May 8, 2017
Pillow Lines, Rogers Pass, B.C. Photo: from the video Tiny House, Episode 4 by Outdoor Research.
By BCA ambassador Miles Clark
Resort skiing has its place, but nothing compares to untracked snow as far as the eye can see — no crowds, no punters, no lift lines and no manic insanity on a pow day. Backcountry skiing will always trump skiing in the resort. Not to mention that working for your turns is something especially sweet. Something earned just seems to be better than something given.
Here are our favorite places to shred the backcountry. Yes, some of them are pretty close, if not right off resorts, others are off the beaten path; all of them require some effort, some mountain knowledge and a little know-how to get to them.
If you do go backcountry, never forget to bring an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel, a solid touring plan, and a great backcountry partner.
Pemberton, B.C. photo: Jon Conway, instagram: @snowboard_guide
Just 25 minutes north of Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway is the little town of Pemberton, BC. Pemby, as the locals know it, is a real gem. The town sits under breathtaking (and home to some seriously gnar ski lines) Mt. Currie, in the heart of the southern part of the Coast Range of BC. But just a short drive away is some of the best backcountry terrain anywhere. From Miller Ridge to the Duffy Lake Road to the endless sled skiing opportunities off the Hurley Forest Service Road, there’s a reason some of the world’s best big mountain shredders call Pemberton their winter home.
La Grave, France
Is anywhere else in the world more subtly famous for big, exposed alpine ski lines and ultra gnarly backcountry skiing? Maybe Chamonix, but there you a have a ski hill. La Grave isn’t a ski resort. And while there is the famous téléphérique de l’Aiguille du midi, which will whisk you up into some of the most awe inspiring and intimidating alpine terrain in the world, there sure aren’t any groomers on offer. It’s all off-piste skiing here, and if you get the chance to go, do so, ’cause it will be the absolute highlight of your skiing life. But make sure you bring your harness, your BCA Shaxe and some alpine climbing gear, ’cause skins won’t cut it in La Grave.
The Tetons are world famous for their beauty and the opportunities they provide for backcountry skiing and riding. From the classic Grand Teton ascent and ski descent to the limitless skiing all around the Tetons, Jackson is a world-class spot for ski touring and ski mountaineering. The resort isn’t half bad, either. This year has been especially good, with what seems like never ending storms rolling in all season long. Jackson is one of those truly magical places that you’ll never want to leave.
Stretching right down the spine of California and parts of Nevada are ten lifetimes worth of ski touring. This year, the Sierras are having their biggest snow year ever, with lots of zones reporting over 600 inches of snow. The ski touring season here can stretch well into July, so it’s ideal for late season trips. It’s a big area, from north of Lake Tahoe down into Yosemite and beyond. There are massive peaks, huge ski traverses and limitless lines and areas to play in. Some can be accessed from resorts but most are from mountain roads and passes. So grab your kit, your van and some buddies and plan a spring ski touring road trip.
No slouch in the backcountry world, Whistler has some real classic backcountry skiing. From the Spearhead Traverse and its endless couloirs to the massive snowpacks on the west side of Highway 99, it’s definitely one of the most accessible ski touring options out there. It’s the coast, too, so the season stretches far into spring and tends to offer a bit of a more stable snowpack throughout the winter than some of the continental areas like the Rockies. The bonus here is Whistler itself, which is one of the more fun mountain towns in the world.
Chugach Range, AK. Photo: Miles Clark/snowbrains
Every skier in the world wants to go to Alaska. Yes, it’s one of the best places to ski from a helicopter, but even more than that, Alaska is one of those places that has everything. The finest snow in the world, some of the biggest peaks and true, big mountain terrain, all of it within easy reach from a parked van on the highway or a short heli or sled ride into the mountains. It’s the bar by which every other place in the world is measured and is truly a skier and rider’s paradise. The season is long, too, and being so far north, spring days run well into the evening so you’re rarely pressed for time. It’s big, though, so plan accordingly. There’s enough skiing in AK to last ten lifetimes, so basically anywhere will be awesome.
Rogers Pass, BC
Located on the Trans-Canada Highway between Golden and Revelstoke (both premiere backcountry destinations in their own right), Rogers Pass is the ski touring mecca of BC. There are no resorts here and everything begins from the highway. There’s big terrain, massive glaciers, endless alpine and tree skiing that will occupy you for an entire winter. The snow is magical here, and there is almost always good skiing to be found. The Pass is one of those places where you can finish the day with a 3500-foot descent right to your car. Awesome.
The South Island of New Zealand
Mt. Cook, NZ. photo: newzealand.com
A lot of people don’t realize New Zealand has mountains. Big mountains. The Southern Alps are larger than the European alps and stretch right down the spine of the South Island. From the Craigieburns to the Arrowsmiths to Mt. Cook to Fjordland, the mountains in New Zealand are breathtaking. Ski touring is a way of life here and even a lot of the “ski resorts” aren’t really even resorts. Lots of them have only rope tows, which are pretty much there as access tools to get you up into awesome ski terrain. The people are friendly and the snow can be all-time–but the real bonus is that their winter is our summer, so when you’re “jonesing” for pow in July, just book a flight and spend August and September there.
Yes, there are lots of other places. Dozens of them. The Central Coast of BC, the Rockies, the Interior, Switzerland and Austria, Chile, Argentina, the Cascades, and even the White Mountains of New Hampshire; but the above are our favorites. All of them offer something unique, lots of them keep you far away from the busy resort crowds and all are worth the visit. But whatever your fancy, get out there. Find a spot to park your truck and throw your skins on and go ski something. Spend some time in the mountains enjoying pretty much the most fun thing in the world: backcountry skiing.
Be safe, ski hard.