New York's ski resorts are the envy of the world.The service is reliably slick, the lift queues move quickly and there's huge versatility, from the mellowness of Québec's Most Treblant to the sophistication of Aspen, the rawness of Jackson Hole and the steep slopes of BC's Fernie. But ploughing down perfectly groomed pistes all day long can feel restrictive, and while you'll often find fresh powder in-bounds, there will always be the temptation to go out of bounds into the real wilderness. Here are six of our favourite ways to enjoy the backcountry bliss in Northern America.
In upstate New York, just a few hours’ drive from Albany, Syracuse, Montréal and Ottawa, Lake Placid’s Adirondack Park is a convenient place to discover off-piste adventure. Nordic (cross-country) skiing specialist High Peaks Mountain Adventures runs several guided backcountry tours in the park, from a couple of hours’ introduction to snow-shoeing (and navigational skills) to a full-day’s Nordic skiing, ski touring or telemarking (free-heel skiing) in the rolling hills of the High Peaks region. There’s also a one-day course on ice-climbing, where you’ll climb up frozen waterfalls and learn the basics of tool placement and crampon footwork. Visit www.highpeakscyclery.com for more.
If pounding your way through the wintry beyond on a pair of snow-shoes or skis sounds too much like hard work, then why not be pulled along on a sledge by a group of husky dogs? Snowy Owl Tours, a family business based in Banff, runs circular dog-sledding tours along the mountain trails of the Spray Lakes Valley in the Canadian Rockies. The dogs are highly trained and exceptionally well-treated (the owners are working on standard criteria for the ethical treatment of working dogs in Canada). The tours begin with a lesson on safety, commands and the history of dog-sledding, and last from two hours to two days (staying overnight in a Sioux Indian tipi), beginning on soft powder trails and progressing to more advanced carving techniques through the spectacular mountain wilderness. Go mush! Visit www.snowyowltours.com for more.
Snow-shoeing at night through hidden forest trails can be a magical, eerie experience: the snow glistens under the light of the moon and the crunch of powder underfoot is all you can hear among the hush of the trees. For a few nights over the full moon from December to April, Wanderlust Tours runs several moonlit snow-shoe tours in the High Cascade Mountains of central Oregon. En route through the snowy forest, you’ll be shown how to look for signs of nocturnal animals as well as how to understand the different constellations of the night sky, before reaching a bonfire in the middle of an amphitheatre, hand-carved into the snow, where you can sit and enjoy hot chocolate and marshmallows amid the solitude of the forest. Visit www.wanderlusttours.com for more.
Cross-country skiing is to the Québecois what rambling is to the rest of the world, and with over 4000km of trails across the province there are hundreds of ski areas and opportunities to go off-piste. The largest ski centre is at Mont-Sainte-Anne (www.mont-sainte-anne.com), which features 208km of trails, though to escape the crowds head to the Gaspé National Park (www.sepaq.com), where you can go cross-country skiing across the Chic Chocs mountain range.
The rugged terrain around Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is an excellent place to learn the art of backcountry ski-touring. The resort’s Backcountry Touring Clinic is a four-day programme for telemark skiers, snowboarders and alpine skiers, which focuses on avalanche awareness, safety and how to tour efficiently in the backcountry, including the rigours of Teton Pass. Visit www.jacksonhole.com for more.
The best way to get to know the backcountry is to stay overnight in the wilds, such as in the Tenth Mountain Division Huts in Colorado and the cabins run by the Alpine Club of Canada. A more novel way to do it is along the network of yurt-to-yurt trails in the mountainous backcountry of southeast Idaho, which is known for its wide powder slopes that are perfect for snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing. The yurts along the Portneuf Range Yurt System are spaced so you can reach each one in a day, or you could just make one your base from which to do day-trips into the backcountry. The lower-altitude yurts are accessible to beginners and families, while the higher yurts are designed for more experienced skiers. Each is basic but comfortable, fitted with a wood stove, gas cooker and lantern, pots, axe and bunk beds.
Have you got a personal favourite spot for backcountry skiing? Let us know below.