- Backcountry skiing is for anyone sick of civilization.
- The drainages on the north side of Big Cottonwood Canyon are generally gentle and tree-filled. The south side offers more steeps and chutes - similar to the terrain in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
- You can avoid purchasing expensive backcountry gear by signing up for a guided backcountry excursion and renting what you need from the outfitter.
When you're beyond a ski area boundary line, there's no ski patroller in sight and the only thing you hear is the sound of your cold exhales and swish of your skis in the snow, you're experiencing Utah's backcountry. Getting into the Wasatch backcountry is not for the average skier. Get there with a guide, with friends skilled in avalanche awareness or through your own backcountry training. If you long for an escape, an adventure and an experience you'll never forget, make it a point to head off-piste.
The locals call it earning your turns - hiking rather than riding a lift to get "the goods". Some do it for the exercise; some to find fresh powder days after a storm, some to save money on lift tickets and some because they thrive in the wilderness. But you don't have to be an expert skier to get into the backcountry. You just need stamina, the right weather, a good navigator and a love for the unknown.
Where To Go
At the Resorts
Alta, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude, Snowbasin, Powder Mountain and Eagle Point all have backcountry access gates. You'll need a lift ticket to find them but if you are more interested in fresh snow than vigorous exercise and saving dollars, this is one of the best ways to get out of bounds.
Safety in the Backcountry
The ski patrol control the gates and usually won't open them until they feel it's safe from serious avalanche danger. That doesn't mean you're safe. Anytime you travel across snowy fields of 30 degree angles or more, you're at risk. Never leave the boundary without an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe pole. It's also a good idea to let someone know where you're going. You'll also want to get a set of alpine touring (AT) bindings* or a Telemark set up. Boot packing up trails gets old after 20 minutes.
You can also start from any number of parking lots in Little and Big Cottonwood canyons, the Uinta mountains, American Fork and Millcreek canyons if you don't want to buy a lift ticket.
Guided Tours and Rentals
When in doubt, consider joining a guided backcountry tour. There are also several good guidebooks to Utah backcountry skiing for sale in shops throughout Salt Lake City and Park City.
Don't be afraid. Skiing out of bounds doesn't have to be extreme. You can hike 30 minutes to a rolling field of powder or switchback up to 10,000 feet peaks with steep couloirs, rocky cliffs and tight glades. Contact the outfitters and shops listed to learn more.
*AT bindings work similar to regular bindings but you can free the heel and walk with your skis on your feet. You use 'skins' on the bases to keep you from sliding backwards.