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Cold Front
By Kristen Ulmer
posted: 11/19/2002

There's a new trend in skiing, and this time, thankfully, it ain't about excessive grooming or fractional-ownership condos. Put the cork back in the wine bottle and break out the transceiver-guided, resort-based backcountry tours are the next big thing.

With more North American ski areas going Euro-style and opening their boundaries, guests are eager for off-piste adventures but not necessarily for all the risk and responsibility of going at it alone. Resorts are responding with new backcountry guide services.

At Sugarbush, an existing program called "Ski the Wild Slide," gets a new twist this year: guided tours with extreme-skier-in-residence John Egan. Most of the tours will explore the 2,000-acre Slide Brook Wilderness, which lies between Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen, but Egan says he'll take guests "pretty much anywhere I think they can handle."There are some little drops-offs and fun chutes back there, but mostly it's just going deep into the woods and trying to find your way out," Egan says of Sugarbush's new backcountry program. "It's kind of what I've been doing all over the world, only now I get to do it at home."

Of course, backcountry behemoth Jackson Hole, the granddaddy of the category, has offered a guide service for 20 years, but it was with the opening of the gates in 1999 that the program really took off."We used to use four guides, and they would mostly stay in-bounds," says Jackson Hole's Anna Olson. "But now we routinely send out 10, and we guided more than 900 skiers last year." To accommodate the demand, Jackson is building a yurt in its backcountry, aimed at providing everything from backcountry lunches to bunk space.

In Utah, Solitude initiated a program last season called Backtracks that earned the praise of at least one out-of-bounds neophyte. "I'd only been in the backcountry once before, so it was a totally new deal for me," says Massachusetts resident Dr. Tom Vander Salm. "We were on some steep terrain, but it wasn't as strenuous as I thought it would be. We even set off a couple small avalanches-deliberately."

At Bear Valley, California, new guided tours are part of the area's Mountain Adventure Seminars program and will take skiers to more than 500 acres in Horse Canyon. The area is part of the resort's "soft boundary" terrain that lies beyond the ropes but within the resort's Forest Service permit area.

Increased interest in backcountry tours has also translated to a growing number of those who will lead them. "Our ski guides course has seen a 20-25 percent increase each year over the past three years," says Mike Alkaites, executive director of the American Mountain Guides Association. "And all of that has come from people already in the ski industry or looking to break into it."

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