Resorts Continue the Sidecountry Trend — Will They Take It to the Limit?

Post by blogger | September 30, 2010      

Backcountry skiing is hip. Especially if you can ride a lift or snowcat to do it. At least that’s the approach resorts all over North America are taking as the promote their sidecountry options and develop new terrain defined by natural snow, no snowmaking, and often (but not always) challenging topography.

But why not serve up sidecountry with a dose of muscle power instead of machinery?

Case in point is Mount Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Definitely one of the original sidecountry promoting resorts what with their “extreme” terrain, CBMR has been embroiled for years in an embroglio involving expanding their lift served to an area called Snodgrass Mountain. Vehemently opposed by a group of local backcountry skiing activists, the proposed expansion was recently obviated by the Forest Service. Article here. Big blog post about Snodgrass is here.

But, the USFS is apparently not going to remove Snodgrass from the CBMR permit area.

This opens up some interesting possibilities. Suggestion: Do a small amount of glading and brush cutting each year on Snodgrass, build a self-service hut and warming house on top, and promote the heck out of the area as backcountry light that is accessed via human power. Ergo, sidecountry.

Another similar situation in Colorado may arise at Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs. Within Sunlight’s permit area is a popular low-angled timbered backcountry skiing area on a small bump known as Williams Peak, or Willie’s for short. It’s a terrific place to go get some exercise when avalanche conditions are too heinous in the Colorado depth hoar alpine.

Sunlight periodically mumbles about developing Willie’s as part of their resort, presumably by cutting runs and installing lifts. But what if they built a cool hut on top, gladed the overgrown and unhealthy forest that presently graces the area, but kept it all human powered?

My crystal ball is a bit cloudy on this one, but the trend is pretty obvious. Hiking for turns (uphilling) is addictive. As I’ve blogged about before, there are resorts in Europe where MORE people are hiking than riding the lifts. Yeah, slackcountry and resort uphilling are not backcountry skiing as we define it here at WildSnow HQ, but they’re still part of the whole muscle powered skiing ecology and more of that is always better.

We shall see.


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23 Responses to “Resorts Continue the Sidecountry Trend — Will They Take It to the Limit?”

  1. Dan September 30th, 2010 9:20 am

    Think that if Willies were getting developed what you’re suggesting would be as good as it’s likely to get.

    Both seem less concerning than T-ride Ski and Golf pressuring to open Bear Creek as guided terrain.

  2. Christian September 30th, 2010 11:03 am

    Sounds like a great idea and compromise. Whitegrass is a hit, and that’s on the East Coast.

    It would be fun to do a bunch of skinning laps and end it up at the top at a small hut and have some tartiflette and a glass of wine before the last run down to the truck.

    Very cheap to operate too, and you could just operate the hut as a concession. Typical in Europe, revolutionary in the States.

  3. Njord September 30th, 2010 11:48 am

    Sunlight would first start having to make money to get something going on Willie’s…

  4. Tom Gos September 30th, 2010 3:57 pm

    I think this is a great idea. I would love to see more lift accessed slackcountry skiing available in the US similar to the alps. But, I tend to suspect that liability is still too big an issue unless we get some sort of tort reform in this country, or suddenly our citizens begin to accept the concept of personal responsibility. Neither seems likely. I’m also afraid that the USFS would be hesitant to let a secondary operator build and operate any sort of hut near an established corporate ski area – the FS is in pretty tight with the ski corporations and seems to support monopolization of the ski business. Hopefully I’m just getting old and cynical and we may yet see these kind of changes.

  5. Larry September 30th, 2010 4:07 pm

    This appears to be a bad deal for small ski areas that have undeveloped ski terrain within their permit area. Permittees are required to provide for the administration and control of all the terrain of the ski area open to the public. In the case of Sunlight they would bear the cost of glading and construction of the warming hut mentioned above. First they would have to obtain approval from the Forest Service to undertake this work (at their own expense). Once the area is open to the public Sunlight would be required to provide for the safety of the users, including ski patrol and avy control (fif required). And, lastly, providing free skiing adjacent to their only source of revenue would certainly dilute an already struggling business.

  6. David September 30th, 2010 4:17 pm

    I think this would be a great step for forward thinking resorts who have terrain like this in their permit area.

  7. Lou September 30th, 2010 5:06 pm

    I wasn’t suggesting it would necessarily be free.

  8. Peter September 30th, 2010 6:57 pm

    This is something we are looking at developing more at our ski area so I’d be curious how people think it should be made to “pay its way” – as others have pointed out as soon as a ski area starts promoting sidecountry terrain there are additional costs & obligations involved (even if minimally managed and controlled). Should this just be seen as a way of attracting more paying customers who access the sidecountry as part of the overall experience, or should there be some charge for people just using the sidecountry terrain?

  9. Tom Gos September 30th, 2010 7:46 pm

    As for how users would pay for the use of this sort of terrain, I would offer two sugesstions. First, it should be included in the price of lift tickets as it is likely that many users would use the lift to access these areas, at least for the first run. Second, sell food in the warming hut, and set the prices accordingly. I’d gladly pay $6 or $8 for a beer at such a place. I’d rather not see an additional pass or admission for these type of areas, let’s keep it simple.

  10. cory September 30th, 2010 8:20 pm

    You are all breaking my heart. The idea of paying to skin up Willies is a tough pill to swallow. I am perfectly ok with the fact it is not controlled and I take the risk on myself.

    I’m trying to picture the new name of this blog. Tame snow seems a little to harsh. Maybe Domesticated Snow? Feral Snow? 🙄

    We don’t have to take all the wild out of every place.

  11. Mark September 30th, 2010 8:44 pm

    Backcountry skiers are a recreation group that has noticed the public land management gap we have in this country – between wilderness and motorized/developed recreation areas. Ideas like these fill the gap and promise to accommodate a lot of folks and deliver a lot of recreation value with modest natural resource impacts. We should encourage creativity in these areas.

  12. Lou October 1st, 2010 6:19 am

    Cory, I couldn’t agree more… the problem is, Willies is in a USFS Special Use Permit area for a ski resort and this will probably result in some consequences some day. Reality bites. So, I’m only suggesting that resorts go more the “feral” direction with parts of their permit areas that are undeveloped.


  13. cory October 1st, 2010 9:32 am

    Just out of curiousity, has there been any new talk of Sunlight expansion? If you look at the old plans, they’ve have a lift on Willies, but those plans are from the 70’s or 80’s. Last I heard of any development up there was when the guy wanted to build homes in the area. As it goes, there is always another mountain, and Baldy has some pretty good skiing. However, Willies is pretty sweet for before and after work laps.

    On a sidenote, 12 hrs. of Sunlight or 24 hrs. this year?

  14. WMC October 1st, 2010 9:33 am

    Good concept, Mark- “the public land management gap we have in this country – between wilderness and motorized/developed recreation areas.” That is very concise, I think that applies also to the conflict between snowmobile riding and non-motorized use on the non-Wilderness Forest.

    Some USFS managers seem to listen quizzically to our request for winter non-motorized areas. They ski at the Ski Areas and the groomed nordic Ski Areas and some have no concept of backcountry skiing. Again, that is a concise observation, thanks.

  15. Mike Bromberg October 1st, 2010 11:59 pm

    Lou, my sentiments exactly about snodgrass. A “backcountry center” of sorts could be a great asset to the community, as well as be a perfect venue for backcouontry-ish skimo races.

  16. Aaron Trowbridge October 2nd, 2010 10:05 am

    Lou, check out what a longtime Smithers BC resident pulled together with a local recreational group, federal funding and provincial recreation designation. An “enhanced” backcountry ski location with cut runs, warming hut, parking and no motorized anything! This map is from last year and is not up to date with this years work which includes a whole other mountain. The locations were chosen to allow poor weather and high avalanche hazard skiing below treeline while connecting to alpine in good weather.

  17. Aaron Trowbridge October 2nd, 2010 10:08 am

    Here are a few photos of that development. Again, much more happened this summer. I’ll try to remember to post some photos this winter.

  18. Lou October 3rd, 2010 7:09 pm

    Aaron, that is amazing! Good job! And nope, you can’t do this sort of thing in legal Wilderness here in the states, just saying…

  19. Mark October 4th, 2010 6:32 am

    But, you could in theory do it in USFS roadless areas if the completed the Wilderness study, etc. etc etc.

  20. Graeme October 5th, 2010 10:38 am

    That Smithers project is definitely exciting and I wonder if it could be the start of a trend in British Columbia, where it seems government is on side and the startup costs aren’t necessarily dealbreakers.

    I’d love to see something like this within 3 hours driving distance of Vancouver. Not sure if it’s at all feasible but it would be very interesting to see some sort of slightly more developed version with rudimentary avalanche control and even ski patrol?

  21. Aaron Trowbridge October 5th, 2010 7:36 pm

    Your posts cross link! The Smithers project is covered in the link you posted:

  22. Cam Walker October 11th, 2010 2:31 am

    have to say i worry about the encroachment of mechanised access into ‘side country’ in some resorts here in Australia.

    Theres a recent rave here:

    This refers to tours that started this winter out of Falls Creek, in Victoria. Possible similar developmenst starting in other resorts. Where land is national park it stops the mechanised access but most ski resorts have, for historical reasons, substantial areas of wild country in their resort area, meaning they can roll out snowmobile tours and snow cats with basically no enviro assessment or consideration of impacts on other users.

    And the fact is almost all these areas are within an hours ski of a road, anyone who can ski down the steeps can certainly access the runs. Its just about lazyness and the profit imperative.

  23. Noah Greenberg November 11th, 2011 5:11 pm

    Hey, thought you guys might enjoy this ski resort comparison, let me know if you’d be interested in embedding the comparison to your site for free content.


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