Nick, November 2010

We had a heated argument in the pub the other night about the top 5 epic expert ski runs in North America. The debate was fierce - what makes a ski run 'epic' - pitch, scale, snow, exposure, elevation, scary terrain features, fear factor, what?

Pitch can be conquered with bullet-proof technique. Scale means stamina. Runs always change their character in different snow conditions, weather, light and time of day. Exposure makes you feel alive. Elevation - no pain, no gain. Scary terrain features? I laugh in the face of 'mandatory air'! Fear factor - beats the crap out of the X-factor. What should be included, and what criteria should we use? Does Snowbird have better terrain than Kicking Horse? Is the snow depth and quality in Fernie better than Crested Butte? Who can say, but in my opinion a truly epic ski run needs five qualities:

  1. A degree of difficulty that keeps you thinking and working hard the whole way down.
  2. A fear factor.
  3. A tick-the-box factor.
  4. An aura.
  5. A scale that's off the dial.


Here's my choice - ski, smile and repeat:

Spanky's Ladder, Blackcomb, BC

Crank hard left off the Glacier Express and slide the high traverse towards the elevated gate to Spankys - expect to side-step for a few minutes to gain the ridge. If the gate is closed by Ski Patrol, do not skip the rope - this is high Alpine terrain with an attitude to match and it'll be shut for a very good reason. Respect the mountain and it'll not wee in your whisky. If the gate is clear, you have two choices - straight over the hanging valley to the skyline, or a push left along the ridge to the airy high entrance. If you're a Spanky virgin go straight. Once you're on the skyline ridge, stop and look at the view across the amazing Blackcomb glacier, then, and only then, look down at what is to come. It's steep. Actually it's very steep. But it's wide and the snow is usually that squeaky grippy stuff that makes the descent predictable. Test your technique and build the speed only once you get down the first pitch - route finding is easy in good weather/light - go straight for Diamond Bowl and skiers left for Ruby Bowl. You'll soon find your way down and down, and indeed down again to the Blackcomb Glacier. Keep your first Spanky's Ladder for a good day. Skiing down here in flat light is...'interesting'. If you've got nerves of steel, head left from the gate up the ridge towards the high entrance to Ruby Bowl - the entrance into this section can be a bit tricky. Keep your wits about you. Once you're in, you'll be in a powder stash bigger than your wildest dreams. It truly is majestic in scale - you can see the Blackcomb glacier many feet below, so route finding is easy. Head skiers right for a tighter channel. Big GS powder turns down the last pitch...stop, look back, smile and head for Merlins...

Delirium Dive, Sunshine, Alberta

Not one for the faint-hearted, a functioning avalanche transceiver and snow shovel are mandatory to access this run of extreme epicosity. See previous blog post...

Highlands Bowl, Aspen Highlands, Colorado

This classic descent demands instant respect as you need to climb for 45 minutes from the top of the Loge Peak lift on Aspen Highlands at 11,675ft up a narrow arete to access the summit of Highland Peak at 12,392ft - some of this can be done by snowcat. Top tip: buy a strap from the ski patrol hut at Loge Peak to carry your skis across your back - rucksack-style. Without this, it's a pain in the ass. Oh, and bring water too - do not underestimate the climb and the effect of the altitude on you. Once you summit, take a breather and enjoy the view, it is quite simply humbling. Drink your water. You will not be able to ski this in one pitch - the air is too thin. Take your time and enjoy. Route finding is easy, and really the choice is yours - straight on for the steepest massive snow face, skiers right down the ridge then left through the trees for gnarly glades. Every section is steep, but the snow is light and dry - I've skied this run in April before and the snow quality was just braw. The whole run is one big amphitheatre channelling down to a creekbed, where you join a traverse back to the Deep Temerity lift back to Loge Peak. I suggest you don't try this after a 3-course lunch at the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro...

The Hobacks, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

All other 4 choices are big mountain off-piste routes – the Hobacks (there’s 3 of them in parallel) can be summed up in one word…bumps! Do not attempt the Hobacks for your first run of the day – you need to warm up the knees first. Grab a double espresso and take the iconic Jackson Hole aerial tram to the top of Rendezvous Mountain at 10,450ft. With a vertical rise of over 4,000ft, the weather at the summit is always way different from the valley floor – expect the unexpected. Stay skiers right down Rendezvous bowl and keep fast right onto Rendezvous trail. Don’t be tempted by the black trails cutting left – keep straight on. Eventually your goal will be revealed. The channel spits you out onto the Hobacks – a vast area of enormous, steep, nasty, fall-line bumps and chutes. Route choice is easy – everything is ‘skiable’ and all routes converge on the Union Pass traverse. On a powder day, it’s heaven. Catch it right and it’s a delight. If it’s harder snow it’ll be one of the most physical challenges you’ve had on skis – if you can ski this in one pitch, I salute you! Watch for the odd gnarly strainer – a half-buried tree – and some interesting rock features. Use the traverse back to the Union Pass quad, breathe and head for the Mangy Moose…

Big Couloir, Big Sky, Montana

And now my pièce de resistance…the big daddy of them all. The other 4 are training for this main event, Big Sky, Montana and the incredible Big Couloir. You need to be well prepared for this one, and only attempt it in optimum snow conditions, weather and time of day – you’ll need a functioning avalanche transceiver, snow shovel, a ski ‘pardner’, rock-solid technique, focus and self-belief. This is the one that’ll make your palms sweat, and make all those crap days in the office seem a million miles away. Take the 15 person Lone Peak tram to the summit at 11,166ft – this is a pyramidical peak with 360-degree views. On a good day (and don’t come here on a bad day) you can see the Tetons at Jackson Hole, 80 miles in the distance. You feel like you’re on top of the world. Anyway, enough poetry..Big Couloir awaits. This is a 2,000ft narrow, rock-lined channel down the front face of Lone Peak – hitting 42 to about 45 degrees in places (some claim over 50, but I reckon that’s nae right) It’s scary steep. Once you’re in, you’re in – there is NO get out clause here. The couloir snakes down the rock seam – it’s tight and there’s not much margin for error, but mon dieu, if you can ski this you will have the pub bragging rights over the heli-ski boys for a long time. Make sure you take a picture!