No boundaries at Sugar Bowl

At 1,200 acres with 1,500 vertical feet, Sugar Bowl may seem like one of the smaller resorts in California, but its open boundary policy means that for skiers and riders with a sense of adventure and the right education, the possibilities are endless.

Grant Barta | Sugar Bowl

“We’re soon cresting the ridge and heading toward the peak of Mount Judah for another run off the south side. We enjoy another run of soft, buttery snow before hiking back up and heading back to the resort.

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An open boundary policy means that skiers and riders are allowed to leave the resort boundary and venture into the back country at any one of the designated gates throughout the resort. However, leaving the ski resort boundary also means leaving behind the safety of slopes that have been subjected to avalanche control procedures, rescue from ski patrol and signs directing skiers back to the base are or their cars.

“When we opened the Summit Chair [in 2010] we knew people were going to ski into the back country so we needed to focus on education,” said John Monson, director of sales and marketing for Sugar Bowl.

Grant Barta | Sugar Bowl

The Summit Chair accessed terrain on Mount Judah that had formerly been accessible by those willing to hike. The resort partnered with Alpine Skills International, a guide service founded by Mimi Vadasz and her late husband, Bela Vadasz, on Donner Summit. Bela was also among a group of guides who founded the American Mountain Guides Association, the national certification program for training American mountain guides.

The partnership between Sugar Bowl and Alpine Skills International meant the resort would be able to provide the education necessary for skiers and riders to navigate their open boundaries safely. Today, Alpine Skills International offers a variety of courses from guide tours for first-time, back-country adventurers to avalanche safety and snow science courses for seasoned guides and patrollers.

I set out on a recent Sunday morning to explore some of the terrain just outside of Sugar Bowl’s boundary. I met with Monson and our guide, Nick Bliss, at the Backcountry Adventure Center and after discussing our options we set off on a ski adventure.

Grant Barta | Sugar Bowl

Originally, I had my sights set on skiing the fabled Lake Run, however the mountains always call the shots and Bliss warned that the conditions weren’t prime for skiing. Having a guide was already paying off as he suggested a few lines where he knew pockets of soft snow were lingering from storms that fell earlier in the week. It felt weird getting on the lift with all my back-country gear, but I was thankful for the fresh legs when we dropped into the South Side of Mount Lincoln through one of several access gates. After crossing through some crust, the snow was smooth wind buff back to the skin track. Later, Monson compared the skiing outside of Sugar Bowl to mini golf, meaning skiers and riders are able to hike and ski several laps in a short amount of time. Sure enough, we’re soon cresting the ridge and heading toward the peak of Mount Judah for another run off the south side. We enjoy another run of soft, buttery snow before hiking back up and heading back to the resort.

Alpine Skills International offers guided tours beyond the outskirts of Sugar Bowl. Adventurous skiers and riders can access bigger adventures including an overnight trip to the Lost Trail Lodge and a two-day trip to Squaw Valley. The trips and classes also teach the skills needed to pursue bigger adventures. Alpine Skills International guides also lead trips on some of the world’s biggest peaks.

In addition to an open boundary policy, Sugar Bowl allows skiers and riders to skin uphill in bounds in the resort for those looking for a good work out or a lap before the lifts start turning with an uphill pass. Additionally, those who only want one ride up the lift to access the back-country gates may purchase and up-and-out pass. A guide isn’t necessary to access the back country but is a good choice for first timers and those looking to refresh their skills.

Alpine Skills International offers a free introduction to Avalanche Safety on Saturdays at 2 p.m. at the Backcountry Adventure Center at Sugar Bowl. Also check out classes throughout the season for all levels of avalanche safety, guided back-country tours, winter mountaineering, ice climbing and more.


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