Peacefully remote settings, sensational vistas, hardy adventure, and few of the costs associated with the standard ski resort scene
The big reason skiing costs so much is pretty obvious. Chairlifts, gondolas, and trams that transport skiers and snowboarders up the hill cost millions of dollars to build and pile up huge electricity bills. These costs are passed along to riders, most obviously in the form of a lift pass (and less obviously in the form of rip-off $8 hamburgers inside the lodge).
One possibility for getting around the expense of a lift ticket is also rather obvious: get your butt up the hill on your own, via hiking boots, snowshoes, or cross-country or telemark skis. Sounds exhausting, huh? And perhaps a little dangerous? It can be both. Some folks should be rightly scared off from attempting such madness. Others have given backcountry skiing one try, and ever since happily fork over their cash for lift passes.
But skiing in the backcountry--basically any mountain slope away from the standard ski resort--is beloved by thousands of hardcore skiers and outdoor enthusiasts. Not only is a backcountry skier rewarded with miles of untouched powder and remote mountain vistas only seen in ski mags or Warren Miller movies, but usually the costs of an off-piste adventure are usually minimal, and sometimes totally free. Some mountain areas where backcountry skiing is popular even have huts and lodges for overnight adventures. Conditions are usually pretty spartan, but the nightly bill is often under $30.
Finding a spot for backcountry skiing isn't as simple as locating a snow-covered slope. First off, backcountry skiing is not allowed everywhere. Many ski resorts will not let you hike their trails and ski down (in-bounds or out-of-bounds) without a pass of some sort. Plus, avalanches are part of the normal winter cycle in many mountain environments, especially out West.
Some research is required to make sure your adventure is fun, the snow is good, and conditions are safe. The best place to start research is at "Off-Piste: The Backcountry Adventure Journal," published monthly in the winter. This rag, written and edited by backcountry diehards, can be found in convenience stores, ski lodges, and coffee shops in most ski towns. It's also got a fine Web site, offpistemag.com/, with features on great backcountry spots, an online forum for Q&A's with fellow enthusiasts, lists of upcoming events, free demos, avalanche training sessions, and other news, plus a link for 20 or so books focused on backcountry adventure.
After reading up on the basics, do some soul-searching. An honest review of your physical conditioning is necessary too (perhaps this requires an outsider's opinion). Are you up to the task of carting yourself and your gear up a mountain in the snow? Would you rather the comforts of chairlifts, ski patrollers, and happy hour at the end of the day? Do you want a daytime trip only, or are you up for an overnighter? No matter where your personality fits in here, you should be in good shape, and have a goodly amount of experience in both skiing and hiking before giving the backcountry a try.
Some locales are easy enough for a first-time backcountry skier to give it a shot, while at others it's a good idea to go only with a seasoned veteran or a professional guide. Some trails would only be fun for snowshoers and telemark or cross-country skiers, while other steep slopes are only good for expert downhill skiers or snowboarders. Just know what you're getting into before heading out into the woods.
One of the first popular backcountry spots in the U.S. is Tuckerman Ravine, a bowl-shaped face above the tree line on New Hampshire's Mount Washington (the Northeast's tallest peak). Skiers have been coming here since the 1930's, and hundreds still come each weekend in late April and early May, when there's still plenty of snow and days are relatively warm. It's a fun scene, especially on sunny spring days--groups of friends picnic between runs or build jumps at the bottom of the slope.
Loads of East Coast people pick Tuckerman's as their first backcountry adventure, but it isn't exactly an easy day. First off, there's an uphill hike from the parking lot, which takes around three hours, depending on pace and conditions (which can be muddy in the spring, but I've seen people do it in sneakers). After the grueling hike (you'll be carrying skis or a snowboard, plus boots and other gear in your backpack), some are too tired climb the headwall to actually go skiing. Also, the skiing here is tough--it's a seriously steep descent (if this was a resort, it would be probably be a double black diamond). But if you're in good shape and an expert skier, a day at Tuckerman Ravine is a blast. It is simply a "must" for any East Coast skiers who considers themselves hardcore.