The Man Behind the Course Designs for Winter Sport Events

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The Man Behind the Course Designs for Winter Sport Events

February 6, 2020

Snowboarding and Freestyle Skiing are packed with celebrities—high-flying athletes who perform other feats of derring-do during annual X-Games events, but they couldn’t do what they do without Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson. As founder and CEO of Reno-Lake Tahoe-based Snow Park Technologies (SPT), Gunnarson creates the courses for the sports’ biggest events. He builds jumps. He designs terrain parks. In short, he provides the canvases on which the world’s best athletes can paint.

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The San Diego native’s first job was on the ski patrol at Southern California’s Snow Summit in 1992, which morphed into a position as the director of snowboarding. Before he left to start SPT, he built the terrain park for Snow Summit and created the camera-friendly half-pipe and park for the first Winter X Games held at the resort in 1997.

Since then Gunnarson’s designed parks for dozens of resorts all over the world, including five different resorts in the Tahoe area. His 22-foot-high half-pipe at Northstar California is one of the largest pipes open to the general snowboarding public today, while the mile-long terrain park at Alpine Meadows has more than 40 jumps, rails, and features overall.

Among pro boarders, Gunnarson and his crew are a welcome sight at any event. Chas Guldemond, a Tahoe area-based rider who has been boarding on SPT parks for eight years, says he appreciates the company’s attention to detail—especially when it comes to safety.

“I’ve ridden a bunch of stuff that’s been suspect,” he says. “These guys make sure not to let riders on anything unless they completely trust it. It’s nice to know they have your back.”

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Looking forward, Gunnarson says SPT plans to work with resorts around the country to build new terrain parks with baby half-pipes and other features designed to help introduce novices to snowboarding in a comfortable and unintimidating environment.

“Everything in snowboarding doesn’t have to be about gnarly jumps and hang time,” says Gunnarson. “We believe there’s a way to get people into the sport gradually and get them excited for life.”

Where You Should Buy Custom Ski Gear Before Your Next Trip

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Where You Should Buy Custom Ski Gear Before Your Next Trip

January 30, 2020

Just a few miles down valley from Telluride in Pacerville sits a formerly abandoned service station that’s now home to Wagner Custom Skis. Inside is owner Pete Wagner, a boyish 38-year-old with a messy Beatles haircut. Describing the differences between stock and custom boards, Wagner says, “All the big companies make nice skis these days. Our advantage is focusing on fit. As most experts know, a custom-fit boot performs better. Same goes for custom-fit skis. The big companies can’t tailor products to each individual skier. We can.”

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Making a custom ski is a complicated process. Wagner has customers fill out and e-mail back an eight-page questionnaire. The detailed questions (What are your top three terrain preferences? What do you like or dislike about your current skis?) determine your “skier DNA.” Computers in an upstairs aerie digest your DNA and create a ski recipe just for you. Then they transmit it down to the factory floor. Whereas some custom builders merely switch between a selection of molds, Wagner forms “a complex 3-D jigsaw puzzle of your proposed ski, built from scratch.”

Wagner grew up in Dayton, Ohio, skiing a 300-foot-vertical molehill 10 minutes from his house. He left the Midwest to study mechanical engineering at the University of California, San Diego, which led to a job designing high-performance golf shafts for Carbite Golf and Penley Golf, mastering carbon-fiber models for PGA pros such as John Daly.

He spent his winters in Telluride though, seven of them, working on new golf club designs at night and skiing by day. Then one day it dawned on him that skis involve variables golf clubs don’t have to worry about: differences in terrain, environment, and skiing styles are much more complex. It was an engineering challenge ignited by his passion for the slopes. Accordingly, Wagner quit golf, tweaked his software to conceive gear for mountains instead of country clubs, and started making skis.

“We didn’t—and still don’t—need to reinvent the wheel, here” Wagner says, “just focus on fit and design improvements.” His company does this by building each ski by hand, with workers carefully assembling sandwiches built with premium hardwood cores: maple and ash. Structural layers blend fiber- glass and Kevlar.

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The result is a pair of skis that start at $1,750, a price that buys “the highest quality materials we can find,” Wagner says, “like extra thick base material and oversized edges. Those make the skis less prone to damage from rocks.” In a good snow year, Wagner sells only about a thousand pairs. “It’s labor intensive,” Wagner says. “Lots of craftsmanship goes into it. Lots of love, too.”

Because Wagner uses no molds, it’s impossible to recommend a Wagner “model” for heli-skiing. But the company makes as many powder skis as hard-snow skis, and will happily build a fat ski to match the terrain accessed by Helitrax choppers and produce a 100-percent Telluride skiing experience.

Why Heli-Skiing in Telluride Should Be Your Next Adventure​

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Why Heli-Skiing in Telluride Should Be Your Next Adventure

July 29, 2019

While dining on breakfast in your sprawling mountain lodge or spacious suite in Telluride’s mountain village, you hear the telltale whup-whup-whup of a copter’s rotor blades throbbing through the mountain air. Seconds later, the graceful Bell 407 alights right outside the mountain village, a short drive or walk from your breakfast table.

Telluride Helitrax, founded in 1982, was the only heli-ski operation in the state till 2008, and remains one of the only spots in the continental U.S. where a helicopter picks up guests right outside the town’s luxury resorts and homes. Savor it. This doesn’t happen in Vail or Aspen. When you climb into that Bell 407, prepare to kiss your sense of detachment good-bye. The second your Plexiglas bubble lifts off the deck, you’ll love heli-skiing. And you’ll love it even more once the turns begin.

Telluride Helitrax not only accesses fresh, untracked mountainsides; it reaches some of the highest ski terrain on the continent, 10,000 to 13,500 feet above sea level. Its permit area encompasses more than 200 square miles of high alpine basins, cirques, and summits surrounding Telluride to the north, south and east. Almost all the terrain is above tree line, allowing effortless, wide open turns down unobstructed slopes.

Because contemporary powder skis turn intermediates into experts and experts into skiing gods, you don’t need elite skills to enjoy Helitrax. You simply need to be, as the company puts it, “an advanced intermediate or above, with a sense of adventure and in reasonable physical condition.” While the slopes are ungroomed, they fall at moderate angles, resembling a double blue or single black run at Telluride Ski Resort. So relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy the San Juan Mountains, Colorado’s closest resemblance to the Swiss Alps, including views of iconic Wilson Peak, which might seem familiar: It’s the perfect pyramid one sees on the label of Coors beer.

The view from the copter is fantastic, but once you touch down on a remote ridgeline with thousands of untracked powder below you, the real fun begins. Leading the way is a high-altitude, all-star roster of guides. There’s Joe Shults, who’s spent 30 years in the Telluride area working as a professional ski patroller, snow safety director, and heli-ski guide. There’s Matt Steen, who recently worked as an avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. And let’s not forget Angela Hawse, one of only eight women in America to attain the prestigious certification from the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association. Rounding out the crew is Brian “Speed” Miller, who co-founded Helitrax back in ’82 and is renowned as the area’s consummate avalanche forecaster. As Hawse says, “Most heli-ski guides are the best in the industry because it’s such a sought after job.”

At the landing zone, you step out onto what feels like the top of the world, the guide grabs your skis and waves off the helicopter. Once it’s gone, the peak becomes startlingly quiet and pristine. You click into your bindings, then shoot down virgin fluff to the lower landing zone where the copter will meet your group. The guide will normally go first, asking you to stay either left or right of his track, yet the snow you ski will be fresh, unmarred by other human beings. You’ll make as many turns as you like, but feel free to fly straight down. The sensation of high speed without friction is mind-altering, bucket-list stuff. When you reach the bottom, you’ll be grinning madly and fired up to do it all over again. Helitrax normally provides skiers with six runs a day, which usually translates into 10,000 to 14,000 vertical feet of descent. In contrast to the massive helicopters of British Columbia operations, Helitrax’s Bell 407 limits the experience to a small, agile group of four close friends or family plus the guide. Translation: no waiting for strangers. You’ll spend the non-skiing time shooting photos, eating snacks and lunch (included), and raving about the turns and scenery.

Expert skiers can choose to take it up a notch. If enough talented people can form a suitable group, Helitrax will fly them to test pieces such as Upper Waterfall, a wide-open, undulating roller coaster of a run that funnels into five little couloirs known as the Waterfall Chutes. Or, better yet, Sheep Chute. Lacing its way between imposing walls of rock, Sheep Chute pinches down to a width of 30 feet before opening to a more manageable, less claustrophobic 70 feet. The entire chute falls steeply (40 degrees) for 1,500 exhilarating vertical feet. Ski that, and no one will doubt your abilities anywhere.

 Such options argue favorably for heli-skiing the Lower 48. Sure, British Columbia is where the sport was invented, and its mammoth operations are ever impressive. But their heli-ski lodges are incredibly isolated, with no charming Victorian town like Telluride to see or visit. They may serve incredible food, and offer downtime yoga, but you always know the nightlife highlight will be more cribbage games with the boys. Alaska can be even more trying. The finest Alaskan skiing happens out of Valdez, a dreary sea-level oil town. Because Valdez receives maritime weather (as opposed to Telluride’s continental systems), gray clouds can cancel flying for days, even weeks, at a time. As such, there’s a name for the misery that envelops a soul when dreams of the perfect ski trip wither away under day after day of low ceilings: Valdisease

 But at Telluride, there is no chance of Valdisease; your flight home ends right at the mountain village, where you can walk back to your room (or drive back to your house), freshen up, and then meet your family for dinner, maybe pointing out the window at the remote high alpine mountains that you skied today, carving lines no one else at the table—or the restaurant for that matter—could.

Mountain Adventures to Experience with Your Family This Winter

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Mountain Adventures to Experience with Your Family This Winter

July 26, 2019

If you’re looking for a departure from beaches and boardwalks this summer, consider an unconventional mountain escape that’ll have you oohing and ahhing over expansive vistas. Fill your lungs to the brim with fresh air, and feel your heart pound with exhilaration. However you prefer to balance exercise and adventure, your family will cherish these unforgettable experiences forever. 

Get Here: Trips depart from Aspen Paragliding’s downtown Aspen office mornings at 6:45, 8:30 and 10:30. Arrive 15 minutes early, and plan two hours for the experience.  
Be Prepared: Bring a wind jacket, sunglasses, walking or running shoes, and your camera.  
Suitable For: Children 3 and older, and adults who can run 20 steps. aspenparagliding.com $225 per person.

You’d think soaring through the crisp, mountain air mere feet from the peaks as the sun peers over 14,000-foot summits is an experience exclusive to red-tailed hawks, golden eagles and the occasional helicopter or small jet. But when you sign up for a ride with Aspen Paragliding, you too can take flight on the Rocky Mountain thermals. This is as close as you can come to truly flying as you step off a cliff, arms spread, to catch the updraft and ride the breeze. In Aspen, the experience begins when you pile into a four-wheel-drive truck for a winding drive up the Aspen Mountain service roads as marmots and deer and even the occasional bear or elk scamper out of the way.

Step out of the Jeep onto one of two well-manicured grassy runways—high-altitude greenbelts that in the winter are Walsh’s and Ruthie’s ski runs. Enjoy the sights while your pilot lays out the paraglider and helps you into your harness, which doubles as your seat while you’re in flight. The pilot attaches himself to the paraglider and to you with Kevlar straps called risers. When the wind is right, he says, “Go,” and you sprint 10 to 20 steps downhill. Seconds later, you feel the tug of the wing above you, you run faster, and then your legs are moving but they’re not touching the ground. You lift off and you’re floating above a maze of snowless ski slopes.

The wind is brisk but not overly so, and the smell of earth is quickly replaced by fresh air and ozone as the ground sinks below you. The pilot scoops you onto a wooden plank seat, and your hands are free to snap photos as you meander and serenely glide 3,000 feet down to Aspen Valley. Spot a hawk playing in a thermal, and your pilot will steer you to join the bird as it hovers in the sky. Panoramic views in all directions let you pinpoint Aspen’s famed Wheeler Opera House, the craggy Maroon Bells, the cleft of Independence Pass and Highlands Bowl, which still hides snow in its gullies.

Alex Palmaz, owner of the company and its lead pilot, learned to paraglide in Aspen 20 years ago from the school he now owns. Since then he has flown more than 4,000 tandem flights, and 6,000 flights in all. If you’re game, he’ll let you steer. Brake toggles control the wing overhead. Lean left, look left and pull the left toggle, and the wing sweeps left. It’s the same to the right. Lean; look; brake. Best of all, you needn’t worry about the landing as each passenger harness has a bottom-mounted airbag to make your return to Earth gentle. You may not spend more than 20 minutes in the air, but the memory will last a lifetime.

Get Here: Tyax will pick you up in Vancouver or Whistler and fly you via float plane to the start of the trip.
Time Commitment: Ride for one to seven days. For the true hutto-hut experience, we recommend spending two to three nights.
Equipment: Bring your own hydration pack to carry water, snacks and an extra layer, and a sleeping bag liner for the huts. Tyax provides breakfast, lunch and dinner, and transports your bags each day.
Suitable For: Intermediate and advanced riders, teenage and older.  $1,980 per person, two-night trip.

As the float plane skitters to a splashy stop on Lorna Lake, or perhaps one of the other puddles sprinkled throughout Canada’s South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park—150 miles, and a 90-minute flight, from Vancouver—your skin prickles with delight at the silence and serenity of having millions of acres of virtually untouched wilderness seemingly to yourself. There is no hum of other planes or cars; not so much as the braying of an odd farm animal. You’ve flown here because there are no roads or rail lines into the park. Lorna’s waters lap gently at the shore as you wait for your guide to retrieve your bike from the bowels of the five-seater Dehavilland Beaver. Helmeted and ready, you mount your trusty steed and ride off into the mountains. 

Wind your way over shale-littered passes with sweeping views of the jagged Coast Range, snow occasionally crunching beneath your bike tires. Then race downhill through sprawling meadows—a rainbow of endless azalea, Indian hellebore, arrowleaved groundsel, Indian paintbrush, Sitka valerian and lupine quivering as you whiz past. You’re in the capable hands of the Tyax Wilderness Resort & Spa’s expert mountain bike guides, and you’re pedaling toward the first of as many as six simple and comfortable huts—each with its own personality, but all with soft beds, hot showers and hot, hearty meals—that will be your home each night. Bike for three, four or seven days, three to eight hours a day. Awake each morning to snow-capped peaks reflected in a mountain lake, with a lone heron gliding silently by. If you’re truly adventurous, skip the shower and take a frosty dip in the glacier-fed lake. After breakfast, it’s another quad-burning climb to the top of a pass followed by the sweet reward of a sweeping descent through mineral stained soils, the crumbling remnants of old lava flows and breezy groves of iridescent aspen. 

You might see a string of packhorses delivering your bags to that night’s cabin or possibly a faraway grizzly digging for grubs or chomping on fireweed. The single-track isn’t technical—it was beaten in by gold-seeking prospectors and their stock animals, and First Nations hunters in pursuit of deer, bear and mountain goats. But the adventure is remote and hard-charging—the kind of experience that creates an iron bond between you, your fellow travelers and a special place few people get to experience.

Get Here: Drive 90 minutes from Park City to Ogden to meet your guides, who provide harness, helmet and lanyard.  
Be Prepared: Bring sunscreen, a small backpack, light snacks and lots of water; and wear light hikers, approach shoes or running shoes.
Suitable For: Children 8 and older. Pass on this adventure if you’re afraid of heights. mountogdenviaferrata.com $100 per person. 

Have you ever imagined yourself scaling a cliff Stallone-style, your fingers pinching barely-there ledges as you athletically slither your way to the summit? If it sounds exciting and ruggedly romantic, yet you lack the skills, (rock) face time or Sly’s catlike reflexes, don’t sweat it. You can book an afternoon at Mount Ogden Via Ferrata in Utah, a 90-minute drive from Park City, and experience the thrill with much less risk. Italian for “iron road,” via ferrata is a semi-assisted way to traverse rock walls using fixed iron cables and ladders that let you StairMaster your route up a cliff; no technical rock climbing skills, knots or ropes required. The technique originated in the Italian Dolomites during World War I as a way for troops unskilled in mountain climbing to move quickly and efficiently through Italy’s peaks as they fought the Austrians on ever-higher ground. In the U.S., via ferratas are purely recreational. The Mount Ogden routes are some of the best in North America, designed by American alpinist, climber and Ogden resident Jeff Lowe. If you’re fit enough to climb a long ladder, agile enough to clip a carabiner to an iron rung and comfortable with heights, you’ll scamper up mountainsides with ease whether you’re 5 or 65.

Ogden’s Waterfall Canyon, at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, can be steamy hot in the summer. It’s a short and dusty walk to the shady grove at the base of the demonstration wall, where your guide fits you with a climbing harness and helmet and issues you via ferrata’s signature hardware: a shock-absorbing Y-shaped lanyard that connects your harness to the route’s metal rungs. Your shoe rubber grips the rock as you carefully choose slabby foot holds and navigate from rung to rung. You work one side of your lanyard then the other up the iron ladder so that you are always attached at one point or the other. Once you have the basics, it’s a 15-minute hike through a boulder field to the waterfall for which the canyon is named. Cool off with a splash in the water; then it’s time for your first ascent. Your focus is sharp as you carefully pick your way around loose cobbles, reach your foot for the next rung and pull your hips toward the next secure clip. Three routes meander 350 feet up craggy Mount Ogden. The rock is hot and dry, but a light breeze cools you as you wrestle your way to the summit, where you’re greeted by bird’s-eye views of the Great Salt Lake basin and the jagged Wasatch Mountains. 

Why the Tetons in Wyoming Are a Must-Visit for Adventurous Travelers

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Why the Tetons in Wyoming Are a Must-Visit for Adventurous Travelers

June 21, 2019

Reaching the summit of Buck Mountain, the hard work should be done. Over two days, you’ve climbed 5,000 feet from the valley floor. Last night you camped—in a tent, in a snowfield—near one of the highest lakes in Grand Teton National Park, Timberline Lake. At sunset, you watched the Teton Range throw its profile—a shadow of it—down on Jackson Hole. This morning, you tackled the final 2,000-some feet to Buck’s summit, negotiating a knife-edge ridge that, to the north, fell away thousands of feet. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying. 

Now standing on your school bus-sized aerie with the dozen other members of your group, the South, Middle and Grand Tetons loom to the north. To the east, on the far side of the valley, mountain range after mountain range stretches into the distance. Winding through the valley floor, the Snake River lives up to its name.

Of course you want to take photos. Using a trick learned two days prior, on another, less-exposed but equally beautiful summit elsewhere in the range, you carefully take off your backpack and secure it to the slope using webbing and a carabiner. It’s important your backpack doesn’t go over an edge. You don’t want to lose the snacks in it. More importantly, you don’t want to lose your skis, which are tightly lashed to its exterior. You didn’t climb 11,938-foot Buck just to climb it. You’ve climbed Buck to ski its East Face.

One of a handful of skiers in Exum Mountain Guides’ annual four-day Live to Ski Camp, you’re already a seasoned backcountry skier, able to handle 6,000 feet a day of climbing, familiar with the use of an ice axe, crampons and basic knots, and confident skiing steep slopes with pitches of up to 45 degrees. You’ve applied—all applicants have to submit a skiing résumé, and Exum guide and camp co-founder Zahan Billimoria says less than half are accepted—to this camp because there’s even more out there you want to explore. But this exploration you want to do requires climbing and skiing skills beyond what you currently have; the Tetons provide an ideal setting for such a high level of education.

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“There’s a huge gap between being a proficient backcountry skier who hunts for powder all winter long and developing the skills to go ski steep, high-consequence terrain that might involve a rappel or some belaying,” says Billimoria. “That’s what this camp was designed for—to help backcountry skiers bridge that gap to becoming solid ski mountaineers.”

Ski mountaineering, as its name suggests, combines skiing with mountaineering. General backcountry skiing involves skiers skiing up (also known as skinning) a mountain before skiing down. Ski mountaineers do the same, but often rely on technical gear such as ropes, harnesses, crampons and ice axes to navigate the trickiest parts of a route. While ascending, ski mountaineers might transition from skinning to carrying skis on their backs so that they can climb up an ice waterfall. (For the final 2,000 feet up Buck, you have your skis on your back; not because you had to ice climb, but because it is too steep to skin.) Skiing down, ski mountaineers might rappel a section that is unskiable (such as a cliff band or ice waterfall). General backcountry skiing has little objective danger aside from the current avalanche hazard and obstacles such as trees. Ski mountaineering is often in high-consequence and steep terrain where a slip or fall, on the ascent or descent, may result in serious injury or death.

A ski mountaineer might ski on belay, with a rope attached to her climbing harness while a partner above works the other end to prevent significant sliding after a fall. Mail Cabin, a lovely valley on the west side of Teton Pass that has tree skiing and numerous open bowls (and where Exum does single-day guided trips) is backcountry skiing. The North Face of Spalding Peak, which you skied on day 1, Skywalk above Avalanche Canyon (day 2) and the East Face of Buck, your final exam for the camp, are all considered ski mountaineering.

“The reason we’re so stringent about participants’ experience and skill level is that we’re really committed to delivering an A+ experience for the people who are ready,” says Billimoria, who grew up in Switzerland and has been rock and ski guiding for Exum for six years. “There are lots of learning and skill-building opportunities for intermediates, but really none for high-level people who want to take it to the next level and eventually tackle alpine-style objectives like Denali, Shuksan or the Grand Teton.” The applicants who made the cut for the camp range in age from early 20s to early 60s. The majority are in their 40s. In my camp, I was one of two women.

While Buck involved a night of camping, the first two days focused on instruction and skill development like constructing anchors or skiing on belay. Each of these days we were back in Jackson in time for dinner. We could have learned about anchors to belay off or rappel from in a conference room, but that’s not how this camp goes. Instead, guides found a giant boulder in the middle of the Meadows, a flattish area at nearly 10,000 feet up Garnet Canyon and beneath the Middle Teton, and had everyone practice building anchors. 

First, though, we climbed 12,240-foot Spalding Peak and skied its 1,500-foot North Face, practicing skiing on belay at its very top, where the pitch approached 50 degrees. Skiing on belay, one end of a rope tied into your harness and the other end in the hands of Exum guide and co-owner Nat Patridge above, wasn’t as burdensome as you expected. Patridge asked that you count out loud to three. “Turn every time you get to ‘three,’ ” he said. (Turning at consistent intervals sets up the belayer to smoothly feed out the rope, rather than getting hung up and having the rope pull you backwards.)

The next day we learned more about skiing on belay—and got to belay some of our fellow campers—while skiing runs off the north face of Albright Peak. Each day, camp guides challenged us to think more and more for ourselves, a skill necessary in the mountains. “There’s no one correct way to do this stuff,” Billimoria, and the four other instructors, repeated over and over. “We want to show you several different ways and then you can make the choice that works for the specific situation.”

Stepping into your skis on the summit of Buck, you know the hard part is not over. Also, you’ve decided that skiing the top part of the face on belay works best for you. Considered one of the classic ski mountaineering routes in the Tetons, the top of the 1,200-foot East Face nears 45 degrees in pitch. About two-thirds of the way down, the face is bisected by a 200-foot- tall cliff band. To the left of the cliff band there is a break in the rocks you can ski through, but a fall high on the face, when you’re still above the cliffs, is disastrous. There’s little likelihood of being able to self-arrest before flying off the cliff. You’re fairly certain you’ve got the skills to ski the top without falling, but, since falling has such high consequences, why take the risk? “A rope isn’t a weakness, but a really valuable tool,” Billimoria says.

Making your first turns off Buck’s summit, you’re smiling. Actually, no. Smiling doesn’t do it justice. You’re beaming. A goofy grin owns your face. You’re still concentrating and focused and don’t want to fall—being on belay saves you from the cliffs below but not from the ribbing of fellow campers— but missing is the steely taste of fear you’ve had before at the top of intimidating lines. You’re going to enjoy this. Four turns in you let loose a yelp. The Haute Route was great and so is heading out of bounds from the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s tram, but carving turns through the corn snow—spring conditions, when avalanches are less likely, are the best for ski mountaineering—on a ginormous mountain face, that from the valley floor looks vertiginous, is something else entirely. You wonder if you’ll ever be truly happy skiing “usual” runs and routes again. You want to climb and ski every peak and line in the Tetons.

And that’s the stoke Exum is hoping this camp brings you. “Every big mountain skier wants to ski the Tetons. They are kind of without comparison. They’re certainly the greatest of all the accessible ranges in the U.S.,” Billimoria says. “Pair that level of terrain with the history of Exum Guides and also with skiers who have the desire and curiosity to learn how to safely explore serious mountains and you’ve got something unlike anything else offered anywhere.”

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Ski mountaineering has no single inventor or father, but, in the U.S., Bill Briggs, who first moved to Jackson Hole in the late 1950s, is pretty close. In the 1960s and early 1970s, he did first ski descents of the Middle Teton, South Teton, Mount Moran and Mount Owen. But it was his 1971 ski descent of the Grand Teton that really showed what was possible with the sport. In 2008, Briggs, who still lives in Jackson, was inducted into the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

Closer to the present, few people have done more to promote and celebrate ski mountaineering in the Tetons than Steve Romeo, who, before his death in March 2012 at age 42 in an avalanche in Grand Teton National Park, blogged about ski mountaineering adventures big and small in the range on TetonAT. com. (Although no new “trip reports” are being added to the site, Romeo’s family and friends maintain its archives.) “He helped put the Tetons on the map for our generation as the premier destination in North America to test your skills as a ski mountaineer,” says Billimoria, who was a former ski partner of Romeo’s. This camp took its name exactly from Romeo’s motto, “Live to Ski.” “We wanted to be part of Steve’s legacy,” Billimoria says.

Back on Buck, you’re past the section where a fall would take you over cliffs and about to enter the couloir that lets you ski through them. You feel like you’re doing nothing so much as living to ski. Pointing your skis into the 15-foot-wide swath of snow, you vaguely remember responsibilities and to-dos and meetings and annoyances, but those intrusions last a mere millisecond. You’ve still got nearly 3,000 feet of turns before you’re back in the real world … if you can ever fully be in it again after having had your eyes opened to what you’re capable of.

The Dream Skiing Destination with 8,000+ Acres to Explore

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The Dream Skiing Destination with 8,000+ Acres to Explore

February 26, 2019

North America’s biggest ski area has more than 8,000 acres of terrain that’ll take days to ski. The stats attributed to Whistler Blackcomb boggle of the mind. To wit: an average snowfall of more than 38 feet, a top-to-bottom vertical descent of a mile (on Blackcomb), 2,200 acres of expert terrain alone, 7-mile-long ski runs, year-round skiing on groomed glaciers, and a gondola between the two mountains that carries skiers and boarders 1,427 feet above the valley floor (by comparison, the Empire State Building tops out at 1,454 feet). For skiers and boarders in North America, Whistler is as close to a sure thing as can be found on the continent.

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Superlatives aside, what makes Whistler truly special is its village, a compact, pedestrian-friendly town that handles the influx of winter and summer visitors with charm, elegance, and a good deal of mountain-people authenticity that draws thrill-seekers from around the world.

One could argue that its international vibe, outdoors-minded population—helped, no doubt, by hosting 2010 Winter Olympic alpine events—makes Whistler the closest Canada and the U.S. have to Chamonix, the legendary capital of adventure sports located in the French Alps.

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Both amateur and experienced skiers can appreciate the grandness and variety Whistler has to offer. In addition to skiing and snowboarding, visitors can enjoy snowshoeing, tobogganing, and several other winter activities. Domestic and international travelers alike can seek adventure, relaxation or a combination of both in this versatile mountain town.

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But perhaps Whistler Blackcomb’s most appealing attribute is access: The ski area is little more than a two-hour drive north from the international airport in Vancouver, British Columbia. Rarely does going this big come so easily. With only a flight and a short drive slowing guests down, it’s a wonder this little-known destination hasn’t quickly climbed the ranks in popularity.

Vail and Beaver Creek Welcome Ski Racing’s Best

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Vail and Beaver Creek Welcome Ski Racing's Best Athletes

February 11, 2019

Keep an eye out for Bode Miller or Lindsey Vonn today. Or maybe slalom wunderkind Mikaela Shiffrin. And we don’t mean on television. Over the first two weeks of February, these Olympic gold medalists—two of whom, Lindsey and Mikaela, call the Vail Valley home—will be among the 700 athletes from 70 countries racing at Vail/Beaver Creek in the biennial FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. It’s the first time alpine skiing’s biggest race (outside of the Olympics) has been in North America since 1999.

Other U.S. resorts might try to compete with Vail and neighboring Beaver Creek in grooming, views or terrain, but neither Jackson Hole nor Telluride nor Tahoe can claim the only U.S. stop on skiing’s annual World Cup racing circuit—Beaver Creek can.

“At all levels, Vail is in many ways the center of the ski racing universe today,” says Aldo Radamus, a former U.S. Ski Team coach and 1990 USSA Domestic Coach of the Year and, for the last 13 years, the executive director of the Ski & Snowboard Club Vail (SSCV), which counts Shiffrin, Vonn and at least eight other Olympians among its alumni. “Ski racing seems to be ingrained in this community’s DNA, and we’ve got two resorts that have the terrain and willingness to make it happen on the highest level.”

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And that’s why you’re here, to watch the best alpine skiers in the world race on some of the world’s most challenging courses. The only other North American resort to ever host the Alpine World Championships is Aspen. And that was back in 1950. 2015 is Vail and Beaver Creek’s third world championships (they previously hosted in 1989 and 1999).

Why does the international circuit come back? To race among some of the country’s most rabid skiing families, families much like Sounia Chaney’s. “This is the chance of a lifetime,” she says about the upcoming World Championships. Chaney, who, with husband Michael and kids Skylar, 18, Cameron, 15, Roxy, 13, and Dylan, 9, all skiers or snowboarders, moved to Vail in 2010 from Reston, Virginia. Roxy, herself an alpine racer, says, “Here I get to see pros skiing a lot, sometimes next to me, and it always makes me feel inspired that I can achieve my goals. I can’t even imagine how inspiring it will be to have all of the world’s best racers here.”

“When our kids started outgrowing the mountain closest to our home, Vail was a no-brainer,” Chaney says. “We didn’t think twice about selling our house, our ski boat, our RV—everything. Vail offers the best training and the best coaches and challenging academics, and it has 300 days of sunshine. It’s not just our kids who ski. It’s a dream come true for all of us.”

Get back to your own racing dreams on Vonn’s namesake run, Lindsey’s. A groomed ribbon of ice on the front side of Vail Mountain, Vonn has described it as, “definitely the most challenging run on the mountain.” As you look down from the top of the run, its pitch elevating your pulse and slowing your breathing, you won’t be surprised to learn it was the site of the women’s speed events during the 1989 and 1999 World Championships, when it was still named International.

As a teen, Vonn skied the run that would one day bear her name, but, more often, like SSCV racers today do, she did laps on Vail’s Golden Peak. “That’s where we did so much of our training and raced for girls and boys Nor-Am,” says Paula Moltzan, who moved to Vail from Minnesota to train during her junior year of high school and now, at 20, is on the World Cup tech team.

Abby Ghent, an SSCV racer who was 6 the last time the valley hosted the World Championships and this season has a World Cup spot for Super G, suggests you try Centennial at Beaver Creek. “We’d have Nor-Am downhills there. It’s a classic course,” she says.

And then, of course, there’s Beaver Creek’s famed Birds of Prey course and its new women’s course, Raptor. (Before the World Championships, the former hosts its annual World Cup race, The Audi Birds of Prey Men’s World Cup, Dec. 6-8.) The pros own both during the World Championships, but, at other times in the season, the public can ski them. Fair warning, “Birds of Prey is terrifying,” says Moltzan. “I just can’t imagine flying off any of those jumps at the speeds the guys are going. But watching it is something else.”

Skiers to Watch

“The Norwegians have always done well here,” says Radamus, who coached for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s ski teams, and was named USSA Domestic Coach of the Year in 1990, before taking over as executive director at the SSCV. “I’ll be watching for Aksel Svindal, Kjetil Jansrud, and their new young technical threat Henrik Kristoffersen, who exploded onto the scene last year. Past world and Olympic downhill champion Lindsey Vonn, working toward a return to competition following two years of injury, is undoubtedly looking to add to her World Championship medal tally,” Radamus says. At the last FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, at Schladming, Austria, in February 2013, Vonn tore her ACL/MCL and fractured her tibial plateau in a horrific crash. By August, a month and a half ahead of schedule, she was back on the snow. But then in mid-November, she crashed during a downhill training run at Copper Mountain in Colorado and reinjured herself. “Lindsey has something to prove and she’ll be racing at home,” Radamus says.

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“Among the Americans, our six Olympic medalists are medal threats at Worlds. Any one of them could win,” Radamus says. “Julia Mancuso because she always steps up when it counts. Ted Ligety owns this hill (he has won four straight giant slalom events on Birds of Prey) and is working hard to become a threat in [slalom] again; the snow suits him here in Colorado. Bode Miller for his last hurrah. Mikaela Shiffrin to defend her title. Keep an eye on (two-time Olympic Super G medalist) Andrew Weibrecht too. He loves the hill and has done well here.”

Designated Speeding Zones

Unlike pretty much every other resort in North America, Vail and Beaver Creek have runs where going as fast as you dare is the whole point. Vail Resort’s social media/ski tracker app, EpicMix Racing, partnered with Vonn to design a course at Vail and a second at Beaver Creek. Vonn practiced on both until she had them dialed. Then the geeks at EpicMix timed her.

Now anyone with the EpicMix app open can race down either course—the Black Forest Race Area just east of the Avanti Express Lift at Vail or beneath Beaver Creek’s new high-speed combination lift that just opened at the beginning of this season—and measure themselves against Vonn’s time.

Good luck catching her; few skiers on the international stage can come close to her. EpicMix claims that the average racer is about 5-7 seconds slower than Vonn on either course and that it’s a rare skier who comes within three seconds of her.

Find Your Adventurous Side in the Colorado Mountains This Winter

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Find Your Adventurous Side in the Colorado Mountains This Winter

December 17, 2018

There comes a point when the speed seems natural. Cruising through the open valleys, banking turns and floating through powder, the snowmobile no longer feels like a separate entity but merely an extension. And that’s when things really get fun.

Vail, the largest ski mountain in the U.S., has the kind of invigorating terrain that draws people back year after year, generation after generation. (And the fleet of non-stop groomers helps.) But beyond the ski runs is a whole Rocky Mountain playground for those who want to venture out of bounds. Snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing all have cult followings.

Whether you call them snow gos, snow machines or snowmobiles, the ones available for rent can fit two people — the driver and the hanger-on. There are advantages to both roles, and it’s easy to swap back and forth. 

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Nova Guides is the largest touring outfit in the Vail Valley, and in this instance, bigger really is better. Headquartered at Camp Hale just a few miles down the road from the Continental Divide, they have a full-service restaurant in their lodge that dishes out hearty lunchtime fare, warm drinks and ambiance from a two-sided fireplace that is perpetually stoked. Though the point of snowmobiling is, in part, to get out there — really out there — it’s easy enough to hightail it back to the lodge if you need a warm-up drink or if you’re done with the adventure before the rest of your group is. Nova Guides has a secondary base camp on the outskirts of Minturn for shorter excursions, too.

There are a couple of ways to take to the snowfields: by-the-hour rentals for do-it-yourself touring, as well as guided tours with full and half-day options. Guided tours are a good way to get used to the machines, which have a kicky burst of power as soon as you rev them. They also eliminate the need for trail finding, as the guides know exactly where they’re going. And where is that, exactly? Why the top of the Rockies, of course.

“We’ve got 80 miles of trail to choose from,” says Drew Fortner of Nova Guides. “No two tours are alike.”

Guides take the pulse of the group as a whole — who’s gone where before, how fast people want to travel, what they want to see — and then create an itinerary. Camp Hale is a natural starting place, as it’s right out the front door and is a wide-open valley peppered with history. At Vail’s Covered Bridge stands a 10th Mountain Division ski trooper sculpture, replete with M1-Garand semi-automatic rifle, 7’6” skis and white ski suit. During World War II, American soldiers trained at Camp Hale so they could fight the Germans in Italy. They were known as the 10th Mountain Division, and they took the Germans by surprise at Riva Ridge. Though most of the infrastructure that was at Camp Hale is now gone, folks can still cruise by the ammunition bunkers, firing range and the foundations of the barracks. And for those who don’t have much of an interest in history, the endless views and jagged peaks provide some eye candy.

That same valley is an excellent spot for dialing in your snowmobiling technique. Though it’s fairly simple to turn the key, give it gas and make some turns, there is a bit of finesse that comes with experience, especially when you’re dealing with fresh powder. Just as you do on skis or a snowboard, snowmobiles float and swoosh in the powder. Given the size and power of the machines, it seems incongruous that they’d feel so light and airy, but that’s part of the draw. Tours dip up and down over the Rockies, peaking at 12,700 feet above sea level. The wind-scrubbed, open terrain is testament to how harsh the conditions are.

“There are often non-skiers in a group,” Fortner says. “And sometimes, this is the only chance they’ll get to see what it’s like above tree line.” Though the machine certainly does the lion’s share of the work, snowmobiling is more physical than one might expect. Because they respond to conditions, snowmobiles dip and lurch just like your muscles. It’s what makes it more interactive and fun. For those with itty-bitties in the group, or people who are sensitive to the cold, Nova also has snowcat tours, what they call “snow coaches.” Heated, the coaches allow for anyone to tour the highalpine Rockies, though they’re not as exhilarating as the snowmobiles.

Experienced backcountry travelers extol the virtues of the sheer distance the snowmobiles can travel in such a short period of time. From Camp Hale it’s easy to cruise over to Vail Pass or Shrine Pass on a snow go and check out the lay of the land. Mount Elbert and Mount Massive — two of Colorado’s tallest peaks — keep watch over the world. Mount of the Holy Cross, a talisman of sorts for Wild West settlers and adventurers, almost always holds snow in the cross, made by crevasses, on one side. Groups can end up in Red Cliff, a funky town at the end of the Shrine Pass road. Red Cliff doesn’t have any stoplights, but it does have dogs galore, a single liquor store and Mango’s, a multi-story restaurant that specializes in, of all things, fish tacos. And beer, or course. There’s also a rock in the middle of town, which played host to the entire settlement during the mid-1800s. Word of an Indian revolt to the east made its way to Colorado, and the town of Red Cliff ran to the rock, sleeping, eating and drawing water from the river below with a bucket on the end of some rope. The wild Indians never showed up, and eventually the settlers left the rock and went about their business. But the rock is still there, one of countless bits of history scattered throughout the White River National Forest.

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Before skiing became a downhill sport, it was transportation. Scooting across miles and miles of snow, both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are time-honored ways to get exercise and cover some ground. In Norway, there are miles and miles of trails between villages, with little huts along the way that offer spiced wine and lunch, sometimes reindeer. In the U.S., the two activities are more specialized. As such, they require specific trails.

Many golf courses in Eagle County allow both snowshoeing and cross-country skiing during the winter months. Some of them, such as Vail, even cater to them. But inside the county lines there is no better place to fall into the groove than McCoy Park at Beaver Creek.

“Most ski resorts have their Nordic courses down in the valley,” explains Nate Goldberg, Beaver Creek’s director of hiking. “But McCoy Park is at the top of Beaver Creek. With a five-and-a-half-minute chair ride you’re there, and it’s so quiet and beautiful. You’ve got three mountain ranges to look at.”

Other than during the occasional snowshoe race, McCoy Park doesn’t see a lot of action. Located at the top of Strawberry Park Express, you can’t see or hear the interstate that runs through the valley, and there’s not much in the way of human company. It is, for the most part, a solitary activity along the crystalline paths that spiral out from the course’s center. A yurt along the way allows for shelter from inclement weather — or simply a rest stop to reapply sunscreen, stretch the hamstrings and relax. The trees are more sporadic up at the top of the world, and the occasional porcupine can be seen propped in those trees every once in a while. Bark eaters, porcupines are oddly comfortable in the snow, and have called Beaver Creek home for longer than the resort has been around. Foxes, weasels and snowshoe hares can also be seen at McCoy, though they often like to stay out of sight.

For those who have both the time and inclination, a morning, afternoon or full day at the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is unforgettable. Located at the base of Ski Cooper — the only ski resort in Colorado that is publicly owned, this by the town of Leadville — Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is a secluded network of cross country and snowshoe trails cut into a daddy-pine forest. Loops meet up with other loops, making the breezy 25 kilometers of trails feel like full-on backcountry, albeit with an easy escape. Rated green, blue and black just like downhill runs, folks can choose their own adventure. And anyone who eats, ever, should include a stop at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse on the itinerary.

It was a picnic table that started it. Nothing special, just a wooden rectangle with benches where cross-country skiers would sit and nosh, taking in the wide-open views of the Sawatch Range across the way. But it got Ty and Roxanne Hall, owners of the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, thinking about “expanding” the picnic table. And they came up with a gourmand’s yurt.

The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse has long been a local favorite for birthdays, anniversaries, and run-of-the-mill hoopla among friends. It’s the epitome of living large in Colorado: gorgeous views, alpine activity, good food and excellent friends. There’s even the possibility of a little live acoustic music later at the Nordic center.

“Part of it is our location — the view is exceptional,” Roxanne says. “But it’s also the yurt. It wouldn’t be the same if it were a cabin. It’s so quaint, plus we feel really far away.”

The Cookhouse serves dinner seven nights a week and lunch on weekends. Lunch is a la carte and has two seatings. The four-course dinner only has one seating. Both have cult followings.

“It’s scratch cooking,” says John Fulton, head chef at the yurt.

Though the Halls have a snowmobile that can run people out to the yurt, people are encouraged to get there on their own steam. Snowshoes and cross-country skis are the most popular choices, though lucky children have been known to be dragged in their sleds by parents with moxie (and energy) to spare. The most direct route from the base lodge to the yurt — Cooper Loop — is about a mile. There’s a 300-foot elevation gain. As often as not, though, folks opt to cruise around on some of the other trails, such as Larry’s Loop, The Woods or Griz, before sitting down to a cookhouse feast. Remember that law about food eaten while camping always tastes better? It seems to apply under these circumstances, too.

The feta-stuffed buffalo burger is a lunch highlight that will tempt even those who prefer to skip the red meat. At dinner, wild sockeye salmon is grilled on a plank, giving it a lightly smoked flavor. Colorado rack of lamb is roasted to tender succulence, while the elk tenderloin is seared and served with blueberries and sage. Roasted chicken and curried tofu are also on the menu. 

All the food and water used at the yurt is schlepped in by snowmobile. That means the “facilities” are two outhouses, riding high above the snowpack. Sometimes it can be an adventure, dashing out into a snowstorm to use them. But coming back into the yurt afterwards is rather friendly. Heated by an old pot-bellied stove that came from Camp Hale, the cozy space is filled with antique tables and mismatched chairs. If meteors obliterate the world or global warming washes away the continent, that solid stove will remain intact. It keeps the yurt downright balmy even on the coldest of nights. Those in the know usually bring house slippers or booties to wear during mealtime, as heavy winter boots aren’t necessary — or particularly comfortable — inside. 

The trick is not to eat too much for the trek back to the car. Primarily downhill, it’s easy to make it to the base lodge as long as you stay awake and upright. Otherwise, all bets are off. And those who decide to nap in the forest will certainly awaken to a different type of adventure entirely. But hey, at least it’s an adventure. And that’s the stuff memories are made of.

Telluride, Colorado’s Best Kept Secret, Is Open for Discovery

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Telluride, Colorado's Best Kept Secret, Is Open for Discovery

December 11, 2018

Telluride wasn’t always the destination it is today. Long before cinema elites like Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone put the Telluride Film Festival on the map and before free- spirited entrepreneurs strung up Telluride’s first chairlifts in 1972, the area was known to American Indians and starting in the 1850s, intrepid miners seeking personal fortune.

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This was because Telluride rests deep in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, an isolated pocket of the state where many peaks top out between 13,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level. 

Until direct flights to nearby Montrose (only 45 minutes away) were established, Telluride was a five-hour to seven-hour drive from all major metropolitan areas. Only the most committed made the trip, one that winds over and around treacherous mountain passes.

Their effort was rewarded with a stunning welcome, though. The Ute Indians dubbed the area the “Valley of
the Hanging Waterfalls” for good reason—Bridal Veil Falls is among Telluride’s most visible and arresting natural features. And the falls have good company. Telluride is saturated with staggering beauty. Pyramid-like peaks encircle the town and create a geographical marvel of canyons, rivers and high lakes. Try not to be awed.

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As imposing as the geology is, access is as easy as a ride up a chairlift. Come spring, enjoy Telluride Ski Resort’s butter- smooth slopes, guaranteed to be bathed in bright sun (unless a freak storm dumps a foot of fresh snow, which has been known to happen), before savoring a glass of pinot noir and a salumi plate on the deck of Alpino Vino, a must-visit on-mountain bistro. Telluride truly was Colorado’s best kept secret…until now.