Feel that nip in the air? Snow is on the way, and frosty flakes mean only one thing: it’s time to ride. While most run for the parks and their well-groomed trails, the pros go to the backcountry. Skip the lift lines, forgo the corduroy and avoid the scrubs. Read below for the best backcountry terrain on Earth.
Photo Credit: ken.h / Flickr.com
Mount Fuji is not Japan’s only mountain. The island nation is dotted with more than 600 ski areas; the best are found in Hakkoda-san, a range of mountains in the north of Honshu. The mountains are bombarded by storms that whip down from Siberia, bringing more than 500 inches of snow each year.
According to National Geographic, in 1902, 199 soldiers froze to death marching through the area. Their spirits are immortalized in Hakkoda-san’s famous juhyo, or “snow monsters,” the frozen white fir trees that rise like jagged ghosts in the backcountry. You have to see these sculptures to believe they exist. Watch out. That can prove quite difficult in white-out conditions.
Photo Credit: natalielucier / Flickr.com
The Rockies don’t begin in Utah and end in Colorado. They shoot north into the pristine wilds of Canada offering advanced skiers and snowboarders the opportunity to shred deep powder side by side with grizzlies and wolves. While there are thousands of backcountry routes traced into the Canadian Rockies, the premier Canadian playground might be Kananaskis Country. Not only is it convenient (just 90 km west of Calgary) with parking lots placed near the base of the mountains, but the Kananaskis is expansive. Backcountry Skiing Canada details 10 distinct routes in the Kananaskis with terrain varying from howling glacial bowls to leisurely glades, and almost everything in between.
You can’t ski Mars (yet, according to our Future Extreme Sports feature), so dip into (or eradicate) that savings account and head down to the solar system’s second-most remote backcountry. Unlike the North Pole, the “White Continent” has mountains — many of them. And some of the most accessible reach into the sky from the Antarctic Peninsula, just a two-day cruise from the southern tip of Argentina. That cruise, undertaken by a small number of outfitters including Ice Axe Expeditions, can be an adventure in itself as it traverses the Drake Passage, notorious host to whales, icebergs and some of the roughest waters in the world. But the real thrill starts when you make landfall, strap on crampons, and plot your line to the top of a nearby peak. When you get there, you’ll see something few skiers and snowboarders ever get to see: an untouched arctic chute falling into a sea alive with leopard seals and penguins. And then you’ll ride it.
Photo Credit: Friar’s Balsam / Flickr.com
If you’re going to ride down, you might as well go up as high as you can. No mountain range on Earth offers elevations like those found in the Himalayas, which were formed millions of years ago when plate tectonics smashed India into Eurasia, a violent underground collision that continues to this day pushing the mountains ever higher and higher – each year Mount Everest adds 3 to 5 millimeters to its elevation. Mount Everest is just one destination where backcountry skiing is an option, and the tallest mountain on Earth is probably one of the planet’s most expensive skiing destinations. Cheaper, and perhaps more adventurous, are Himalayan destinations in Bhutan, Pakistan and India. The Kullu Valley in India is the preferred backcountry destination of pro skier Brennan Lagasse. In his article, The 7 Best Ski Destinations on Earth, he wrote, “people have been ticking off descents in the region for some time now, but there is enough big, rowdy, unskied lines in this zone to keep you busy for several lifetimes.”
No best-of backcountry list is complete without mentioning Alaska, home of infinite astonishing lines, impossibly perfect snowfall, and solitude that can make a lone man go mad. Most Alaskan backcountry adventures depart from Anchorage and touch down in the Chugach Mountains, a relatively short but inspiring range that stretches around the northern rim of the Gulf of Alaska. It is that gulf from which the mountains, which average 4,000 feet and top out at less than 13,000, draw their power. Legendary Chugash destinations such as Valdez and Cordova receive more than 300 inches of snow every year, with Valdez getting caked in more than 450 inches during winter 2011-2012. Take a helicopter and cut that cake with any of several outfitters that take off from Cordova and Valdez, such as Points North Heli-Adventures or Alaska Backcountry Adventures. Skiing Alaska isn’t cheap (Points North rates start at about $800 per day), but that’s the price we pay for freedom from the lift line on the very best terrain on earth. Of course, you could always get a sponsor to fork up the cash. It might be time to work on your reel.