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March 11, 2007 — If you're one of those people who just can't ski the forest for the trees, you're missing out on an entire parallel universe of inbounds terrain that's untracked by the masses even on the busiest days.
Tree skiing inside the boundary ropes of Colorado's ski areas opens up a world of fresh snow long after the last dump, untrammeled tranquility, and the rich rewards of exploring the inner spaces between the hard-packed, mogul-choked slopes marked only on the trail maps.
"The environment in the trees is one of solitude and peacefulness," said two-time world extreme skiing champion Chris Davenport of Aspen. "When you stop, it's quiet and you're surrounded by the forest. It's a very spiritual place to be, especially on a powder day."
Off the Pallavicini chairlift, head down Grizzly Road into Powder Keg and Scudder. Alleys 1, 2 and 3 off of Pallavicini are also good - challenging, steep and often deep.
The Northwoods/G Zone area - super steep, sustained, north-facing and high altitude. But you'll earn your turns with about a half hour hike into Highland Bowl. Aspen Mountain
The Dumps hold good snow for awhile after a storm and offer the wider spacing of aspen tree skiing. Or legally go out a backcountry gate for Pandora's Box. The shoulder of Bell Mountain is the longest, most sustained and varied tree skiing at Aspen.
The new Birds of Prey high-speed lift has opened up a whole new experience for tree skiers, but first tracks in Royal Elk Glade - by way of a gate at the top of the Grouse Mountain chairlift - still offer the most classic tree shots. For aspens, check out the lines between Larkspur Bowl and Strawberry Park off the Intertwine.
For advanced skiers, the Burn on Peak 10 and the Windows on Peak 9 are recommended. For intermediate skiers, try the Peak 7 Glades. The tree section of the Windows is steep and long, holds lots of snow, but requires a 10-minute hike.
Located in the renowned Extreme Limits terrain, some of Crested Butte Mountain's tree skiing runs range in pitch from 35 to 45 degrees. The glades of the Northface are (not surprisingly) north-facing and hold the snow the best, even recently with the warmer temperatures. Doubletop Glades has eastern aspects, so it gets the morning sun.
Corona Bowl, the backside of Eldora, has the lion's share of the area's trees skiing. Salto Glade boasts some shots as steep as anything in the state. Pacer Glade and Moose Glade also offer some steep, north-facing terrain that piles up windblown snow long after the flakes stop falling.
Catwalk Trees, served by Chair 1, is an expert, north-facing glade located in between the Catwalk and Forest Meadow trails. Incredibly accessible yet goes unnoticed by most. Tomahawk, served by Chair 2, is an intermediate run that's the final chute in the popular South Chutes area. Eagerness tends to draw most into the South Chutes.
Untouched powder keeps for days in the hidden stashes of Geno's Meadow, the sections off Toddler and most of the trees off the Panorama chairlift.
The Colorado, the 100 Acres Woods, and the Concussion Trees are naturally cleared avalanche paths, steep and well-spaced. But Silverton's trees are considered tight by skiers used to manufactured glade skiing.
The best tree run is called Timberbash and comes complete with clearings and lots of natural kickers.
Intermediate skiers will love Powerline Glades, off the Big Burn chairlift, which runs between Sneaky's and Mick's Gully. More advanced skiers should head straight for the Hanging Valley Glades in the Hanging Valley wall area, which offer excellent double black trees.
The quintessential inbounds Colorado tree-skiing area, Steamboat's entire Priest Creek area has numerous trees shots. The most well-known runs are Shadows and Closets (mixture of aspens and evergreens with large open meadows), but check out the less-skied Twilight and Triangle 3.
The best is definitely off Chair 6 on powder days. Classic runs include Allais Alley, Apex and Sulley's. But don't miss, off of Chair 9: Log Pile, Joint Point, West Drain, East Drain and Spiral Stairs.
On the north-facing front side, Northwoods trees and Riva Glade between Riva and Christmas are the best bets. On the backside, Blue Sky Basin is one big, 600-acre playground of steep trees, particularly the runs off the main ridge heading down into Pete's Bowl: Steep and Deep, Lovers' Leap and the Scree Field. Secret bonus stash: Ouzo Glade in Game Creek Bowl.
Winter Park/Mary Jane
Start at the tower second from the top under the Iron Horse chairlift, head northeast into the trees below Pine Cliffs. Pop out on the Summit Express Trail briefly until you reach the top of the Pony Express chairlift and again head northeast. Parallel Sleeper until you reach the bottom, where the terrain forces you to come out on either Riflesight Notch or Sleeper/Sleepy Hollow. Not for the timid; some of the trees are very tight.
Safety tips for skiing
Do's: Always wear goggles that allow good peripheral vision and a helmet to protect against low- lying branches; be cautious early and late in the season to avoid fallen logs under the snow; and always ski or ride with a buddy, so that even if you get separated, you have a general idea where to look.
Don'ts: Avoid loose clothing that can get snagged by a branch, and keep your pole straps off your wrists if they're not tear-away.
Equipment: Anyone skiing off-piste these days should be on mid-fat or fat skis. Go with a shorter shaped ski to at least give yourself the illusion you're turning quicker. Try the Salomon Pocket Rockets or Dynastar's The Legend. Snowboarders should go with a shorter, more flexible board that's quicker to turn, such as a Burton Custom or a Nitro Team.
Key technique tip: Look for the openings and don't concentrate on the trees.
For others, their reasons for heading into the deep timber are less lofty. It's all about the rewards ... and the risks. "Fresh tracks and the chance to get up close and personal with a tree," said Craig Crea of Edwards, a snowboarder who spends more time in the trees between the runs of Vail and Beaver Creek than on the human obstacle courses the trails can become on weekends.
For telemarker Dan Gilchrist of Steamboat, the quality of the turns is the most compelling reason to head off-piste and into the land of lodgepoles and aspens: "You just kind of float through the trees and the snow slows you down," said the Warren Miller film veteran.
Chris Anthony of Vail, also a Warren Miller regular, leads steep skiing workshops at Silverton Mountain, helicopter skiing excursions to Alaska and adventure camps in Italy, but wherever he is geographically, his skis keep taking him back into the trees.
"The main reason is to find fresh snow, and getting off the main track," Anthony said, "but it's also the added stimulation of the trees being there as something you have to deal with and turn around. It's difficult to negotiate and move in the trees, but you reap the benefits when you get in there, so it becomes addicting."
"I'm not giving you names; I don't want people going in there," said Crea.
But after enough cajoling, most locals will give up at least some of their secrets (see box), and that's the key to finding freshies up to a week after the last storm. Ski with locals in a giving mood, or scout out tree shots in the summer on a mountain bike, then return for the goods in the winter.
When you do, you'll be rewarded, particularly on north-facing slopes, with pillows of light, dry powder languishing in the shadows long after Colorado's intense sun has baked the snow on the open trails and rendered it almost unskiable.
What keeps all but the most diehard of powder hounds at bay, however, is the fear of the unknown, and a healthy respect for tight groves of pines, firs and spruces that choke off any attempt at stringing together a sustained series of turns in the deep-frozen fluff. That's where technique comes in.
But the crouch is key, said Crea, if you're on a snowboard, and so is speed. "You can't carve big sweepers (turns) if it's really tight trees," he said. "You kind of duck and work it a little quicker in the hips - definitely sharper turns, faster transitions, always looking way ahead to try to read a line and plan well in advance. Avoid the flats or the little suck holes (tree wells), and hopefully you won't have to stop and dismount."
And if you're telemarking in tight, steep trees, said Steamboat's Gilchrist, you might want to try something called "para-marking," or making parallel turns on your tele skis. "If it's on the steeps, all the extra movement of going from one tele turn to another is wasted. Skiing tight lines in the trees, sometimes it's better to just parallel."
The other big barrier keeping most snow riders from logging too many frequent forest miles is fear. According to state ski industry lobbying group Colorado Ski Country USA, of the record 15 fatalities on the slopes during the 2002-03 ski season, 8 resulted from collisions with trees.
The majority of those skier-on-tree fatalities involve someone flying off an established trail and striking a tree, statistics show, rather than a snow rider who's deep in a glade and loses control.
"You control your speed a lot more and you pay a lot more attention inbthe trees," said Davenport, whose wife is an Aspen ski patroller. "It's people who are carving down a groomer and catch an edge and go into the trees, and that's a whole different matter."
Still, all of our experts recommend the utmost caution when skiing or snowboarding deep in the trees in order to arrive alive at the base of the chairlift with the rest of the trail-bound masses.
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