I once skied Vermont’s Jay Peak after a foot of fresh snow fell on its slopes. Jay’s terrain is arguably the best in the east, with mazes of trees to thread and steep chutes to drop hidden deep in its woods. But it’s a popular area, and after a hit of the fresh stuff, locals swarm to burn their tracks through the fluff, leaving fewer untracked lines available for latecomers like me. And so we eased carefully out of the area boundaries, into an expanse called “The Dip,” in search of our own nascent stripes.
The Dip rests in Jay’s sidecountry, a colloquial term conjured up by the ski industry to designate backcountry terrain that can be accessed through gates in the ski area boundary after riding the lifts up the hill. This area held many acres of untracked powder, expansive stands of conifers, and serpentine creek beds. Skiing such terrain mandates a modicum of respect, as it is essentially backcountry skiing with no ski patrol, no late-day sweep for safety, and no way to call for help. And you have to find your way out.
I was skiing with locals, so navigating the exit back to the road, where we’d hike a short distance to the lifts, was as simple as following my experienced friends. Finding your way home is key in exploring sidecountry terrain. The fall lines don’t always lead to home base and can lure you into terrain traps. But that day on Jay, the experience was smooth going.
The notion of skiing sidecountry terrain is a controversial one. Many experts in the ski industry refuse to recognize the term “sidecountry,” as they believe it suggests a safer backcountry area, perhaps one that shouldn’t be taken as lightly as backcountry areas where one must hike to the summit prior to descent, or use synthetic climbing “skins” affixed to their skis to allow uphill touring prior to the downturn. Their perspective is a legitimate one.
In the sidecountry, one must prepare for a near-backcountry experience. Orienteering skills and basic first aid must be second nature, the only exceptions being those skiing with a well-trained guide who knows the area well. Such guides are somewhat hard to come by in the east, but if you find one, you’ll be in for quite an experience. The terrain and snow conditions are typically impressive, natural, and hold out against the traffic for many days or weeks after a storm.
Few people know ski mountaineering better than John Egan. A founding member of The North Face Extreme Team and a flashy poster boy for many Warren Miller ski movies, Egan now resides at Sugarbush in Vermont, where he’s a personal guide for the area’s VIPs and most hard-core skiers.
“There was an era 20 or 30 years ago when leaving the ski area [boundary] would get you in trouble,” said Egan. “It wasn’t like the 1970s when you could go anywhere.”
Egan’s point resonates with skiers like me, who used to have to drool over entire hillsides of tempting terrain due to a near-industry-wide policy that banned ducking ropes at area boundaries. Today, the tide has turned and most areas offer a designated series of gates through which skiers can exit the boundaries of most ski areas for sidecountry treats, taking note of warnings that the area they are entering is not patrolled, and in the event of an accident, they are on their own.
So why promote the sidecountry experience, if it’s so risky? The reality is that backcountry skiing is growing, seeing a surge in enrollees in guided programs and trips. The sidecountry experience offers this same terrain, but with the convenience of using a modern lift to get there. Put simply, it’s a lazy man’s backcountry tour.
Areas like Jay don’t actively promote exploration of the expansive sidecountry terrain. Sugarbush offers a formal program called the Ski Mountaineering Blazers, a private option where skiers can get experience with some of Sugarbush’s sidecountry terrain, as well as the Slide Brook Area, a quasi-backcountry area sandwiched between the peaks that make up Sugarbush’s impressive terrain.
Wildcat Mountain Ski Area holds a sidecountry stash, again unpromoted, but worthwhile with a proper guide. Whiteface Mountain in New York has ski area access to a large collection of landslide paths that, on the right day, can offer powder laps like out West. Uncommon in the East, these slide paths have a serious avalanche danger and aren’t recommended for anyone other than experienced skiers and riders with proper avalanche training and safety equipment. Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire also has a broad array of sidecountry options, including a series of trails cut long ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
A sidecountry adventure is a special experience. You’ll have the entire hillside to yourself, the churning of the ski lift wheelhouse will be a distant uttering, and the snow is bound to be deep. While many areas are wary of promoting this great terrain, many also offer private guides that, if you’re vetted as a worthy client, will help you explore these special places.
I almost needed a rescue the first time I skied the sidecountry. I was 13, on a club trip in Stowe, Vt. I fell and spent an hour trying to work my way out. Twenty years later, with much more experience, I returned to the scene and finally conquered the hillside.
That run is a great one and easily accessible. But it’s so good, I won’t tell you where it is. Secret stashes are part of the sidecountry fun. So if you’re ready for something that is the stateside equivalent of what Europeans refer to as “off piste,” wax up, poke around for a worthy guide, kick gentrification to the curb, and go find your own fresh route. It’s a peek into the past, to a time when there were no trails, a virtual slippery time warp into eras when skiing was not about the amenities, but about the wild. And about the ride.