December 1, 2012

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Off the Beaten Slope

Utah Offers a Plethora of Extreme Winter Sports

John Coon

December 1, 2012

Extreme sports grow in popularity each year. Weekend warriors in rising numbers are moving beyond traditional sports and finding new ways to challenge their bodies and minds. In Utah, this trend means trading in a weekend at the ski resort for scaling a frozen waterfall or taming pristine powder in remote wilderness areas.

“A certain amount of people are bored with the ski resort,” says Tyson Bradley, senior guide and director for Utah Mountain Adventures. “They’ve been there a lot, skied those same runs again and again. They want to check out something different.”

Backcountry Skiing
Bradley knows a thing or two about going where few others have gone on skis. He wrote Backcountry Skiing Utah, a book about navigating uncharted slopes in the Beehive State. And Bradley also spends approximately 100 days per winter taking clients on skiing or climbing expeditions.

Backcountry skiing is Bradley’s passion, and a lion’s share of his clients have that same degree of enthusiasm. For them, the thrill of climbing a mountain far from ski resorts and finding brand-new runs to conquer cannot be matched.

“They’re hoping they’ll be able to get untracked powder that nobody else is skiing,” Bradley says.

When it comes to backcountry skiing, there are a few options to choose from. Heliskiing drops skiers and their guides onto a remote mountain from a helicopter. Another option is to attach climbing skins to the base of alpine touring skis and climb the mountain before making a run back down the slopes.

With the Wastach Mountains virtually in the backyard for most Utahns, there’s no shortage of places to explore. Bradley says he stays busy doing guided tours of the terrain around Alta and in the higher elevations of Little Cottonwood Canyon and Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Snow Biking and Snow Kiting
Sometimes, skiers and snowboarders opt for trying new techniques over changing destinations. Sports like snow kiting or snow biking carve out a niche among that group.

Snow biking combines cycling with skiing, essentially replacing tires with a single ski on front and a pair of skis on back. It takes the concept of mountain biking to extremes as a snowbiker steers their bike down a ski slope. Many Utah resorts offer snowbike rentals, and it is becoming a popular option alongside traditional skiing or snowboarding.

Snow kiting offers skiers or snowboarders a chance to hitch themselves to a harness attached to the kite. It operates on the same principle as sailing. A basic knowledge of skiing or snowboarding is all that is required to enjoy the sport.

Heather Schenck, owner of Kite Utah in Mount Pleasant, says people who try snow kiting become hooked on it almost immediately.

“It’s one of those sports you just have to try,” Schenck says. “I have never taught anybody who hasn’t had a smile on their face at the end. As soon as they feel the power of that kite, they’re hooked.”

One major appeal is the freedom the sport offers. People enjoy the ability to conquer open mountain terrain in any direction they choose.

“Basically, once you are up and going, you can go anywhere you want on the mountain,” Schenck says. “Uphill. Downhill. That’s the really cool thing about it. On your skis or snowboard, you can only go down. With the kite, you can go up and then everywhere.”

Ice Climbing and Mountaineering
Extreme sports are not limited to ski- or snowboard-based options. Climbing enthusiasts can get their fix during the winter with ice climbing and mountaineering.

Ice climbing is a technical sport. It typically involves scaling a frozen waterfall and utilizes many of the same skills as rock climbing. Ice climbers use an assortment of specialized equipment ranging from ice axes to crampons to reach their destination.

Mountaineering takes climbing to a new level. There is no settling for simply scaling a waterfall or a rock outcropping. This form of climbing involves a higher goal—scaling a mountain peak.

Bradley has led guided tours to many major peaks in the United States, including Mount Rainier and the Grand Tetons. He says his clients get a certain feeling of satisfaction from reaching the top of some of the world’s tallest mountains.

“No doubt they’ll be telling a few folks about that and posting it on their Facebook page,” Bradley says. “People take pride in having climbed a peak. And it makes a difference if it’s one other people know about, have heard about or have seen.”   

Safety First
Staying safe is paramount with all extreme winter sports. It’s a double-edged sword—things that make extreme winter sports thrilling can also pose dangers.

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