Skiing + Snowboarding

Backcountry Itineraries for Skiers That Prefer Man-Power to Motor

Three dream backcountry itineraries that will keep you smiling, lift or not—assuming you are equipped for, and capable of, an out-of-bounds challenge.

By Tom Winter Edited by Kirsten Dobroth Illustrations by Matthew Billington February 10, 2017 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2017 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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The risk is high for the Vail Valley's backcountry itineraries, but with the right amount of knowledge and experience, the reward can be other-worldly.

Looking to earn some untracked turns outside of resort boundaries in Vail and Beaver Creek? Try these three local sidecountry classics. For those who have basic backcountry skills, essential survival gear (and a bit of gumption), the powdery goods to be had on the other side of the rope typically prove to be other-worldly.

East Vail Chutes

Overview: The first thing that you need to understand is that people die in East Vail. This avalanche-prone, out-of-bounds sector on the north side of Vail Mountain is close enough to civilization that it’s easy to be lulled into complacency. But don’t be fooled. This is true backcountry terrain for expert, wilderness-savvy skiers and riders only and demands utmost respect. Like all of the other resort-accessed backcountry itineraries listed here, this terrain lies outside of ski resort boundaries, which means there is no avalanche mitigation, or ski patrol rescue, should you injure yourself, get lost, or otherwise need help. It is your decision to leave the resort area boundary, and once you do, you are on your own. 

Essential Gear: Alpine touring equipment or backcountry splitboard; a complete avalanche safety package (shovel, probe, beacon, and the knowledge to use these tools); headlamp; phone; first aid kit; waterproof matches; extra water, food, and warm layers.

Access from Vail Mountain: Hike uphill from the top of the Siberia Bowl Poma lift, past the explicit backcountry signage; be sure to check the local avalanche forecast before committing to this run.

Minturn Mile

Overview: Fun meadow-skipping terrain that quickly flattens as you funnel down the Game Creek drainage to the west, toward Minturn. While this terrain isn’t as steep as East Vail, the treeless slope you drop onto outside of the backcountry gate has been known to avalanche under the right conditions. Avoid this run on days when avalanche danger is extreme, and be careful to maintain your spacing between skiers in the gulley known as the Luge, where the trail narrows considerably and when packed/icy it can be tricky to control your descent speed. Note: the actual distance is more than three miles.

Recommended Gear: While few skiers and snowboarders on the Mile do so, you should always carry avalanche rescue gear (beacon, probe, and shovel) if you ski or ride anywhere in the backcountry of Colorado—and this is backcountry. At a minimum, carry a headlamp, phone, extra water and food, and warm layers. Leave the gate no later than 2 p.m. (if you exit after 2 p.m., a headlamp is an absolute must: you do not want to attempt the Luge in the dark!).

Access: From the top of Chair 7 in Game Creek Bowl on Vail Mountain, follow the signs to Sun Down Bowl/Ricky’s Ridge, then veer right and hike uphill to the backcountry gate atop Ptarmigan Ridge.

Stone Creek

Overview: A relatively straightforward run down the creek drainage north of and below Beaver Creek’s Stone Creek Chutes inbounds terrain. Savvy locals follow this meandering summertime hiking/MTB trail down to the Eagle-Vail golf course, where they can walk home or catch a local bus back to Beaver Creek, or an après-ski hot spot like Loaded Joe’s in Avon. Warning: Carry a headlamp, stay on the trail, and do not descend into the creek itself!

Recommended Gear: See “Minturn Mile” above.

Access: Via the backcountry gate at the bottom of the Rose Bowl lift.


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