In the Northern Hemisphere, fall starts in September and ends on the winter equinox. Then it’s winter until March, spring until June, and summer until the whole cycle begins all over again. But while those seasons come and go, ski season in North America never truly ends (or at least it doesn’t have to). If you don’t want to put away your skis come spring, no problem: Just try summer skiing.
I’m not the first snow junkie to have the summer skiing epiphany, but this realization changed my life. Now, I fill my summers up with all the warm runs and slushy turns my heart desires. Across the country (and around the world) there are fanatics who chase snow all year and link the end of one “ski season,” straight into the beginning of the next. Sure, some of them can afford to travel into the Southern Hemisphere and pay for all the necessary plane tickets, hotel rooms, and gear rentals. But a massive budget isn’t a requirement to make it happen. Nor do you even need to leave the U.S.
If you want to ski year-round, America’s mountains are littered with high-country glaciers and snow fields that offer opportunities to earn turns every day of the year. Here’s how to ski year-round without leaving the lower 48.
Summer Skiing: How’s It Possible?
The short answer: Glaciers. These massive sheets of ice (along with high-altitude snow fields) offer year-round snow, especially on shaded slopes and within mountain trenches. The looming threat of climate change is causing glaciers all over the world to melt and disappear, but for now, skiing them is absolutely possible.
One other caveat: All-season skiing requires hiking. There’s no way around it. Be prepared to boot-pack your boards in, sometimes for miles, before you get to the snow. You’ll also need the right equipment (more on that below) but more importantly, you’ll need strategy. Some areas that are great for skiing in spring and early summer are not viable options come late summer and fall. Conversely, certain places that still have snow in the late summer and fall are incredibly dangerous and susceptible to avalanches in the late spring, when they’re heavily laden with powder.
That means you have to put real effort into planning your ski days. Otherwise, you might find yourself hiking miles to a snowless scree field, or worse, caught in a deadly snow slide.
What to Expect
In the U.S., at least, there will be no rad powder days, mashed potatoes, or even soft corn between June and November. The snow on glaciers and year-round snow fields is old, and it’s often packed down, melted out, crunchy, and dirty. There will be rocks lurking just below the surface, and here and there, you may have to unclip from your skis or board to traverse a section where the snow has melted away completely.
No one gets into off-season skiing for the killer snow conditions. You get into it because you’re hungry for some turns and don’t want to wait for winter’s first snowfall. You get into it because you want to know what it feels like to rip lines down a mountainside in shorts and a T-shirt. You get into it for the thrill, the challenge, and of course, for the gnar points.
Sound fun? Read on for the gear you need, and where to go.
The Gear You’ll Need
If you backcountry ski already, you probably already have all the equipment you’ll need for summer skiing. But just in case, here’s a quick-hit list of the essentials:
- Safety first: Any time you’re venturing into the backcountry to ski, you should bring your beacon, shovel, and probe. The beacon is for sending or receiving a signal so someone can find you if you get buried or lost; the probe is for pinpointing you (or your skiing partner) under the snow once you’ve been located; and the shovel is for digging yourself out. You should know how to use all three.
- Alpine touring skis or splitboard: AT skis and splitboards are a must-have for these adventures. They’re lighter, they’re easier to strap to a pack, and they’re compatible with skins, so you can ski up the snow as well as down it.
- Skins: These are long strips that stick to the bottom of your skis or splitboard and only slide in one direction; they help you move uphill. You may not use them when you hike to a glacier, but having the option is important and you should always bring a pair with you.
- Poles: Poles provide added support and balance when you’re hiking up and stability and control when you’re skiing down. A lot of people ski all-season without their poles, but I wouldn’t recommend it. They’re useful for every leg of a spring or summer skiing adventure.
- Boots: Obviously you’ll need your AT ski or snowboard boots, but hiking boots are often essential gear, too. Hiking boots are far more comfortable to wear for the walk up, and that way you won’t add the extra wear-and-tear to your ski/board boots. Typically, I’ll either clip my ski boots into my bindings or sling them over my pack for the hike.
- Crampons: If you’re hiking to your destination in hiking boots, a little extra grip will make a huge difference. (Nothing will burn your energy faster than sliding a half-step backwards for every step forwards as you slog up a slope.) Crampons will give you much more solid footing, and they’re easily packable.
- Pack: Your backpack doesn’t have to be a skiing-specific pack, but it does need to have straps on each side to secure your boards to. The easiest way to carry your skis or splitboard on a pack is by fixing one board to each side to create an “A-frame.”
- Ski straps: Ski straps are perfect for fastening together the tips of your skis to create your A-frame. They can also be used to hold broken poles together, to splint a broken limb in an emergency, to keep loose items bound together, or to fix a snapped tent pole. Keep a few handy.
- Glacier goggles: The bright summer sunshine reflecting off a glacier can easily give you snow blindness. Keep your eyes safe with glacier goggles—sunglasses with side-shields that protect your eyes from peripheral and refracted light.
Where to Ski
Blowing the lid off these summer ski locations might not endear us to the locals who frequent them, but it’s for the greater good. Below, I’ve rounded up some favorite year-round skiing locations. It isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but these are some of the best you’ll find anywhere in the lower 48.