In his memoir, founder Pete Seibert recalls standing atop Ptarmigan Ridge with rancher Earl Eaton in 1957 and gazing out over Vail Mountain’s backside for the first time. “I thought I had never seen another mountain form that lent itself so well to skiing,” he said. That area became the Back Bowls: seven powder-filled alpine basins stretching west to east for six miles.
Today, in addition to topping every snow-sports aficionado’s bucket list, the vast Back Bowls also happen to be the ultimate environment for social distancing, especially if your Epic Pass reservation coincides with a powder day. But in order to get the most of this truly epic snowscape, you’ll need a plan. And this is it: from Sun Down to Siberia, the quintessential insider’s guide to skiing or riding all seven of the Back Bowls in a single day—possibly the best you’ll ever have on snow.
Your journey begins as it did back then, atop Ptarmigan Ridge, with a waist-deep leap into the Bowls.
Usually when skiers and snowboarders rave about epic days on amazing terrain with awe-inspiring views and incredible snow, the reports are hyperbolic—except when they’re talking about Vail’s Back Bowls, in which case such reports are probably spot-on. Encompassing 3,017 acres (more than many entire ski areas, including Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, and Snowbird), Vail’s Back Bowls command legendary status, and for many, these vast powder fields are what make Vail … well, Vail.
These seemingly limitless expanses have no equal among American resorts. They strike awe into the hearts of the most seasoned skiers, including pro skier Chris Anthony (a Vail resident and Warren Miller athlete). “I can only imagine how the Back Bowls must have looked when Earl Eaton took Pete Seibert there in the late ’50s—the sheer size and vastness of them,” Anthony says. “From certain angles, it appears to go on forever. And if you can get to them after a two-day storm … well, you’re in heaven.”
“The front side’s groomers are great, but the Back Bowls are a wonderland,” says former US Ski Team racer and Vail local Brenda Buglione. “It’s inspiring, and it keeps the adrenaline going because there’s just so much challenge and so much to do.” With a few exceptions, the Back Bowls are for strong skiers who enjoy ungroomed terrain. Compared to the spit-and-polished front side, this is the Wild West, full of untamed snow, potentially flat light, the occasional cliff, and wide-open spaces. Getting lost here feels like taking the wrong subway in downtown Manhattan: an adventure into the unknown but a little scary.
Although it’s difficult to get too far astray (all runs lead back to lifts), it is possible to get caught on a gruelingly long thigh-burner in crud snow, or on a long, flat runout with not enough speed, far away from your friends’ scheduled meet-up. So, while there’s no “right” way to ski the Back Bowls, knowing where you’re going—by having a game plan—promises a frustration-free introduction to these icons.
This “Tour of the Bowls” starts on the west side of Vail Mountain and hits all seven Back Bowls: Sun Down, Sun Up, Teacup, China, Siberia, Inner Mongolia, and Outer Mongolia. The route takes into consideration travel times, pit stops, lift rides, and different slope aspects’ effect on snow conditions. Also, it leaves plenty of room for last-minute decisions, because you will surely veer from the plan—maybe the run you just skied is begging to be skied again, or you spotted a swath of untracked powder from the lift. Whether or not you make it to all of the bowls, get ready for an experience like none you’ve ever had at any resort. Whatever the Back Bowls throw at you—deep snow, open spaces, gasp-inducing terrain, stunning views—they do it in a really, really big way.
Do Your Homework
Since reservations will be required at Vail Resorts this season, hitting the Back Bowls on a powder day will most likely mean you got lucky (or heeded the advice of our go-to weather guru, Joel Gratz). But regardless of the snow forecast, a little pre-ski-or-ride reconnaissance is still a good idea. “The Back Bowls have their own microclimate,” pro skier Chris Anthony explains. “The snow report is not necessarily correct. I like to check Vail Pass weather updates the night before to determine how to approach the next day. If it looks like it’s going to be huge, we head for Chair 5 right away; that’s where they
Mike Trueblood, ex-racer and Vail Resorts’ director of village operations, pays attention to pre-storm conditions. “Watch what happened the day before,” he recommends. “Was it snowing? Windy? Maybe they closed some stuff or pulled some ropes? It’s good to know.” No matter what, if you’re heading into the Back Bowls on a powder day, “Get up, get out, and get going,” Trueblood says. Plan to be on the lift by 8:30. Yes, even during a pandemic.