Off the beaten path

Skiing the Backwoods


Choppers away! Picture this: you’re dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a few supplies and a set of skis. No this isn’t an outdoor survival show, but backcountry skiing. Surrounded by snow-packed trees and miles of untouched terrain, this art form of skiing removes the gondolas and packed ski lifts and replaces them with the quiet exploration of unmarked trails. Reserved for expert skiers and guides, backcountry skiing has quite the history in Sun Valley, along with being the oldest spot in the lower 48 United States for helicopter drop-offs. 

With the commercialization of skiing in the United States, fascination grew with “going back to nature” and skiing amongst the trees instead of the crowds. With this in mind, Sun Valley Resort founder Averell Harriman decided to create an Alpine Touring School along with the Alpine Skiing School, located in the main area of the resort. Contracting old Austrian and German nationals as guides for the new school, Harriman would also have two ski cabins built for backcountry excursionists to rest their feet and sleep in after a long day in the snow. One of the outposts, Pioneer Cabin, was outfitted with a Pullman-train car bunk beds compartment and a cast-iron cooking range used for gourmet meals–not a terrible spot to begin the evening. 

Prior to the mid-20th Century, backcountry skiing required hiking as well to get to the backcountry trails, leading to a more arduous adventure, even if one was led by those original rambunctious European ski guides. All of that would change at Sun Valley in 1965 when Heli-skiing, being dropped off by helicopter, was introduced. Still run today by Sun Valley Heli Ski, alpine enthusiasts can be dropped off in over 750,000 square acres of terrain, making it one of the most expansive “playgrounds” for heli-skiers in the United States. Without the tough efforts of first getting to the backcountry paths, patrons ski as remotely as they want after cooly hitching a ride on a whirlybird. 

Weaving through pine trees and working through mounds of snow, backcountry skiing offers a unique glimpse into areas untouched by resort ski slopes and crowds, but can lead to some tired legs. Thankfully many cabins and yurts now dot Sun Valley for the tired traveler, offering warm accommodations and even warmer drinks. Cozied up in backcountry ski-lodging, it’s the perfect setting to reflect on the day—and dream about doing the same thing all over again the next morning.

:memo: Written by: Seamus McMahon

Written By: Seamus McMahon

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