- Develop backcountry skiing and avalanche safety skills
- Ski at a resort and in the backcountry
- Safely explore the backcountry on skis or splitboards
Double-occupancy hotel lodging, breakfast & gratuities
Earn AIARE Level 1 and Companion Rescue certifications
Avalanche safety gear and shuttles
The muted silence of snow-covered evergreens heightens the visual splendor of sunlight reflecting off the fresh powder. With each step, your skis sink a few inches, maybe a foot, then support your weight, propelling you forward, upward. The slower journey up the mountain fills the senses with appreciation of the serenity of this alpine wonderland, and then you stand atop the ridge with views in all directions. You, a few companions – and nobody else! The only sounds are the ripping of skins from skis and the click of boots into bindings, the wind through your helmet and your skis gliding through powder
The muted silence of snow-covered evergreens heightens the visual splendor of sunlight reflecting off the fresh powder. With each step, your skis sink a few inches, maybe a foot, then support your weight, propelling you forward, upward. The slower journey up the mountain fills the senses with appreciation of the serenity of this alpine wonderland, and then you stand atop the ridge with views in all directions. You, a few companions – and nobody else! The only sounds are the ripping of skins from skis and the click of boots into bindings, the wind through your helmet and your skis gliding through powder.
Sierra Club outings enable us to visit wilderness areas that often become intimidating when the snow falls and the mountains take on an entirely new character. To immerse ourselves in the winter alpine environment, we need to add knowledge of snow safety and learn to master the specialized ski gear that enables us to saunter up quiet alpine ascents, then click in our heels and rip thru fresh powder.
As long as humans have been heading into the mountains and the woods, there have been those for whom the escape and the solitude is what matters most. Alpine Touring, also called Randonnée, combines the best of the outdoor experience with the opportunity for solitude and serenity. Moving efficiently in the mountains is a joy in itself, and touring is often compared to hiking as a means to explore snowy alpine woodlands and untracked powder absent the constraints of lifts and ski runs.
“To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake, it is necessary to stand out in the cold.” -Aristotle
Utah's Cottonwood Canyons offer exceptional scenery, diverse wildlife and plant communities, and unbelievable skiing. Each day, we'll explore the backcountry, learn new skills, enjoy ascents thru stunning alpine terrain, and ski hidden powder runs. We'll spend two days at Cottonwood Canyon resorts on more familiar terrain, and four days with guides in pristine backcountry. In the evenings, we'll relax, get to know one another, recount the day's exploits, and marvel at the beauty of the winter backcountry.
The Cottonwood Canyons are the ultimate microclimate for powder skiing. It's not just the average of 500 inches per year of dry powder, but the consistency of snowfall thru the winter and the patterns of lighter (lower water content) snow following heavier snow that create a safer snowpack and better powder flotation. Pure powder skiing in which the skis float in powder typically requires 10 or more inches of snow, and these two canyons get more days of 10+ inches of dry snow annually that any other area in the country. Partly for those reasons, Alta became the center of snow science and avalanche control training beginning in the 1940s.
Quick access to spectacular terrain from beginner to expert level make the Wasatch range ideal for learning and practicing the art of backcountry skiing. Friendly, professional guides will share their knowledge and skills while keeping us safe and leading us to bowls, glades, and scenic vantage points covered in Utah's famous soft snow.
Embedded in our introduction to Alpine Touring outing are two safety courses (with certifications upon completion). We won’t be sitting in a classroom though – this is field training that easily fits into our 4-day backcountry touring schedule. The American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education (AIARE) Level 1 Avalanche safety certification for recreation skiers is an introduction to avalanche hazard management. You can expect to develop a good grounding in how to prepare for and carry out a backcountry trip, the ability to identify avalanche terrain, an understanding of sound decision-making in the field, and knowledge of rescue techniques. The companion Avalanche Rescue certification will further develop the skills to help others caught in an avalanche – including a realistic scenario to practice avalanche rescue.
Come ski uphill with us for a renewed connection to our natural world.
“A person should have wings to carry them where their dreams go, but sometimes a pair of skis makes a good substitute.” -Hans Gmoser
The Wasatch Range is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute peoples. We acknowledge that these lands carry the stories of these Nations. We recognize Elders past and present as peoples who have cared for, and continue to care for, the land.
The routes and itinerary described below should be taken as a general plan, and the actual details may depart from this plan as conditions dictate. Where we ski depends on snow conditions, progress (and whims) of the group, canyon accessibility (road closures), and other factors that may require the leader to make adjustments. Please plan to be flexible and bring a good sense of humor to the trip — you can be assured of having a memorable and satisfying adventure
The routes and itinerary described below should be taken as a general plan, and the actual details may depart from this plan as conditions dictate. Where we ski depends on snow conditions, progress (and whims) of the group, canyon accessibility (road closures), and other factors that may require the leader to make adjustments. Please plan to be flexible and bring a good sense of humor to the trip — you can be assured of having a memorable and satisfying adventure!
Day 1: The evening before our adventure begins, we'll settle into our lodging, pick up rental ski gear and enjoy a group dinner. After dinner, we'll discuss the week's plans and snow conditions.
Day 2: After breakfast, we’ll drive up scenic Little Cottonwood Canyon to the Alta ski area for a day to warm up our ski legs and shakeout any gear concerns. We'll ski as a group and explore both on and off-piste areas of this historic, world-class ski area. We'll also get panoramic views of some of the backcountry terrain we'll be exploring.
Day 3: After breakfast and packing lunches, we’ll drive to the backcountry trailhead and meet our backcountry guides. During the next two days, we will learn avalanche skills while enjoying legendary Wasatch terrain. Instructors will initially focus on equipment (including adjustments) and teaching basic touring techniques, including how to maximize efficiency on skins and trail setting. The guides will address safe route selection as we ascend to appropriate downhill runs.
Guides will coach participants in transitions to downhill mode and proper procedures for descent in avalanche-prone terrain. Techniques for skiing in untracked snow will be demonstrated. Each participant will be given individual tips on how to improve downhill skills. Time will be allowed for lunch, snacks, water breaks and enjoyment of the winter backcountry environment. Guides will demonstrate and give students a chance to practice beacon searches.
Day 4: Click into your gear and start stretching the legs for the uphill ascent. Our second backcountry clinic day will be a longer tour, usually reaching a classic Wasatch bowl or skiable peak. We'll apply skinning, downhill, and avalanche procedures while enjoying the best terrain and snow conditions available. Guides will dig a snow pit and demonstrate other snow stability assessment techniques as the party travels. Instructors will suggest good tours for the next two days and offer insights into a progression of tours to enable individual goals to be achieved.
Day 5: A rest day, or a resort ski day for those who prefer. Choices abound - Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, Brighton, and Deer Valley are all within easy driving distance. We’ll provide transportation to the group’s choice of resort.
Days 6-7: Our guided backcountry days offer lots of choices based on weather, snow conditions, and the confidence built during the 2-day clinic. We can select between lift-assisted or Canyon-to-Canyon tours (from Little Cottonwood to Big Cottonwood) to maximize the downhill skiing on north-facing (cold snow) terrain. As needed, we can break into two or three groups – each with a guide – to accommodate different preferences and skill levels.
Day 8: After breakfast, we pack up and say our goodbyes.
Participants may elect to take non-ski rest days on their own. Please note that lift tickets for resort skiing days are not included in the trip price, except for one of the backcountry days that will start the day with a single lift ride.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” - John Muir
The Salt Lake City airport, a major airline hub, is 30 miles from the lodging and the entrance to the canyons located near the Cottonwood Canyons exit off I-215. Commercial airport shuttles are available as well as Lyft, Uber and Public Transportation (trams and buses). Daily transportation to trailheads and ski areas during the trip is provided, as 4-wheel drive or snow-chains are frequently required in the Cottonwoods Canyons
The Salt Lake City airport, a major airline hub, is 30 miles from the lodging and the entrance to the canyons located near the Cottonwood Canyons exit off I-215. Commercial airport shuttles are available as well as Lyft, Uber and Public Transportation (trams and buses). Daily transportation to trailheads and ski areas during the trip is provided, as 4-wheel drive or snow-chains are frequently required in the Cottonwoods Canyons.
Please do not make non-refundable travel arrangements until notified to do so by the trip leader.
Accommodations and Food
The trip includes seven nights' lodging. Bedrooms are double occupancy. Single occupancy may be available for a single room supplement charge.
The hotel provides hot breakfast daily. We will provide transportation to the grocery store to purchase bag lunches for backcountry day trips. Three dinners will be provided and are included in the trip cost. The remaining dinners will be at local restaurants and are not included in the trip price.
This trip is for Advanced skiers or snowboarders who are comfortable with black diamond terrain at resorts and in strong physical condition who want to learn backcountry safety, gear and skiing technique. The challenge is not steep or technical terrain, rather the variable snow conditions, increased self-reliance for safety, and the absence of ski lifts to take us up the hill.
Participants do not need prior experience with backcountry skis or AT bindings.
- The following list will help assess whether this trip is a good fit for you:
- You are prepared to encounter a wide variety of snow and weather conditions each day
- You are comfortable skiing powder, crud and other off-piste snow conditions
- You are physically active and fit
- You have the stamina to ski from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m
Terminology can be confusing, so it may help to contrast our Alpine Touring trip with other forms of skiing that are not part of our trip:
- Nordic/cross-country skiing (typically flat or gently rolling terrain, and often following groomed trails or tracks made by others)
- Telemark skiing (using a squatting motion on downhill skis and lifting the heels alternately).
- Ski mountaineering (which is more advanced, including ice axes, crampons, etc.))
- Skimo (an endurance sport sometimes called “fitness skinning"
Equipment and Clothing
The leader will provide pre-trip correspondence and information to help with gear selection and physical conditioning.
Backcountry ski packages are available to rent at a few locations in the Salt Lake City area, but you'll need to reserve them early to ensure availability (not included in trip price). Ski boots and bindings must be the fixed-heel Alpine Touring (AT) type or split-board, not “cross-country” (telemark) or snowboards. Your package should include skis/split-boards with AT bindings, boots, poles with powder baskets, and skins) These are available for rent in Salt Lake, but you should definitely reserve them in advance! Transportation to rental shops will be provided.
We will provide safety gear on backcountry days: beacon, probe, shovel and daypack.
Other items to bring include:
- Non-cotton top and bottom base layer
- Mid-weight insulating layer -- wool or fleece
- Puffy overcoat, and/or other insulation layer (ﬂeece, synthetic or down)
- Waterproof/windproof outer shell jacket and pants (or bibs)
- Wool (and liner) socks
- Waterproof snow gloves or mittens
- Lightweight gloves for uphill travel
- Neck gaiter
- Warm hat and baseball cap
- Sunglasses (for uphill travel) and goggles (for the downhill)
- Sunscreen/Lip balm
- 1 or 2 liters of water (water bladders not recommended for cold days)
- Sack lunch and snacks
- Ski boots (AT backcountry boots, or Alpine boots if you rent frame bindings for the AT skis)
- Skis -- Alpine touring with AT bindings, not telemark.. Wider skis are better for deep downhill snow, breaking trails, and better control
- Ski poles with powder baskets (telescoping/adjustable poles preferred)
- Climbing skins
Optional: Camera, Pocket hand & foot warmers, Small piece of closed cell foam to sit on snow
- For a concise overview of ski touring, including the gear, techniques, and safety: https://www.thisisskitouring.com
- Numerous YouTube video tutorials are online if you’d like to get a sense of the sport. The instructors will teach all of this, but you might like to see what’s involved.
- Local activist group working to save the Wasatch Range: https://saveourcanyons.org
- Absolon, Molly, Basic Illustrated Alpine Ski Touring.
- Bowman, Anthony Will, From Silver to Skis: A History of Alta, Utah, and Little Cottonwood Canyon, 1847-1966.
- Hargrave, Jared, Backcountry Ski & Snowboard Routes: Utah.
Little Cottonwood Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon and Mill Creek Canyon compose a critical and magnificent ecosystem. Formed by glaciation and featuring extraordinary vistas, these canyons draw visitors seeking warm weather recreational opportunities such as hiking, camping, fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing, and bouldering. The Cottonwood Canyons are also home to Brighton, Solitude, Snowbird and Alta ski resorts, providing skiing, snowshoeing, and backcountry use opportunities. These canyons serve as a vital watershed, providing approximately 60% of the drinking water for Salt Lake City. Finally, the Canyons are world-renowned for their wildflowers and provide a spectacular landscape for the Wasatch Wildflower Festival.
The tri-canyons are located within the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, and this Central Wasatch area receives more annual visits than all five of the National Parks located in Utah and averages about 5.7 million people per year. The proximity of this landscape to such a large population results in unintended consequences such as: pressures from development, transportation within the canyons, and recreational overuse. The proposed Central Wasatch National Conservation & Recreation Area Act is a step to protect these lands. More broadly, southern Utah faces a host of conservation challenges. The proposed Red Rocks Wilderness Act is an attempt to protect land that increasingly under threat from overuse.
Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and when applicable will operate under permits obtained from U.S. federal land agencies.