The Northern Rocky Mountains of Montana and Wyoming string millions of acres of snow-blanketed mountains between scattered lift-served resorts. Those with the skills skin up to pristine slopes uncut with tracks; others use resort lifts to climb high before ducking through boundary gates to get away from the hordes of inbounds skiers.
Snow sports schools at three resorts offer ways to tour the backcountry while gaining a few skills in safe travel through avalanche country. Being comfortable skiing or riding through trees, deep powder, crud, and avoiding obstacles are all the skills you need to start. You're ripe for heading into the backcountry if you can ski all conditions inbounds.
Guided tours led by certified instructors provide avalanche gear for each skier and rider. You'll wear a beacon under your coat and carry a probe and shovel in your pack. Learning to use them if an avalanche buries a skier is part of the tour.
You can tour the backcountry with traditional downhill gear, but you'll increase both enjoyment and the amount of terrain you can cover by using touring gear. Lightweight boots, fat skis, a pair of skins, and bindings that release the heel for hiking and lock it down for skiing convert any uphill hikes into easy walking. No slogging with lead feet while lugging heavy skis on your pack. Many backcountry riders prefer split snowboards and skins versus regular snowboards and snowshoes. Local mountaineering shops rent the gear; check with the resorts for options.
The Mountain School at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort builds its team of backcountry educators with a cadre of mountaineers known for a string of first descents and a long history of Teton skiing. The early lift carts the guide and a maximum of five skiers or riders to mid-mountain for avalanche beacon instruction. Throughout the day, guides add safety tips about traveling in groups, route selection, and snow science as the group racks up an average of 12,000 vertical feet cutting back inbounds to grab another lift uphill.
Full day sessions cost $625 for 1-3 people. Two extra skiers or riders can be added for $135 a piece to make a full group. Shorter sessions are available, too. Half-day morning tours, where you'll be able to hit that first untracked powder, cost $500. Cheaper afternoon tours cost only $370, but you'll most likely ski terrain cut with previous tracks. Gain more in depth knowledge through the school's three-day backcountry clinic Jan. 30 - Feb. 1 for $750, including lift tickets. Call (800) 457-0477 to make reservations.
At Moonlight Basin, the North Summit Snowfield may be inbounds, but its difficulty and potential for avalanches on the glacier catapult it into a backcountry-like experience. The resort requires skiers and riders to check in with the patrol and carry avalanche gear before dropping down its face. Moonlight's Snowsports School uses the snowfield off Lone Peak for their Lone Peak Challenge program.
The tour provides skiers with a guide, avalanche gear, and the know-how to ski or ride the North Summit Snowfield off Lone Peak. The guide leads a maximum of three skiers or riders on lifts to access Big Sky's Lone Peak Tram; then the group drops back onto Moonlight's terrain on the snowfield.
The Lone Peak Challenge is a full-day tour that requires a Lone Peak Pass. The tour costs $225 for those who already have a Lone Peak Pass; it costs $344 with the pass included. Call (877) 822-0432 for make reservations for learning how to ski this Montana glacier.
Skiing the ridge at Bridger Bowl will be easier this winter now that the resort has installed its new Schlasman's lift. However, the terrain - which aprons out over 300 acres of bowls, glades, and chutes - doesn't have avalanche control, so it's treated like the backcountry. Skiers and riders are required to wear beacons to access the lift, and the patrol recommends taking along a partner and a shovel for safety.
This winter, Bridger's Snow Sports Learning Center plans to add guided three-hour ridge tours to their arsenal of lessons. You'll be led into the terrain, after learning how to use your beacon, for $140. Two others can be added at $55 a piece to make a group maximum of three people. Call (406) 556-5662 for reservations.
Endless backcountry opens up more skiing. Grab a beacon and go.