The Heli-Ski Blog

Skiing Out-of-Bounds: North America vs. Europe

Posted by Topher Donahue on Jun 24, 2010 2:52:00 PM

In some areas, a big part of the game is skiing out of bounds.  Heli, backcountry and cross-country skiing all occur outside of a ski area.  Millions of skier days each year are logged outside ski areas, but the relationship between ski resorts and the ski terrain outside the resorts varies dramatically.  To get a perspective on how different ski cultures and resorts around the world view skiing out-of-bounds, I asked Joe Vallone, a mountain guide with experience in the US and Europe, and Jorg Wilz, a CMH Revelstoke guide with experience in Canada and Europe.  Here are their surprising responses:

JW: The terrain/options are vast in Europe whereas in North America it's a lot more limited with the treelines going up to 10,000 feet and the natural forest being close to unskiable. Consequently, the out-of-bounds skier numbers in Europe are huge - it's tough to find untracked terrain that is easy to reach in many places just hours after the lift opens. The popularity/easy access lures EVERYONE with the consequences often dire.

  • Europeans have little tolerance for getting locked out of public lands.
  • Permanent closures are rare and "backcountry gates" virtually unknown.
  • Area boundaries are there to indicate the controlled area but for most part everyone is free to venture into the uncontrolled.
In short, like in so many ways, it's Europe that has become the land of the free.

Jackson Hole, Mt. Baker, Whistler and Blackcomb, and some other areas have a very liberal open boundary policy.  It is amazing to see what goes on there.  I guess what I am most impressed with in these areas is the ski patrol knows folks are gonna go out-of-bounds and ski, so they tend to educate rather than try to keep people within the fence. 

In areas where ski areas allow out-of-bounds skiing, the community is embracing the culture of the mountain and its dangers.  But at the same time the community is very proactive at educating, so the people tend to recognize the risks and respect the terrain more than in areas where out-of-bounds skiing is not allowed.  

TD: How much do you use ski resorts while skiing out-of-bounds in Europe?

JV: Almost every day.  The trams in Europe are amazing.  You can rise 2500 meters in a single lift and be instantly time warped into a glaciated canvas of complexities and difficult route finding.  I use lifts all over Europe to gain access to endless landscapes of untracked goods.  It is possible to ski huge runs with no marked runs, no trail maps, no ski patrol, no avalanche control and navigate glaciers with giant seracs, crevasses, couloirs and cliffs with an average pitch of 40 degrees.

TD: As a ski guide, are ski areas in the States part of your profession or are you pretty much required to avoid ski areas because of their out of bounds policies?

JV: It is so difficult to make an honest living as a ski guide in the States.  I have tried so many ways and so many times to work with resorts locally.  No one is interested, I put a bunch of time into launching a guide service out of a Colorado ski area, and I did huge presentations working with the head of patrol and the head ski instructor to get a program started.  In the end it was so much energy and so much red tape.  I gave up.

Do you feel backcountry access is a valuable element for ski areas to offer?

Out-of-bounds North American style: CMH Bobbie Burns photo by Topher Donahue.

Topics: Guides, resort skiing, ski touring