security of avalanche control, and the knowledge that no terrain worth skiing can ever be 100 percent avalanche-proofed. Silverton took the Bridger Ridge model and applied it to an entire ski area. And it worked.
The rules of the game have fundamentally changed. Resorts across the country are actively opening terrain. Some areas only require a hike in or out. Some offer free or cheap snowcat lifts. Some require the full avalanche safety kit. And why did it happen? Citizen groups leaned on the Forest Service to force resorts to reopen backcountry gates. The backcountry movement created a smarter skier base. And skiers started demanding more wild skiing. Even if you never leave the resort, skiing today is more adventurous, challenging, demanding, and fun. The backcountry has moved inbounds. Here's a guide.
The Resorts — quick links
Mt Baker, Washington
Big Sky and Moonlight Basin, Montana
Mt. Rose, California
Silverton Mountain, Colorado
Powder Mountain, Utah
Sunshine Village, Alberta
From the Winter 2009-10 issue