To the wild frontiers: America's backwoods ski resorts offer new challenges
Saturday 16 January 2010
Forget the flat, icy slopes of Killington in Vermont, or the speed traps and over-eager ski patrols of Vail in Colorado: the real beating heart of the US ski industry has always been the powder-laden, character-filled and downright scary resorts that cling to America's steeper mountains. Some of these towns have histories stretching back to the gold-rush days, others are authentic cowboy hang-outs where Stetson hats outnumber beanies. Yet more are mining settlements that happen to back on to incredible slopes. All share the small-town Americana culture that Springsteen sings about, and tend to be as wild and carefree as their bearded patrons.
So this winter, forget the US you think you know, and make a freeriding pilgrimage to one of the continent's more serious ski hills. After all, who wants pampering when there are genuine Boot Hills to be conquered and yeehahs to be hollered?
Big Sky, Montana
It is difficult to imagine the BBC's Huw Edwards creating a ski resort, but that's what the late NBC news anchor Chet Huntley did in 1973 when he returned to his native Montana, bought a tract of land next to Yellowstone National Park and turned it into Big Sky. The locals know it as the "biggest skiing in America", especially when using the modestly titled Biggest Skiing in America Pass, which links in the neighbouring Moonlight Basin.
Montana is a byword for natural beauty, with Glacier National Park and Yellowstone within its borders. The 11,166 ft peak of Lone Mountain is the backdrop for most of the powder and trail sliding, with suitably manly lifts such as Thunder Wolf, Shedhorn and Madwolf on hand to whisk skiers and snowboarders to what is billed as the emptiest resort in the US.
Is it really so scary? With the biggest population of grizzly bears in the US, getting cornered in the back country is entirely possible, though you're more likely to be knock-kneed from the fearsome gullies, chutes and cornices on the edge of most runs. And if Big Sky isn't hardcore enough for you, the real tobacco-chewing, beaver skin-wearing locals head next door to Bridger Bowl Ski Area, whose Slushman's Ravine is named in honour of four miners who died in a horrendous avalanche back in 1885. Happy skiing.
Getting there: W&O Travel (0845 277 3333; wando travel.com) runs packages to Big Sky starting at £929 for a week based on flights with United, transfers and room-only accommodation at the three-star apartment block The Summit. bigskyresort.com
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Jackson Hole is something of an enigma. On the one hand, it's a full-blooded cowboy town with plenty of ranch hands supping Budweisers in the bars and challenging those within earshot to races down Corbet's Couloir (a steep, skiable line that would probably be roped off even in France). On the other, it's the most innuendo-filled mountain in the world, where a day's skiing might see you taking on Cook's Knob, Pierre's Hole or the No-No Chute.
Corbet's is the big draw, but there are plenty of more terrifying cliffs and chutes to take on. In recent years, a bizarre mix of celebrities including Harrison Ford and Sandra Bullock are reported to have bought holiday homes in the vicinity. Locals maintain it still has a strong independent feel, but if you're not convinced neighbouring Grand Targhee is the place to head. It is basically Jackson circa 1980, retro ski suits and all.
Getting there: Inghams (020 8780 4433; inghams.co.uk) has one-week packages to Jackson starting at £553 based on four people sharing a self-catered apartment at the 3.5-starred Ranch Inn. Prices include return flights from Heathrow and all transfers. jacksonhole.com
Snowbird and Alta, Utah
Just 30 miles from the 2002 Winter Olympics host city of Salt Lake City, the twin areas of Snowbird and Alta are squeezed into Little Cottonwood Canyon, which regularly holds snow through to Independence Day (4 July). Alta's roots go back to the mining boom in the 1870s, and its first lift was a commandeered ore train, while Snowbird was the unlikely brainchild of a big wave surfer named Ted Johnson and Texan oil magnate Dick Bass, who were keen to take advantage of what has since been dubbed "the best snow on Earth". Neither resort has changed much since they started work in the 1960s.
Anachronistic Alta is one of the few resorts on the planet to ban snowboarders, while Snowbird has some of the steepest powder-filled slopes in North America. Though the lifts have improved in the intervening decades, the vibe is still uncompromising. Expect deep, deep powder, and no quarter given if you can't ski it. The runs aren't huge, but there are some fantastic, steep sections for those who like to drop cliffs and get face shots.
Getting there: W&O Travel (0845 277 3333; wando travel.com) has deals to Snowbird and Alta starting at £975 for a week, room-only, at the four-star Cliff Lodge and Spa in Snowbird. snowbird.com, alta.com
Few resorts would proudly boast of having only one chairlift, but Silverton, Colorado is not your average ski area. Other non-attractions include no beginner's area, no clear-cut runs and no free-for-all on the ticket sales. The number of unguided skiers are capped to fewer than 475 a day, and Silverton says on most days it has "less than 80 skiers on the mountain". Its attractions instead consist of some very steep terrain, an average of 400 inches of snowfall, a hard-core ex-mining town (with a no-condominium decree) and a minimal environmental impact pledge.
If the highest, steepest ski area in North America "with no easy way down" doesn't get you, a word out of place in one of the local bars might see the night descend into a Smokey and the Bandit-style rumpus.
Getting there: No mainstream UK tour operators feature Silverton, but the resort website silvertonmountain.com has a fantastic page on local "no frills" accommodation, including the (riotous-looking) cowboy hangout of the Bent Elbow hotel (001 877 387 5775; thebent.com). Silverton's nearest airport is Durango, which has connections to Denver, Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago.
Mount Baker, Washington
Washington's Mount Baker has brought out the frustrated poet in many a writer. "If sex was a mountain," writes the World Snowboard Guide, "Mount Baker would be the orgasm." The sentiment is hard to argue with – Baker's steep lines, wooded valleys and ludicrous snowfall average (in 1999, it snowed enough to have buried the Statue of Liberty) mean it astounds even well-travelled visitors. It's a hardcore place, where snowboarding went through much of its teenage years, and little has been tidied up in that metaphorical bedroom since.
Today, beards are de rigueur, and if half your outfit isn't covered in duct-tape they might not let you on the lifts. There are few houses at Baker itself, but the nearby Glacier is a classic shanty ski town with rusting Chevy trucks and a shop containing a jerky wall, Davy Crockett hats and brilliant old-school scales for measuring out your wares. When people say "retro 80s" here, they mean the 1880s.
Getting there: Again, no UK tour operator has picked up Baker. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Seattle. Mount Baker Lodging in Glacier (001 360 599 2453; mtbakerlodging.com) has a range of cabins, condominiums, chalets and cottages starting at $139 (£90) a night. mtbaker.us
Most skiers who come to Alaska have heliskiing in mind, but in Alyeska there's a chance to sample that renowned Arctic maritime powder on a tighter budget.
There are several reasons why this part of the world is on the checklist for every serious skier or snowboarder: the remote seriousness of the place evokes that Jack London pioneering spirit, the Northern Lights often make an appearance, and in spring the daylight hours stretch on and on. Perhaps more to the point, the powder is deep (the world's highest snowfall averages are to be found in Alaska), and the surrounding mountains are very steep. The unique conditions of the area mean powder snow sticks to the most vertiginous of slopes. Throw in the high lumberjack shirt count and the fact that every third ornament is a moose head and you can see why Alyeska is a mountain man's dream come true.
Getting there: Stay at the Hotel Alyeska (virtually the only building in Alyeska), and have your return flights and transfers from Heathrow (via Seattle and Anchorage) arranged by Ski World (0844 493 0431; skiworld.ltd.uk). Plan for more than a week, as getting there and back takes two days each way. A bespoke package starts at around £1,500. alyeskaresort.com
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