From these humble beginnings arose the destination ski resort, first with rope tows, then T-bars, then double chairs. Today high-speed four- and six-passenger chairs and enclosed gondolas are the norm. For its entire history, the evolution of alpine skiing has largely been about finding more efficient ways to go up the mountain in order to find better ways to come back down.
This evolution continues today, but the new paradigm hardly involves ski lifts. In the search for better ways to go up, nothing beats a helicopter, yet for most of its history, heli-skiing was the domain of the most advanced-and deep-pocketed-skiers. While it still remains a pricey indulgence, heli-skiing has become more accessible in terms of cost, ability and location, and this has trickled down to similar pursuits, mainly sno-cat skiing and resort-based backcountry and side-country skiing. Even the two oldest forms of uphill propulsion, hiking and climbing on skis, have made a big comeback. There are several reasons behind each trend, but essentially one common denominator everyone is after: powder.
The saying goes that the grass is always greener someplace else, and in skiing, the snow is always deeper, drier and less tracked up somewhere else. "Somewhere else" is usually beyond the normal boundaries of a ski resort, where the density of skiers, even at the least-visited mountains, is quite high.
Everyone wants to ski in deep unbroken powder, the sport's Holy Grail, but on the average weeklong ski vacation, the chance of catching a big storm that produces powder is low. Even if you do, the fresh tracks rarely last a day because locals wait all year for big storms and then go out and ski all day. To put it in perspective, at Vail, the nation's largest single-mountain ski resort at a whopping 5,289 acres, there are four skiers per acre on a busy day. That might not sound like much, but at one of Canadian Mountain Holidays' heli-ski lodges, the norm is more like 6,000 or 7,000 acres-per skier. And CMH has 11 lodges.
"Powder-skiing is the ultimate, but there is no way of knowing if it is going to snow 20 inches while you are on your ski trip," says Dan Sherman of Ski.com, a leading ski vacation site that books resort, heli- and cat-skiing package trips. "Anyone who has ever taken a turn in real resort powder knows how great a feeling it is and how hard it is to find. But with heli- or cat-skiing, it's going to be like that every turn, every run, all day long."
"Powder skiing is the best skiing," agrees Anna Olson, brand manager for the Jackson Hole ski resort in Wyoming, one of the first to encourage resort skiers to forgo its lifts in search of powder. Visitors to Jackson Hole have almost every option, from regular lift skiing to tram-accessed side-country skiing, heli-skiing and cat-skiing. "If you haven't done it before, it's the best, with fat skis and guides and terrain you simply won't find within the boundaries of any ski resort."
Powder may be the goal, but it is radical equipment advances that have suddenly allowed many more skiers to go powder hunting. Fat skis made it easier to ski on powder, while shaped skis (wider at the tip and rear and narrower in the middle) and the latest innovation, rockered skis (curved slightly at the tip, allowing better float in deep snow), have made it easier to ski in any snow.
Today's powder skis combine all three elements and put steep, deep powder skiing within reach of intermediate skiers. "It doesn't matter who you are, whether you are intermediate or expert, fatter rockered skis have made skiing powder much easier and much more fun," says Sam Moulton, executive editor of Outside magazine, where he is also the resident ski-gear guru. At the same time, heli-skiing operations have spread from their traditional base in the very rugged mountains of Canada and Alaska to regular ski resorts and mountain ranges in Wyoming and Nevada, offering shorter and less steep runs more suited to a wider variety of skiers and snowboarders at different skill levels.
Often called "poor man's heli-skiing," the activity is very similar, only it uses sno-cats, the same machines used to groom mountains at ski resorts. The uphill rides are substantially longer, around 20 minutes, and the runs are shorter and generally below the treeline. You'll still get the powder-skiing experience, but the terrain tends to be less steep and more protected. That's what makes cat-skiing accessible to less advanced skiers and snowboarders, as well as experts.
There are lodge-based cat-skiing operations, especially in Canada, but compared to heli-skiing there are far more daily options, often at resorts. Cat-skiing is the easiest way to experience out-of-bounds powder for the first time. Keystone and Copper mountains in Colorado and Utah's Powder Mountain offer single-ride cat-skiing within resort boundaries to areas not served by lifts for as little as $10 per run. Some ski resorts with full-day cat-skiing operations on-site include Steamboat and Aspen in Colorado; Grand Targhee in Wyoming; and Red Mountain in Canada. Cat-skiing is significantly less expensive than heli-skiing, from $275 to $475 per person for a full day, including lunch and 10 to 14 runs.
The Rolls Royce of skiing offers a simple and enticing proposition: get up higher and quicker to places no one else has skied, reducing the uphill transport time to just a couple of minutes per run. Because they carry so few skiers and use vast untouched mountains, heli-ski operators can offer unbroken powder days, or even weeks, after a storm.
Helicopters deposit small groups of skiers or snowboarders (no more than five) in remote spots to ski in deep virgin powder, always with at least one guide. The allure is amazing, but the skiing tends to be challenging and the price high. Not only are runs longer and more tiring than at resorts, but they come closer together with little recovery time and the terrain is typically steeper. Many find the idea of heli-skiing intimidating or even terrifying, but in reality, the danger of exhaustion is likely greater than that of a serious mishap. Canadian Mountain Holidays, the world's largest heli-skiing operator, has had 36 fatalities in its more than 45 years of operation, and has hosted 181,000 skier weeks. That's one fatality for every 5,027 weeks skied. "The truth is that it is no more dangerous than resort skiing," says Outside editor Sam Moulton.
There are two styles of heli-skiing, lodge-based and daily. Multi-day destination heli-vacations are usually to remote wilderness lodges, mostly in northwestern Canada and Alaska. Though Ruby Mountain Heli-Ski in Nevada is the rare lodge-based program in the continental U.S., a great choice for first-timers because it is much easier to get to and offers three-day programs. Lodge-based heli-skiing typically costs $1,100 to $1,500 per day, inclusive of meals and lodging.
Day heli-skiing is the best way to start, often on-site at major resorts like Whistler and Jackson Hole. Rates are about $1,100 daily. And don't overlook the sheer fun of going up the mountain-some travelers pay hundreds just for a scenic helicopter ride.
Guided backcountry skiing
This means forgoing all lifts, sno-cats and helicopters in the quest for powder, most likely with Alpine Touring gear. Those without backcountry-travel skills, experience, avalanche knowledge or equipment should never attempt backcountry skiing on their own. A guided backcountry trip provides the expert oversight and necessary gear, usually a next step after trying cat-, heli- or side-country skiing.
Backcountry might not be the best choice for a first-time powder-skiing adventure outside resort boundaries. Most major ski towns have private guide services, such as Aspen Expeditions or Whistler Ski Guides, typically not directly affiliated with the resort. Aspen Expeditions charges from $250 for a guided one-day trip.
Guided side-country skiing
Side-country skiing typically refers to the backcountry terrain immediately adjacent to ski resorts, often accessed from within the resort and using lifts to alleviate all or part of the climb. Jackson Hole is the best example, where skiers ride the tram to the summit, then ski out of the resort through controlled gates in the border fence into the national forest's ungroomed and unpatrolled side country, a vast expanse of deep powder.
At other resorts like Telluride, there's still some uphill hiking involved once you've ridden the lifts. Look for guided programs that include safety gear and an expert guide, if you're looking to dip your toe into the world of out-of-bounds skiing. Prices vary substantially; at Jackson Hole, a private guide is $895 a day for a group up to five people.
Jackson Hole, 3395 Cody Lane, Teton Village, Wyo.; 307-733-2292, jacksonhole.com
Keystone Ski Resort, 100 Dercum Sq., Keystone, Colo.; 970-496-4000, keystoneresort.com
Copper Mountain, 209 Ten Mile Circle, Copper Mountain, Colo.; 866-841-2481, coppercolorado.com
Powder Mountain Resort, State Rd. 158, Eden, Utah; 801-745-3772, powdermountain.com
Steamboat Ski Resort, 2305 Mt. Werner Circle, Steamboat Springs, Colo.; 970-879-6111, steamboat.com
Aspen/Snowmass, 520 East Durant Ave., Aspen, Colo.; 800-525-6200, aspensnowmass.com
Grand Targhee Resort, 3300 Ski Hill Rd., Alta, Wyo.; 800-827-4433, grandtarghee.com
Red Mountain Resort, 4300 Red Mountain Rd., Rossland, B.C., Canada; 250-362-5553, redresort.com
Telluride, 136 Country Club Dr., Mountain Village, Colo.; 800-778-8581, tellurideskiresort.com
Whistler Blackcomb, 4545 Blackcomb Way, Whistler, B.C., Canada; 800-766-0449, whistlerblackcomb.com
Sun Valley, 2 Sun Valley Rd., Sun Valley, Idaho; 800-786-8259, sunvalley.com
Canyons Resort, 4000 Canyons Resort Dr., Park City, Utah; 435-649-5400, canyonsresort.com
Snowbird, Highway 210, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Snowbird, Utah; 800-232-9542, snowbird.com
GoEscape features the best North American destinations, spanning the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The winter 2013 issue is on sale now at goescape.usatoday.com.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)