Tree romance

Far from getting in the way, forests are what make skiing in North America great.

What's so good about skiing in North America? If you asked around, British skiers would offer a variety of answers. Some would suggest the quiet slopes and the general lack of crowding. A fair point, but clearly not conclusive in itself: in January ski resorts everywhere are usually quiet, but UK tour operators have difficulty selling holidays then, even at bargain prices. Others would point to the plentiful "powder" snow in the Rockies. That's an argument, of course, but one which loses much of its force when you remember that the most popular ski resort in North America among the British is Whistler Blackcomb in Canada, whose proximity to the Pacific Ocean means that its snowfall is damp rather than powdery. The fact that everyone speaks English? Yes, but everyone speaks English in Meribel, too.

Not many people would say that it is the trees that make North American skiing great: after all, what skiers mostly enjoy is those parts of the mountain where the trees have been cleared to create wide-open snowfields. Perhaps mine is a lonely voice. But to me, what distinguishes skiing across the Atlantic from elsewhere in the northern hemisphere - and what makes it irresistible - is the forestry. In particular, the fact that trees commonly grow at altitudes of up to 11,000ft, right at the top of the ski areas where the best snow is usually to be found and at least 4,000ft higher than in most skiable parts of the Alps.

You might regard this as a viewpoint relevant only to highly skilled skiers. But what distinguishes good skiers is that they can safely go faster than the rest of us. By taking things slowly and carefully, average intermediates can get down all but the steepest of wooded slopes. And why should they do that? What's so great about skiing in the trees that you should forsake the great white moonscape of Val d'Isere and travel thousands of miles to North America? I have a variety of answers.

It was in Park City, Utah, that I learnt to love the trees. What distinguishes its ski area from many others created in former mining towns in North America is not so much its skiing, rather the brilliant idea of leaving around the slopes much of the industrial archaeology - winding towers, slag heaps, a spoil hopper - to rust away or otherwise return to nature: the effect is like skiing through history.

The east side of the area, where it adjoins Deer Valley, is a gem: quiet and out of the way, with a handful of snowbowls and a whole sweep of glades. After skiing the big McConkey Bowl two or three times, some new challenge was needed. So I went into the glades.

My tree-skiing technique is something of a cross between chess and a thrill sport. If you can't change direction quickly and in a small space, you have to stop frequently and think carefully. You don't rush. After all, if you are moving slowly you can hit a tree without damage to you, the tree or your self-esteem.

For most of the afternoon I skied the steep glades. And I realised that unless I left a trail of cotton thread, it was inconceivable that I could ever repeat a route through the trees. Despite my aversion to skiing the same run twice, I could happily have spent days in this small wooded area.


Steamboat in northern Colorado is probably the US resort most celebrated for its tree skiing. The ski area rises to 10,500ft in the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest; and the slopes are covered with elegant aspens (which thrive on the area's western aspect), virile Englemann spruce and subalpine fir, and Lodgepole pines in dense stands at the higher elevations. Just to ride a chairlift through the trees is wonderful; to ski among them, especially in the areas up above 9,000ft, is even better.

I dropped off Steamboat's Storm Peak into the Closet glades. I saw only one other skier on a vertical descent of 1,547ft. Yet this was a busy day at Steamboat, and the pistes were crowded. At times the voices of on-piste skiers penetrated the forest, and towards the bottom of Closet I could occasionally see flashes of bright skiwear through trees. But in the glades there was calm and quiet.

Down at a crowded lift base immediately after lunch, you can lose touch with the joys of skiing. But trees provide a screen; and once you get into the forest the unpleasantness melts away. There's no need to scale great heights. Most US ski areas are on Forest Service land, so the care and protection of trees is a key item on ski resorts' agendas; even in the base areas you can disappear.

Take Winter Park in the Arapaho National Forest, the closest resort to Denver. Near the bottom of the lifts is an area dedicated to children, the Snoasis centre. It is surrounded by a large, gently inclined slopes which extend even into the woods. There, hidden from view, is a gladed run called Moose Wallow which follows a winding path through the trees. It is a delight even for adult skiers, provided they don't mind a bit of poling.

Imagine if the ski area of Val d'Isere, Espace Killy, were - like the old London Bridge - sold to the Americans and shipped across the Atlantic. After only a few generations, the area, which rises from 6,000ft up to almost 11,000ft, would no longer be bald on top: in place of its pure, white scalp there would be a healthy green growth of trees. Instead of the existing ski playground, where the whole slope you are about to ski is visible even before you have tightened up your bootstraps, there could be vertical descents of almost 5,000ft of tree skiing, each descent a journey of surprises. The effect could be a bit like Wozzley's Way at Telluride, a "trail" (in North American terminology) which combines all types of intermediate terrain. A supreme example of the art of the trail- cutter, it hairpins off a 12,000ft wooded peak, runs down a steep pitch onto a short, sharp mogul field, and then circumnavigates a bowl before plunging down to the lift base.

Telluride, too, is in Colorado. But the pleasure of skiing among the trees is not confined to the western parts of North America. While at high, western altitudes the forests are a blessing, in the low-lying hills of the east they are a given: there, the blessing is weather usually cold enough to create and maintain snow cover. Despite climate change, resorts on the east coast can still survive - some even without artificial snowmaking - at altitudes where skiing is already impossible in Europe.

What keeps trees to the fore on the east coast is the fact that the trails are much narrower than elsewhere in the skiing world. This is partly an accident of history: many east-coast ski areas go back a long way, some to the Thirties when trails really were no more than trails. Elsewhere they have grown wider, partly because it makes grooming easier (and, recently, with bigger and faster ski lifts, because more space has to be provided for skiers on the slopes). But on the east coast, where there's a multitude of small ski areas, such improvements are difficult to fund. So many trails remain narrow, and trees fill much of the skier's view for the length of the winding descents.

Next time you are on a mountain where high winds are blowing away the snow, consider this: in North America, trees often provide a windbreak, even on the peak. And the next time you are feeling your way in bad visibility to the lower slopes, consider this: in North America, trees would be helping you to navigate. There's a lot to be said for trees.

More information: Park City (001 435 649 8111; Steamboat (001 970 879 6111; Winter Park (001 303 316 1564;

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Belong: Volunteer Mentor for Offenders

    This is a volunteer role with paid expenses : Belong: Seeking volunteers who c...

    Recruitment Genius: Admin Assistant

    £12000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An admin assistant is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Administrator

    £16500 - £17500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking to recruit an ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests