Catching air in the East Vail Chutes, backcountry terrain off Vail Mountain

Image: Scott Bellow

On Vail Mountain, the East Vail Chutes, steep cliff bands towering over I-70 and the homes of East Vail, is the go-to off-piste terrain for local daredevils (some of whom ski home from the mountain to East Vail) seeking more challenging terrain than the mountain proper has to offer, accessible after hiking uphill (and past a scull-and-crossbones-signed backcountry gate) above the backside’s easternmost surface lift in Mongolia Bowl, sometimes with deadly results—fatalities here include the grandson of Vail’s founder, who perished after triggering a slide in an avalanche chute dubbed NBA (Nothing But Air) in early 2014. More popular and less daunting “sidecountry” terrain is the Minturn Mile, a luge-like plunge out of bounds off Lost Boy to the Town of Minturn that corkscrews down the banks of Game Creek and has become a rite of passage for skiers seeking a taste of the backcountry. Not incidentally, it ends with a round of pints at the Minturn Saloon (although less prone to avalanche, dozens of skiers each season get lost, injured, or both and summon search and rescue for evacuation off the Mile).

Surfing powder in the Y Chutes Outside Beaver Creek

Image: Jack Affleck

Similarly at Beaver Creek, backcountry skiers head out of bounds from Larkspur Bowl to access the Y Chutes and Sanctuary Chute, hike-to terrain that, like East Vail, is neither patrolled nor avalanche mitigated (last March, a local former ski patroller died after triggering an avalanche in Sanctuary Chute). Like Vail Mountain, Beaver Creek also offers a tamer out-of-bounds exit from the resort (Paulie’s Plunge) that begins near the base of the Rose Bowl Express Lift. Like the Minturn Mile, the Plunge corkscrews down a drainage (Stone Creek) some locals use to ski home (to Eagle-Vail), and it also begets its share of search-and-rescue calls. Take our advice: If terrain beyond the resort’s boundaries beckons, but you aren’t properly equipped, experienced, or prepared to suffer the consequences and you still want a taste of the backcountry, hire a professional. Locally, Paragon Guides offers full-day and half-day human-powered tours, and Vail Powder Guides offers cat-served tours, of powder fields around Vail Pass, with all the avalanche safety gear, instruction, and experience required to get you out there while keeping you safe.

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