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Piste Off at Tamarack

Exploring the backcountry, with lifts


Central Idaho's mountains are unbelievably beautiful in winter. They're also daunting, unfriendly, and potentially dangerous. It's one thing to explore the backcountry during the high temperatures and relative certainty of the summer months; the same terrain is a whole new world in January. If you dare to venture into wintry avalanche terrain when temperatures are below freezing, you'd better know what you're doing.

Or, if you don't know what you're doing, go with someone who does. If you've wanted to escape past the boundaries of ski areas and get a taste of the backcountry, Tamarack Resort provides. The young ski area has added guided backcountry ski and snowboard trips to their list of services. And while guided backcountry trips are available at Brundage and other destinations in Idaho, the addition of Tamarack's backcountry program is particularly fitting for this resort.

The Tamarack people take their mission to be a "trailhead to discovery," seriously.

"It's a core part of our philosophy;" says Jessica Flynn, spokeswoman for Tamarack. "It means enabling people not to do something that they do everyday, but to get outside their boundaries and try something a little different."

Many of the resort's regular visitors have been gazing at the untouched powder beyond Tamarack's boundaries and salivating, says Flynn. "Opening up this terrain provides another place for expert skiers to go," she says. The addition of the backcountry program provides access to 5,000 acres of ski-worthy terrain. That's more than twice the acreage of groomed runs at Tamarack.

Most of the people who will sign up for guided backcountry days are advanced or expert skiers who will experience the winter backcountry for the first time, predicts Dave Williams, Tamarack's guide services coordinator.

"The [backcountry program] is geared to offer things that we don't have in-bounds," Williams says. "The terrain is a lot steeper. It's remote. It's not controlled. It's an introduction to the backcountry. You kind of get a taste of it without having to fully commit."

I'm no expert telemarker, but I have had the chance to ski a lot of powder in the Stanley Basin, where the views are incredible. Williams took the time to show me around some of the backcountry terrain one December morning, and I didn't expect such stunning vistas. From the ridge of Tamarack, you can see the peaks of Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness to the west, and all the way into the Frank Church to the east. If there hadn't been a few dusty clouds on the horizon, we would have been able to see the tops of the Sawtooths.

The views are awesome whether you're skiing groomed or backcountry runs at Tamarack, but once we dipped into a bowl below the ridge just outside of the boundary rope, there was nothing to indicate that the resort was just a half-mile away. We were the first people to make tracks through the trees after a light snow the day before.

"Probably this year, only about 300 people will get to go into this terrain," says Williams. I wouldn't have wanted to be out there without someone who knew where we were. Even though the resort was close, it would have been easy to get lost.

As a tele skier who's not yet powder proficient, the benefits of being able to experience multiple backcountry runs in with the aide of a lift make the backcountry/resort experience appealing. Much of the remote terrain was too vertical for me, but to an expert skier, the 52-degree chutes that Williams pointed out might be the ultimate adventure.

Like most guided services in Idaho, the cost for Tamarack's personalized backcountry experience is not cheap. A full day costs $400 for one or two people, then $200 for each additional skier after that. You'll be paying not only for expert knowledge on where to find the best backcountry bowls, but also for the safety and assurance of going with people who truly know how to navigate the snowy terrain and how to gauge avalanche conditions.

And for people like me who want to get more comfortable skiing in trees and deep powder, it's convenient to have the lift nearby. During our excursion, Williams noted that you can log four or more lengthy backcountry runs in a day by finishing your runs at the base of a lift and catching a chairlift back up.

"You don't use up most of your energy hiking to the top," says Williams. You can ski down over 10,000 feet in the backcountry in a single day at Tamarack, says Williams. That kind of mileage would be unheard of without hitching a ride. Some die-hard backwoods skiers might scoff at the thought of using the lift to access the backcountry rather than using skins and manpower to get to the top of the hill. But if making turns in powder is a lot of work for you, then you might appreciate being able to spend more time practicing turns on the slopes rather than hiking them.

The backcountry program gives skiers and snowboarders the option of cat skiing, snowmobile transport or touring to get from the chairlifts to backcountry sweet spots. Each guided option costs about the same, and you'll have six to seven miles of backcountry at your ski tips.

For backcountry novices, hiring a guide is not a bad deal. Of course, you don't have to fork over $200 to go through the gates of glory and get to the big powder bowls. Anyone can ride the lift to the top of the mountain and then navigate the territory for themselves. Williams emphasizes that Tamarack leaves the gates open for people who do feel confident navigating the backcountry on their own.

Once you leave the resort without a guide, however, you also leave resort benefits, including rescue and medical services. So if you're not familiar with avalanche rescue and safety procedures or are new to the terrain, stick to the groomed runs.

You might call Tamarack's backcountry program a stepping stone for those who want to learn how to get outside the resort on their own. You'll still need an avalanche safety course and plenty of backcountry time with experienced skiers before leading your own trip, but guided experiences are a good introduction. And, as Williams puts it, the program is a great way to get a feel for Tamarack's philosophy: "To discover new things, to try new things, to push that comfort level a little bit," he says. "It might be uncomfortable at first, but the rewards are great when you get out there." Tamarack Resort, Donnelly, Idaho, 208-325-1000 866-649-6903,