Rocky Mountain National Park Backcountry Skiing by Mike Soucy


Massive glaciers carved out the landscape that is now the third most popular National Park in the United States based on visitation. What today is known as Rocky Mountain National Park(RMNP) was first visited by humans 11,000 years ago. Spearheads and scrapers along with other artifacts shed light into this land’s past. Up until the 1700’s RMNP was a summer get-away for the Ute tribe who enjoyed the vast alpine tundras, green valleys, and turquoise lakes. Early Spanish explorers, French fur traders, and the United States Military steered clear of the intimidating mountain range up until 1843 when Rufus Sage wrote down the first accounts of the park. (NPS 2015)

Longs Peak, the guardian of the park and its highest peak reaching 14,255’ catches anyone’s eye whether they be a “ski-bum” or not as they are pulling out of Denver International Airport. The prolific diamond face and flat summit comparable to a football field make Longs one of the most well known peaks in Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park a go-to destination for many mountain-oriented travelers. Due to its popularity and extreme terrain, more than 70 people made Longs their last climb due to hypothermia, past medical conditions, altitude related injuries, or falling.

The new RMNP ski atlas, map, and digital guidebook boasts thirteen distinct areas with a total of fifty-five runs. Of the thirteen areas, nine of them are classified as complex terrain that include high angle open terrain, intricate cliffy terrain containing steep couloirs, and/or spines that may have significant overhead hazard.

RMNP contains many classic Colorado ski lines that are outlined in the guidebook. Some of the lines that are outlined in the book are the Y couloir on Ypsilon peak (55 degrees), the Dragontail couloir in the Tyndall Gorge (55 degrees), the Elevator Shaft in Chaos Canyon (55 degrees), the Sky couloir in the Loch Vale (55 degrees), and McHenrys Notch in the Upper Glacier Gorge (55 degrees). If these grades worry you then they should! However, RMNP also contains mellower tours for those who wish to enjoy the view and keep their risk tolerance low such as Fall River South, Upper Hidden Valley, Lower Hidden Valley, and Chaos Canyon.

This past summer of 2022 a change to the Beacon Guidebook products and to the park itself happened at Hallett Peak in Chaos Canyon. A very large debris slide came free off the southside of Hallett Peak. Apartment complex size boulders slid as well as other varying size boulders and the existing snowfield. In some areas the debris ripped all the way down to the bedrock. No injuries or deaths occurred due to the slide. One of the unexpected by-products of the slide is the change in color of Lake Haiyaha from its typical clear alpine lake look to a sea-green from the “rock-flour” transported into the lake after the slide. Chaos Canyon past Lake Haiyaha is closed until further notice because there are still many active slide areas. 

What is one part of the avalanche recipe that never changes? Terrain. Terrain is the only constant. With Backcountry Skiing Rocky Mountain National Park and Rakkup’s powerful planning and execution tools, you can read your run the night, week, or month before. Refer to it as you travel through the field, assess your conditions, and adjust your plan as necessary.

Backcountry Skiing Cameron Pass Colorado by Rodney Ley

Buy Cameron Pass

In December of 1972 I made my first trip up Colorado Highway 14, a winding two-lane road up from Fort Collins to cross-country ski on Cameron Pass. My old Bonna 600 edgeless wooden skis with Tempo cable bindings (borrowed from the university outing club) stuck awkwardly across the backseat of my ‘63 Ford Falcon.

Wild and remote, Cameron Pass drew me back year after year. Although the road was not paved until 1976 and was closed in winter until 1979, the drive was always worth the effort. One attribute we Nordic skiers noticed right away was how much snow fell every year! In 1976, shortly after the road was plowed and opened for the year, I drove up and skied South Diamond Peak—perhaps the first full descent!

On the west side of Cameron Pass is the Colorado State Forest, and by 1971 the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency had secured a lease to manage recreation. This resulted in the unusual name of State Forest State Park. With Highway 14 now open year-round the winter use of Cameron Pass began to explode—simultaneously the growth of backcountry skiing, avalanche education, and telemark ski equipment added to the excitement.

Along with many others, I began to explore as many nooks and crannies as possible in this giant winter basin. Compared to other locations along the Front Range, Cameron Pass was virtually unknown. For many years the only ski tracks I would see were those I had made the week before. Every trip was pure adventure!

Slowly the backcountry skiing scene began to solidify—South Diamond Peak became the undisputed monarch over the pass. Runs were named, faces and gullies skied. Where once only a few folks might be seen now tracks laced the slopes. By the early 1980’s it wasn’t always possible to get first tracks in the powder, so I and several hardy souls began to push into the farther reaches of Cameron Pass and the State Forest State Park. It was a time of huge growth.

In 1985 I had decided to leave the outdoor retail business and develop a backcountry ski yurt system in the State Forest State Park. Never Summer Nordic Yurts was the culmination of a10-year passion to immerse myself in backcountry skiing and guiding. We opened the first three yurts just before Christmas 1986. For a guy with two kids and a wife, it was a huge step. I also expanded my avalanche education and became one of the first avalanche observers for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. I added avalanche education courses to my backcountry yurt business in 1987 and continued to teach those until 1992.

All good things must end, but in this case the good thing got better! I accepted a job to direct the newly founded Outdoor Adventure Program (now Outdoor Program) for Colorado State University. Over the next thirty years (1990-2020) I trained student outdoor leaders, taught academic wilderness leadership courses, and continued my personal passion for exploring Cameron Pass. 

Although retired from Colorado State University, I continue to educate, inform, and inspire others to share in the beauty of Cameron Pass. With the help of the awesome crew at Beacon Guidebooks, I’m excited to be sharing that love of Cameron Pass with the publication of the ski atlas Backcountry Skiing Cameron Pass.

Backcountry Sled-Skiing Buffalo Pass Colorado by Stephen Bass

Buy or Rent Buffalo Pass

The smell of 2-stroke and the stoke of fresh powder on Buffalo Pass runs rampant throughout Dry Lake Campground as slednecks and hybrid skiers alike go over their gear checklists and read the updated avalanche bulletin from CAIC.  The snowcam at Steamboat resort shows 8 inches of blower overnight, but the locals know of the “Fluffalo Pass” effect and expect a foot of fresh once they get to the top of Soda Mountain.  Stu finally emerges from the USFS outhouse and Randy finishes scarfing his breakfast burrito from Creekside Cafe as I yell at everyone to remember why we woke up at 5am.  We were the first to get our sleds off the trailer and now we are rewarded with fresh tracks on the snow road from Dry Lake all the way to our first stop at the Galaxy Drop.   

We shuttle a sled down to the bottom of the Galaxy Trees and ride Canadian back to the top.  The buzzing of idling engines from Dry Lake is no more and all that remains is the sound of a crisp breeze amongst the quaking aspens we are about to ski.  Randy comments that these are the largest aspens he’s ever seen and Stu is still wrapping his head around how the entire stand has perfect spacing between each trunk.  The untouched canvas in our field of view has us channeling our inner Da Vinci and our inner Billy Kid, minus the Stetson headgear.  We roll over the top and drop into our line; the silence amongst the trees is met with hoots and hollers as we revert to our childlike selves giddy with the excitement and adrenaline of feeling alive and free.  As we prepare to ride Caveman back to the top, we catch our breath and gaze at our lines meandering through the trees; It may not be the Mona Lisa but it is the closest we will ever get to creating a masterpiece.  

Stu was itching to get into steeper terrain and we decided to spend the next couple of hours shredding In the Frey and South Park Ridge to our heart’s content.  Eight laps later and our legs are screaming at us to take a break for just 5 minutes.  In that same moment the skies rip to blue and we get our first glimpses of the day at the summit of Soda Mountain.  We decide there’s no better place for a picnic on the Pass and we head uphill to take in the best views in Routt County.  As we come to Zohan Point, we see a snow stake measuring 15 inches and Randy’s mouth broadcasts a shit eating grin- it looks like Buff Pass wringed out every bit of precip in northwest flow overnight.  We waste no time and dedicate the rest of our day to the Carnival.  After scouting from below we head back to the summit to ski our most technical terrain of the day.  Steep skiing, tight chutes, and big airs summarize the second half of our amazing day on Buff Pass.

We head back towards Dry Lake after a full day of skiing, but we cannot resist the urge to ski one last fun run at Fiesta.  We can see the congregation at the bottom of the run of other sled skiers reminiscing about all of the face shots had on this day.  We ski one more line and make sure to put on a show for the locals and tourists alike watching from Lila’s Corner as we all three throw a Daffy on the booter some guys built towards the bottom.  The excitement at Dry Lake as we load our trailer back up is intoxicating.  Within earshot you can hear multiple proclamations of “Best. Day. Ever.” in some iteration or another.  Randy, Stu, and I rally down to Slopeside for dinner and drinks as it starts to pound snow yet again.  The forecast is calling for another foot of blower overnight and our sleds are already refueled.

Backcountry Skiing Snoqualmie Pass, Pleasant Surprises in Big Terrain

Buy or rent Snoqualmie

It’s my first time in the Cascade Mountains on skis, and the forecast is for rain. Or more specifically, the forecast was for the morning’s snowfall to turn into rain mid-day.  As we skin past Source Lake, the group of locals keeps nervously talking about how the snow may turn into rain any minute. Their anxiety is contagious and I start to look up for any sign of rain too. Unlike these guys, I’m not used to this ritual of watching the thermometer dance around the “zero celcius line” like a roulette ball bouncing around your chosen number. 

I’m from the mountains of Colorado, where during the winter, we have two types of winter weather: sunny, or snowy. More specifically, I’m from Gunnison, where we have two types of winter temperatures: cold, or really really cold. So, even in the era of climate change, we still don’t look nervously up to a snowstorm for signs of rain. 

But as we strip skins and debate between the Cache Couloir, Middle Child, or a simple Snow Lake descent, a cold wind picks up and kisses our faces. The snow intensifies and we all look up at each other. Matt Schonwald slowly grinning, says: “there won’t be any rain today my friends” and then he laughs a deep triumphant laugh. Schonwald and I became friends a year before this day when our mutual friend Tom Murphy, co-founder of AIARE, introduced us. I was launching a publishing company based on my ski atlas for the Crested Butte zone and Matt was looking for a publisher for the atlas he’d been dreaming of for the Snoqualmie Pass zone. Hundreds of hours and a dozen drafts later, we’d created a “first of it’s kind” atlas. And after a full year of drooling over the hundreds of aerial photos of thousands of ski lines, I took the first excuse I could muster up to fly out and ski with Schonwald and friends.

We begin crossing the aptly named Snow Lake in a total blizzard, and the snow intensifies to a rate I have never experienced in my life. The flip side of living in sunny, cold Colorado, is that we rarely see rates of more than one inch per hour, and even more rarely see a single storm produce more than twenty inches. Though Matt was not an official mountain guide for the day, I can tell his decision making and wisdom do not waiver from his hundreds of days as a guide. We begin to question our plans. What had started as a mission to maybe check out the Holy Diver or Oyster Couloir effortlessly morps into a tree mission. Though our group is big, the decision is swift: It’s dumping, conditions are changing rapidly, and the tree skiing will be all time deep!  Enough said, we choose Moe Trees, and if the day would never end, I could do laps here for the rest of my life.

When we finally admit that the light is fading, we head back across Snow Lake, wet, tired and delirious over what we just experienced. Our friend Truc knowingly asks me “So Andy, what do you think of the Cascades?” Laughing, I reply “well, the secret is out: your rain is incredibly white and fluffy!” 

Backcountry Skiing Loveland Pass Colorado by Rob Writz

Buy or rent Loveland

In a Denver Post Article, MacKenzie Ryan labelled Loveland Pass as “one of the best worst-kept secrets in backcountry skiing.” Skiers and snowboarders have cemented Loveland Pass’s reputation as a backcountry destination by driving up and skiing down for nearly one hundred years. Explorers went deeper into the basins surrounding the Pass, leading to mechanical rope tows in the 1930s. Loveland Ski Area opened on the north side of the pass in 1936, and Arapahoe Basin began operations on the south side in 1946. In the 1980s and 1990s, snowboarders pioneered jumps on descents like Main Line and Ironing Board long before terrain parks existed at ski resorts. Fast forward to today, and you can find a full terrain park here, including kickers and rails. Many Front Range and Summit County sliders had their first backcountry experience at Loveland Pass.

Cresting the Continental Divide at 11990 feet Loveland Pass is between Arapahoe Basin and Loveland Ski Areas
Cresting the Continental Divide at 11990 feet Loveland Pass is between Arapahoe Basin and Loveland Ski Areas

Most folks view the Loveland Pass backcountry as simply the drop-in terrain at the top of the Pass. This backcountry ski guidebook presents the opportunity to go beyond the hustle and bustle of Loveland Pass. From Watrous Gulch to Porcupine Gulch, we follow US Highway 6 as it climbs dramatically to 11,990 feet; providing trailhead access to glacial valleys holding a lifetime of winter backcountry exploration. The guidebook terrain ranges from all day ski adventures in Dry Gulch and Herman Gulch, to a new perspective on how to use the Pass’s hitchhiking resources to access valleys not visible from the Highway. Our focus is winter skiing, and we also include a sample of ski mountaineering on thirteen thousand foot peaks directly accessible from Highway 6. The onset of spring and a stabilizing snow pack lures skiers into the high alpine to seek famous descents such as Dave’s Wave and the notorious Shit for Brains couloir.

Ski touring up Herman Gulch
Ski touring up Herman Gulch

MacKenzie Ryan was right, Loveland Pass is one of the best worst-kept secrets in backcountry skiing. Embrace the craziness of the Pass, and become part of the history of Colorado backcountry skiing. Have fun, but keep it real in avalanche terrain. This zone is the target of online forum rants about reckless backcountry skiing, and even the subject of a study quantifying the lack of safety gear present in the Pass’s backcountry user population. You and your friends need to bring avalanche equipment, training, and the mentality for safety to ensure a great experience at Loveland Pass. 

Dropping into the Rose Garden in Herman Gulch
Dropping into the Rose Garden in Herman Gulch

Backcountry Skiing Bridger Ridge by Sam Cox & Tavis Campbell

Every fall, skiers and snowboarders anxiously await the ritual of opening day at Bridger Bowl. The intricate lines incised into the mountain are a playground. As the season progresses and the snowfall begins to stack up, possibilities appear where previously only rock walls and scree fields existed. A blank canvas materializes and beckons riders to paint their own artistic vision upon it with the unique tracks they leave behind. Bridger is a special place that many people hold close to their hearts. It’s an area known for steep terrain, massive storm totals, dedicated locals and a distinct lack of commercial development in the base area. Over the generations, the lift infrastructure has changed and the ski area boundary has expanded, but the majesty and allure of The Ridge has remained the same. Although avalanche control is conducted by a professional patrol staff, a 457 khz avalanche transceiver is required to access the upper mountain. This area is the true gem of Bridger Bowl and completely devoid of grooming or trail markings. Founded in 1955, Bridger Bowl is a community institution that is managed by an association and run by a board of directors. The area itself is situated on the east side of the Bridger Mountains and benefits from orographic lift to create a micro-climate that produces legendary powder days. Buy the Bridger Ridge rakkup guidebook here: