By: Rachel Walker
Photography By: Chris McLennan, Jack Affleck
Vail’s Back Bowls.
These three words have come to represent the ultimate ski day.
Spanning roughly 3,000 acres, these vast, open slopes fall off of Vail’s backside and funnel into some of the most scenic drainages in ski country.
Hitting the bowls on a powder day is a lifelister for any serious skier or snowboarder, and seeking out stashes three days after a storm is de rigeur for back bowl connoisseurs.
How do they know where to go?
Better yet, how will you know where to go if you’ve only got a weekend?
We sought out a Vail patroller and begged and bribed until he agreed to show us the goods (after all, this year’s snow totals are so high (more than 24 feet at Vail!) that most of the back bowls are staying open through closing day).
Here’s what we found.
Getting started: Game Creek to Sun Down and Sun Up bowls
Follow the sun and start with the easternmost bowl, then work your way west.
From Lionshead, take the Eagle Bahn Gondola and follow the signs directly to Game Creek Express Lift (Chair 7).
You’ll be tempted by the open terrain on Game Creek Bowl, but unless it hasn’t snowed for days, resist.
From the top of Chair 7, shuffle to the obvious entrance for Sun Down Bowl, bang a right and stay high on the traverse, past the folks bootpacking (they’re only getting an extra three or four turns; unless you want the exercise, skip it), to far skier’s right where you end up on Ptarmigan Ridge.
Veer left just as the ridge begins to noticeably drop and head into the trees on Widge’s Ridge for about 500 feet of thigh-burning aspens.
It’s short, but it’s worth it.
At the bottom, follow the cat track to High Noon Express (Chair 5) to Sun Up Bowl.
Head right off the lift and drop fall line down the gut of the open bowl, known as The Slot.
After five or six wide-banked turns, cut skier’s left to Yonder Gully for some high-speed turns that drop you at the bottom of Sun Up Lift (Chair 17).
Next stops: Tea Cup and China bowls
Sometimes, size isn’t everything.
Tea Cup Bowl is one of the smaller back bowls, but it’s loaded with cliff drops and steep shots. Bang a right off of Chair 17 and follow signs to Genghis Khan.
Ignore the temptation to lay down your fastest Super G turns—if you don’t, you’ll miss the not-so-obvious, unmarked entrance into Tea Cup Bowl halfway down.
Take a right and snake underneath several forested stands of trees.
The entrance to the bowl is marked by several large boulders, which are cliffs in low-snow season (and mere speed bumps this year).
Tea Cup Express (Chair 36) takes you back to the top, where you might consider refueling at Two Elk Lodge.
If it’s lunchtime, however, the lodge is packed—which means the bowls are empty.
Skip the lodge and drop into the bowl again, but this time, stay high and work your way skier’s left, across the sprawling China Bowl to Chopstix, which is often groomed and always fast.
Drop to Orient Express Lift (Chair 21).
Head right off the lift onto the easy Silk Road for a beat before making a hard right, dropping fall line and into Rasputin’s Revenge.
Sandwiched between the better known Shangri-La and Red Square,Rasputin’s is often less tracked and empty.
For the intrepid: Mongolia, Inner and Outer bowls
These bowls are often less tracked, in part because they are so far out.
They also have a long run-out, and the vertical drop isn’t as long as some of the more central bowls.
Do not let these facts discourage you.
Drop directly under the Mongolia Chair (Chair 22), and veer skier’s left into the gully for well-spaced trees that give way to classic high-alpine skiing.
If the snow’s terrific (which it usually is), take the run out all the way to Orient Express, drop down to Mongolia, and then go far skier’s left until you hit the ski area boundary.
Welcome to Outer Mongolia.