I like to push my limits on the ski hill, but not into the path of an avalanche. That's the main reason I would never have ventured to the top of Whistler's Flute Bowl before this winter. Yet here I am, standing on the high-alpine ridge next to Paul Skelton, a 44-year-old Aussie known as "Bones" who manages the B.C. mountain's on-hill operations.
In an effort to lure thrill-seekers to untracked powder and wild terrain, resorts across North America are promoting "in-bounds backcountry experiences" that, like Flute, embrace out-of-bounds areas not directly accessible via lifts.
By introducing avalanche-control measures, and with ski patrollers passing through every few hours, these runs allow visitors to sample the backcountry with much less chance of getting lost or caught in an avalanche. (The risk of the latter was underscored once again last week, when five skiers were killed in an avalanche while schussing out of bounds near Park City, Utah.) As more people venture into the backcountry, an in-bounds option provides peace of mind both for skiers and for the patrollers watching over them.
With North American ski resort visits approaching record levels over the past few seasons -- according to the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association and the Canadian Ski Council in Mississauga -- the industry is also looking for ways to keep growing. Terrain parks, glade runs and night skiing already inundate the in-bounds experience, so a bridge to the backcountry -- included in the price of a lift ticket -- is the next "extreme" step.
At Panorama Mountain Village near Invermere, B.C., for example, skiers and snowboarders can tackle around 400 hectares of backcountry-esque terrain in Taynton Bowl, an area that was once the domain of the local heli-ski operation. It was incorporated into the resort's boundaries a few years ago, but this season is more accessible owing to the new Summit Quad chairlift. After a relatively flat hike of anywhere from five to 30 minutes along Outback Ridge, skiers can veer off into chute, valley, gully and glade runs that cover 1,200 vertical metres, one of the largest drops in the Canadian Rockies.
At Sunshine Village in Banff, meanwhile, the aptly named Delirium Dive -- which opened last season -- offers an even more intense backcountry experience. A short hike takes skiers to a double-black-diamond, 60-degree plunge leading to a vast bowl of powder. Unlike most in-bounds backcountry offerings, skiers and boarders must ski with at least one other person, and carry a shovel and avalanche transceiver (and know how to use it). While the run is avalanche-controlled, those looking to tackle it should call ahead to find out whether it is open and safe to ski.
To a backcountry neophyte like myself, Whistler's Flute Bowl seems pretty close to the real thing. After popping off my skis and hiking up 800 gruelling metres of snowy trail, the summit is worlds apart from the crowded lift lines and luxurious lodges more than a kilometre below in Whistler Village. The wild expanses of Garibaldi Provincial Park stretch out below, while the serrated volcanic peak of Black Tusk pierces the clouds to the south.
"People come up here to get away from it all. For them, it's worth the trek," Bones says as he points his telemark skis down the deserted 150-vertical-metre slope. "We're hoping it'll give visitors a new experience, a real taste of the mountains."
Standing next to Bones at the crest of the bowl, I can see the allure. There's a wide range of gradients, from challengingly steep to a comfortable intermediate pitch. And despite a dearth of snow since Christmas, there's still plenty of powder stashed on the leeward slopes.
My Ontario body and ice-accustomed skis aren't ready for the luxury of powder, and I stumble through the first few turns. But as I gather momentum -- and my nerve -- I start gliding smoothly, and finally achieve the inimitable bouncing sensation of powder skiing. Upon reaching the foot of the bowl, my first impulse is to hike back up again. My second -- which strikes me moments after my quads seize up -- is to hit the hot tub.
As I ease off my boots back at Whistler Village, I can't help but imagine the real backcountry, where avalanches and crevasses lurk. After tasting it on Flute's relatively secure confines, I am craving the full deal. And I wonder: How does Flute compare with what it strives to emulate?
At 8 o'clock the next morning, my wife, Angela, and I march across the resort village to Whistler Alpine Guides, where, for around $225, we are assigned a backcountry guide (certified by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) and outfitted with the necessary gear: extra-wide planks with bindings that allow us to ski downhill or cross-country; synthetic "skins" that stick to our skis so we can trudge up and slide down; and avalanche safety gear, including transceiver, shovel and probe.
An hour later, we hop on the Glacier Express chairlift with our 32-year-old guide, Glen Kaleka. As we trundle up Blackcomb Mountain under clear skies, the laid-back native of Cochrane, Alta., informs us that "lift-accessed backcountry isn't considered the real thing by some really hard-core guys," and that "if we weren't taking this lift, it would take us all day just to reach the start of our first run down."
These "hard-core guys," or competitive backcountry skiers, trek up and ski down mountains all day long, as fast as they can. Greg Hill of Revelstoke, B.C., the reigning Randonée Rally Canadian champion, has hiked and skied a total of 9,000 vertical metres in 15 hours and 15 minutes. That's more than the height of Mount Everest -- from sea level.
By comparison, our group of six -- Kaleka, myself, Angela, two Japanese backcountry enthusiasts and their translator -- are slated to cover about 2,000 vertical metres on our nine-hour day trip. Which ends up nearly killing me.
After we ski across the face of Blackcomb Glacier, Kaleka delivers a comprehensive lesson in avalanche safety while we're still in-bounds. He shows us how to wear and operate our transceivers, and outlines the proper technique for finding buried companions: Locate them with the transceivers (by switching them to "receive"), probe deep into the snow with our folding poles until striking something solid, and then dig like mad. "Worst-case scenario, they've got about 10 minutes of air," Kaleka says, adding that people have been known to survive under the snow for as long as 28 hours.
We then learn how to attach our backcountry skins to our skis, and how to pop our heels out of our bindings for schussing uphill. My Japanese companions appear well versed in backcountry technique. The translator isn't saying much, and his two employers spend most of their time gaping at our alpine surroundings. Hopefully, I think to myself, the translator isn't taking the day off. What if they have to pull me out of the snow?
After about 30 minutes of lessons, we're ready for our first -- and toughest -- ascent of the day. Kaleka takes the lead, as he does for most of the day, instructing us to space ourselves out to avoid group avalanche burial.
Halfway up the East Col, after covering about 300 vertical metres, the appeal of heli-skiing becomes readily apparent (the cost, incidentally, is about four times that of guided backcountry). My legs ache, my lungs burn, and we've still got a long way to go. As Kaleka points out, "Every step up means a longer ride down," and I'm craving that ride. And a chairlift. At this point, there's no denying the clichéd mantra of backcountry skiing: No pain, no gain.
After about 30 minutes, we reach the top, and the view down to Decker Lake makes me forget my cardiovascular shortcomings. We throw off our backpacks and pull out bottled water, sandwiches and cameras. The ice-covered lake is detectable only as the flat bottom of the cirque below us, which is surrounded on all sides by snowy slopes.
Next comes the fun part: Donning our skis and locking our heels into place, we traverse across the backside of Spearhead Peak toward an enticing, powdery slope. Predictably, I surpass my stumbling on Flute Bowl with a spectacular face-plant moments after starting my descent. But a spill in knee-deep powder is more fun that it is painful. I locate my skis and poles -- and shake the snow from my undergarments -- and proceed to have my most memorable powder run in at least a decade.
Over the course of the afternoon, we circle the lake, skinning up and gliding down a slope underneath the Chamonix Chutes to the toe of Decker Glacier. As we "survival ski" (as Kaleka puts it) under the north face of Decker Mountain -- where jagged rocks and icy outcroppings clutter our path -- the differences between Flute Bowl and this out-of-bounds wilderness are brought into sharp focus: Flute is avalanche-controlled and patrolled every few hours. In our current location, however, outside help can only come through a walkie-talkie call to Blackcomb's distant ski patrol, or by placing a hopeful call to the local helicopter evacuation service on Kaleka's cellphone.
At about 4 p.m., we reach the top of Disease Ridge, only a few easy kilometres from Whistler's boundaries. "There's Flute Bowl," Kaleka calls out, pointing across the valley toward a shadowy patch of slope.
After a full day of backcountry skiing, Flute seems trivial, insignificant. But then I remember that it pushed me to where I am standing.
Pack your bags
With dozens of ski resorts jumping on the backcountry bandwagon, the lines between in-bounds, out-of-bounds, lift-accessed and hike-in terrain are being blurred. Some skiers would even say that the concept of "in-bounds backcountry" is contradictory. That being said, a defining aspect of backcountry skiing is the trudge to the top, and the following resorts all offer in-bounds terrain where this is a requirement:
Whistler Blackcomb Mountains: Whistler, B.C.; 1-866-218-9690; http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com. Flute Bowl, which takes about 90 minutes to complete -- including the 20-minute climb up, descent, and short hike back to a lift-serviced trail -- can be accessed via the Burnt Stew ski run.
Panorama Mountain Village: Panorama, B.C.; 1-800-663-2929; http://www.panoramaresort.com. The resort's ski school offers guided tours of Taynton Bowl, which encompasses double-black-diamond runs such as Heli High and Devil's Drop.
Sunshine Village: Banff, Alta.; 1-877-542-2633; http://www.skibanff.com. From the top of the Continental Divide chairlift, skiers can follow the signs to the Delirium Dive check-in gate, where they must meet safety requirements. To check the run's status, call 403-762-6511. Sunshine also offers a Delirium Dive guide service for more cautious daredevils.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort: Jackson Hole, Wyo.: 1-888-333-7766; http://www.jacksonhole.com. The new Crags area, located above the Casper chairlift, requires a 30-minute hike to reach. The payoff: about 80 hectares of previously out-of-bounds expert terrain.
Marmot Basin Ski Hill: Jasper, Alta.; http://www.skimarmot.com; 1-800-473-8135. Hiking 30 to 40 minutes above The Knob chairlift takes skiers to the challenging in-bounds Upper Basin, where powder and first tracks often prevail.
Lake Louise: Lake Louise, Alta.; 403-256-8473; http://www.skilouise.com. From the top of Mount Whitehorn (accessed via the Summit Platter), a 15-minute hike along the western ridge brings thrill-seekers to the double-black-diamond North Cornice and Wild Gully runs, which straddle the ski area boundary and spill into a series of bowls.
The Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau: 113-4350 Lorimer Rd., Whistler, B.C.; http://www.whistlerguides.com; 604-938-9242.Offers a range of backcountry adventure services, from guided day trips to multiday ski-mountaineering excursions.