5 North American Life List Ski Tours
Unless you’re independently wealthy or work as a mountain guide, you’ve probably got limited vacation days each year to make the most of—which makes deciding where to spend a ski vacation a relatively serious decision. Since I’m one of those lucky mountain guides, my adult life has actually centered around that question—and I can help you figure out how to spend those hard-earned vacation days. Through a choosy process, I’ve narrowed down five of the best ski tours around. Here’s my list—and my selective criteria.
During college and for a number of years afterward, I bounced around the mountain West, sampling as many different mountain towns and skiing/climbing venues as I possibly could. I haven’t hit them all, but it became obvious what my selection criteria were. They have to rate highly in:
1. Copious amounts of snow. You can’t ski without snow, and the more snow you get the better…to a point. (Keep reading.)
2. An amazing mix of ski terrain for all conditions. Sometimes it storms for days if you chose to live somewhere by amounts of snow, so you need storm skiing. Then it clears, so you want summits. Then the snowpack is unstable, so you also need mellow terrain.
3. As few people as possible. Who wants to race for tracks?
4. High-quality product. Copious amounts of snow is trumped by high-quality fluff. I don’t really want to fight through cement all the time.
5. Easy access. Who wants to epic through alder for two hours before you even start seeing ski terrain? Plus, I lean toward zones you can drive to, preferring not to use sleds or lift tickets.
6. Any one of these selection criteria can trump the others if it’s so exceptionally good. For example, if you can drive 15 minutes from home and start skinning or ski powder right to your door/car, then that’s a winner.
But obviously we all have personal preferences, too. As we drop into this list, it will become quite obvious that I’m biased toward a certain region. Remember, my skiing roots are in upstate New York, and then I spent my formative years hacking around the hardwoods of Vermont before going west of the Mississippi. So I know character-building skiing when I see it.
All of these places are serious venues—as any backcountry skiing venue is! Be prepared with avalanche training and/or a certified guide. Read the avalanche bulletins, play it safe!
Duffey Lake Road
A short 45 minutes past the coastal BC town of Disneyworld (I mean Whistler), is the 2nd best road pass to ski in BC, the Duffey. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because Whistler, Revelstoke and Nelson get the skiing press in BC. Meanwhile, huge descents of 5,000 vertical feet in massive couloirs, glaciers and ice falls are an easy day trip from the car. Did I mention the deep coastal snow pack? Numerous small and simple huts hide in the woods in most drainages allowing for casual one- or two-night trips. This zone is massive and lets you sample what the coast range has to offer other than Whistler. Decent storm skiing exists too, but it’s not why you come here.
There is only one. And although the crowds have discovered this place—you can easily be over run by mobs of bright-colored Swedish skittle armies—it’s for good reason: 4,000- to 6,000-vertical-foot decents, glaciers, old growth, summits, ridges, endless views and copious amounts of the best snow on earth—sorry, Utah. The only reason you get a bad trip to Rogers Pass is usually if the highway closes for avalanche control, which means it’s dumping anyway, and you can stay in Revelstoke and hit the resort.
This is an example of access and terrain trumping the best snow quality. However, the right days combined with coastal stability can equal the most epic days of your life in the world-renowned Chugach range. The beauty of this zone is the mind-blowing massive steeps, chutes and vertical that you can access from the road on a dirtbag budget. Got some money burning a hole in your pocket? Grab a heli bump a little further back from the highway and spend your day leapfrogging summits and decents back to the car. The only truly negative is that massive storms usually mean closing down the bars in Valdez…for days. And the all-alpine terrain means poor visibility in all but the best light. However, if you’re keen and know where to go, you can use the tight rocky couloirs on the days with the worst light.
This is a conflicting entry for me. On one hand, it’s one of the easiest places to access with some of the greatest snow and terrain you can imagine. However, the phrase ‘loved to death’ comes to mind. If you’re not up at 4 a.m., you’ll never have first tracks. Storms clear and all the faces have been skied. There are still lots of zones to sneak around to with fewer people, but for the most part you’ll never be far from the maddening crowd. But the snow and terrain are the stuff of legends. When I lived there, my wife could leave home in the city at 5 a.m., ski 5,000 feet of fall-line deep powder and be in the office by 10:30 a.m. You can’t really beat that! Some of the deepest, most stable powder days of my life have been in the Wasatch.
I’ve skied here the least of all my selections, but would like to explore it more. Good amounts of high-quality snow match the easy access, especially if you buy a lift ticket. Plus adventurous options in the park can get you further from the crowds. The Tetons boast roadside classics, yurts on the backside. They’ve got a little bit of everything and are not to be missed.
Sierra Nevada, for east side spring skiing
North Cascades, for adventure ski mountaineering
San Juans, for great terrain and snow, once every five years !
Backcountry Lodges of BC, because they’ve got everything you could want in your own private powder paradise.
All photos courtesy of Evan Stevens except for Tetons photo, by Mark Fisher.