If you want to be assured of an awesome experience, the safest approach is usually to follow the crowd. (Have you ever eaten at a restaurant that’s completely deserted? Chances are the food, the service, and/or your overall dining experience is going to turn out pretty crummy.)
Unfortunately, this strategy backfires when it comes to fresh tracks – it’s pretty hard to find face-shots on a super jam-packed ski run.
My husband is a savant in this department. He hates crowds. Consistently for the last 18 years that we’ve skied together, he manages to find a run with no one on it, no matter what day of the year it is. It’s uncanny.
I was preparing to torture him to extract the for-the-record truth about how he does it, but when I asked, he shrugged: “Just do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.”
Oh, Dave Hobson, your Zen riddles tell me NOTHING.
“Look, it’s easy if you’re naturally a contrarian.”
I’m not, so I asked his colleague at the Whistler Blackcomb Snow School’s MAX4 lessons, Ralph Forsyth, a 20+ year veteran of ski instructing and the brains behind the website and twitter feed of @SkiTipDoJour, how he does it.
Forsyth started teaching skiing in 1986, when he was 17. “I still love it just as much as when I got that first uniform,” he admits. “And my mom still asks when I’m going to finish my degree…”
Ralph’s first uniform
Take What the Mountain Gives You
Ralph’s learned a few things about the slopes along the way, and he’s happy to share them.
The bottom line?
“Take what the mountain gives you. Then you’ll always have a fun day. For example, this morning, it was -25C (-13F) and bullet-proof, so we hiked Flute and it was super fun. Last Sunday it was the same, so we did high speed groomers to the valley.”
It’s similar to the Contrarian’s approach, actually:
“If it’s -25, go skiing. If it’s raining, go skiing. If it’s dark out, go skiing. If it’s 15 minutes BEFORE the lifts open, get in the line up to go skiing. If the flowers are blooming, go skiing. If it’s lunchtime, go skiing. Icy out? Go skiing. New Years Day? Xmas Day? Superbowl Sunday? You got it.”
In other words, everybody likes to ski on the Run of the Day, mid-morning on a weekend when the sun is out and it’s bluebird. That leaves a lot of other days of the year to enjoy the pickings.
Get An Early Start
I’ve learned from ski days, climbing trips, epic mountain bike rides, and road trips that the secret to an awesome adventure is pretty much always an uncomfortably early start.
Parting with my duvet just 15 minutes before I really feel like it and jumping straight into the gear I laid out the night before makes all the difference.
As Hobson says, “If the lifts open at 8:30, show up at 8:15. Pretty much everyone else shows up at 9.” Boom. Crowds avoided. You’re ahead of the game right off the bat.
In some resorts, you can even put your skis in the line-up to hold your spot while you go and get your coffee.
Ralph Forsyth – Whistler-Blackcomb instructor extraordinaire
Rethink the Noon Hour Lunch
Your body clock might tell you it’s lunchtime, but if you can ignore it (when no one else is), a slew of empty chairlifts and open runs will be your reward. Feast on that, suckahs.
It’s one of Forsyth’s top tips. “Lunch early, late or not at all. Make sure you pack snacks for a pow day. The goods go to those who get up high as they can, as soon as they can, and then hike.”
Hobson also recommends skiing through lunch. “Schedule your day around it. Start at 8:15. Ski through lunch and finish at 1:30. Or have a long lunch and ski out after the lifts have closed, after trying to hit the last ride up the mountain. Then you can dilly dally and ski down just before the sweep pushes you down the mountain.”
Those are the options that are available to anyone, even those not naturally contrarian, if you can combat your Happy-in-the-Pack ways for the day.
Then you get into Jedi territory:
Be Better Than Anyone On the Mountain
When the blue runs are packed, the double blacks are often sitting empty.
Be Braver (or Better-Dressed) Than Anyone on the Mountain.
Invest in top quality gear, so you can ski in inclement weather – rain, windstorms, no visibility in the alpine. That’s the time to go and enjoy the entire mountain to yourself.
Be Richer Than Anyone Else.
“Go heliskiing,” says Hobson. “Then you’ll never find a crowd.”
Or if you’re stratospherically-rich, you can hire out the mountain after it’s closed to be your own private playground. (It has happened. If you have to ask how much it costs, it’s too much for you.)
Find Slow Lifts
Slow lifts are your best friends, says Hobson, if you can find them anymore. T-bars and fixed grips offer a less cushy, but usually less crowded, ride to terrain that gets tracked out more slowly, too.
Opt for No Lifts
Go ski touring. The crowds thin out significantly when you have to earn your turns with sweat equity and support your own choices with terrain smarts and avalanche rescue gear.
Go with an expert or a guide if you’re getting started in backcountry adventures. The first rule of touring is “Respect the Mountain” so you don’t die or kill anyone else.
Take a lesson
Benefits from the accumulated wisdom of people like Forsyth and Hobson, who ski the mountain every day, know where the secret stashes are, and instinctively find the runs that diverge in the woods. Plus, they’ll take you straight to the front of the line, every time, guaranteed.
Want to win Liftopia shwag? Share your secrets on how to avoid the crowds in the comments section below!