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Powder Plays

By Jim Gorman - October 16th, 2006

National Geographic Adventure Website


Whisked Above Whistler, British Columbia
As beautiful and enormous as Whistler Blackcomb is, it only hints at the snowy bounty of the Coast Mountain's ski area. By exclusive permit, Whistler Heli-Skiing soars a few lucky skiers beyond the groomed terrain into an untracked zone of glaciated mountains 60 times larger than Whistler ($561 for three runs; Before piling into a Bell 212, skiers are fitted with fat powder skis and avalanche beacons. "We're not doing any Warren Miller extreme skiing, but the challenge is on if you want it," says guide Joan Sarkany. Back on Earth, settle into Edgewater Lodge ($155;, three miles (five kilometers) from the hustle of Whistler Village.

Free-Heel Tune-Up, California
The telemark turn is a wondrous thing, but it can take years to master. Speed the process--and open up a whole world of backcountry possibilitie--during a two-day telemarking clinic conducted by Alpine Skills International ($352; at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort near Lake Tahoe. The tutorial is designed for beginners and intermediates. Using low instructor-to-student ratios and video analysis, ASI will quickly bump you from beginner slopes to more challenging terrain. "By the end of two days, people will definitely be making good tele turns with good lead changes," says ASI owner Bela Vadasz, who has been grooming "pinheads" ski area for 27 years.

A Snowy Jackpot, California
Win the lottery for a coveted spot at Pear Lake Ski Hut ($22;, in Sequoia National Park, and you've gained entr'e to a ski area retreat with a maximum daily membership of ten. Park rangers inhabit the rustic hut during the summer but clear out in winter to make room for skiers and snowshoers willing to hump six miles (ten kilometers) and some 2,000 vertical feet (610 vertical meters). The charming hut, built in the unmistakable wood-and-stone Civilian Conservation Corps style, sits at the foot of a giant, craggy cirque. Advanced randonn'e and telemark skiers skin to 11,200-foot (3,414-meter) Winter Alta Peak to carve 8s in unbroken powder, while intermediates can choose gentler lines.


Intuit the Inuit, Maine
Inside a quinzee, a domed structure carved out of piled snow, cold isn't your enemy; melting snow is. "A smooth ceiling is real important to prevent dripping," says David Butler, owner and chief guide for Maine Multisport. On a three-day Intro to Winter Camping trip ($250; in either Millinocket, south of Baxter State Park, or on the coast near Freeport, participants learn just how warm, dry, and well fed they can be in conditions that prevent most people from ever driving to the mall. But should the whole Nanook thing prove too much, a warm cabin stands ready to help you make a graceful exit from the ski area.

Slide Into Silence, New York
Midway into an all-day backcountry tour of Gore Mountain ski area, in the Adirondacks, skiers experience a rare modern-day phenomenon: absolute quiet. To find it, you must duck the ropes at Gore Mountain ski area and fall in line behind your Garnet Hill Lodge guide ($40; Your route hugs several prominent peaks then shoots a long downhill run into the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, where, on a still February day, silence is enforced by a snowpack three feet deep. As darkness gathers, you'll arrive at the warm glow of Garnet Hill Lodge ($110, including ski pass) with time to linger by the stone hearth before dinner is served.

Southern Snowcap, Virginia
In summer the hike to 5,729-foot (1,746-meter) Mount Rogers is merely one of the most spectacular in the East. During winter, an ascent has all the earmarks of an epic. Snow depths on the mountain reach six feet (two meters), and the wind howls across the peak's signature balds. Begin a nine-mile (fifteen- kilometer) round-trip route at Massie Gap, in Grayson Highlands State Park, using the Rhododendron Gap Trail to attain Wilburn Ridge, where ski area views are panoramic. Gaiters and snowshoes are recommended. At night, retreat to a warm cabin at Dalia Farm ($115;, set on 50 acres (20 hectares) three miles (five kilometers) from the park entrance.


Fiercest Midwest, Michigan
Mount Bohemia waggles a defiant finger at the corporatized ski industry. The renegade resort at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, does nothing by the book. It doesn't groom, makes zero snow, and caters exclusively to experts. Runs are treacherously steep, glades cover 85 percent of the mountain, and the base complex amounts to seven yurts. All of which is red meat for a devoted clientele of skiers who troop the eight hours from Minneapolis and Chicago. The nearby Lac La Belle Lodge rents clean cabins outfitted with kitchenettes and cable ($85;, and the Magnum Pale Ale at Keweenaw Brewing Company (, in Houghton, goes down easy.

The Perfect Storms, Ohio
Punderson State Park, in the snowbelt east of Cleveland, is known for three things: tons of snow, a luge-fast ski area sled hill (bring your own sled), and the occasional ghost. Squalls whip in off of Lake Erie and dump their cache on the park's eight miles (thirteen kilometers) of cross-country ski trails. Stay the night in one of Punderson Manor Resort's 26 cottages ($100; and let the staff at the 31-room Tudor main house regale you with tales of eerie occurrences and ghostly apparitions. This is Amish country, so do for dinner as locals do: dine on baked chicken at Mary Yoder's Amish Kitchen (, in Middlefield.


Out-of-Bounds Bounty, Idaho
Rule of thumb: When the outhouse has killer views, you know the scenery's good. That's the case at Williams Peak Huts, a remote ski-in base camp set high in the aptly named Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. Sawtooth Mountain Guides ( stages three-day, two-night powder-poaching trips at Williams Peak ($465), guiding guests on runs that range from gentle green to aggressive black. In the evening, melt your tired muscles in a wood-fired sauna before dining on pad thai. Randonn'e bindings and fat skis, for rent at Idaho Mountain Touring ($30;, in Boise, eliminate the telemark learning curve.

Dom Perignon Powder, Utah
Powder has a half-life of three hours at Snowbird, Alta, and other Wasatch Front resorts. But ten days after a storm, they're still carving first tracks in the 60,000 acres (24,281 hectares) of Uintas Mountains terrain accessed by Park City Powder Cats and Heli-Ski ( Paying $409 for a day of skiing might seem extravagant, but the likes of Giant Steps, a 2,100-vertical-foot (640-vertical-meter) run off Windy Ridge, could change your mind. "You can do about 150 turns on it," says Ray Santa Maria, lead guide for PCPC. "Your legs start to burn at 50, then at a hundred they're on fire. At the bottom, your pants have burned off your legs."

Three Days of Mush, Wyoming
"People aren't ready for the velocity from a pack of scrappy Alaska huskies," says Billy Snodgrass, owner of Continental Divide Dogsled Adventures ( "It's a scream." On a three-day, two-night trip ($1,450) into the Gros Ventre Mountains, east of Jackson, Snodgrass encourages his clients to take the reins and hold on tight as a team of eight dogs takes off to speeds approaching 20 miles (32 kilometers) an hour. The first leg of the journey covers 25 miles (40 kilometers) and ends at a yurt tucked deep within Bridger-Teton National Forest. The second night is spent at luxurious Brooks Lake Lodge, complete with stone fireplaces and an oversize, outdoor hot tub.

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