The Tao of Chutes
By Andrew McLean

Back to Writings Index
Originally published in the Sports Guide Magazine

Powder is the curse of the Wasatch. It’s light, fluffy, prone to avalanching and draws undue attention to Utah’s skiing. Fortunately, there is an alternative to this fate worse than death – chute skiing. With chute skiing, you have far more important things to worry about than spooning tracks, counting turns or scoring freshies. First and foremost, you have to be concerned about staying alive. Anything else is just icing on the cake. After surviving 3,000’ of side stepping over frozen ice chunklets and cliff bands, you see life in a new light. Just breathing can be fun and a Big Mac is a tender gift from heaven. With powder skiing, you are left with a hunger for more. More turns, more vert, more laps. With chute skiing, all you want is for it to be over. You feel satisfied. A good chute should leave you with a slightly nauseous feeling in your stomach, a dull glow on your brain and a stupid smile on your face. “Gosh, that was neat. I hope I never do it again.” 

But, of course you do, because chute skiing is legal and highly addictive. Once in you have no choice. Everything else just seems boring. Powder skiing becomes akin to the Missionary Position – something slightly pleasurable that is done out of a sense of duty, but just doesn’t satisfy a certain perverted craving. 

One good thing about chute skiing is that only people who have done it, understand it. My mother confuses Backcountry with Cross Country skiing and wonders if I’ve taken to wearing lycra in public. This lack of interest and understanding means that you are more than likely to have your chute du jour all to yourself. While the masses are flipping off the Powderbirds in a bloodbath over in the Ivory Flakes, the Heart of Darkness can be all yours. Just you and a close friend listening to your hearts fluttering in fear, counting your rosaries and making soon to be broken promises to higher powers. This is perhaps not the ideal family activity, but it beats the crap out of groveling through powder any day. 

So, how does one reach this level of enlightened depravity? Well, you have to work at it. You have to want it. Chute skiing is an acquired taste. To appreciate it, you have to be of the mindset where you are looking for a challenge, versus looking for a pleasant experience. You have to expect to suffer, and with time, the suffering becomes enjoyable. You have to approach it like your time is running out, as it’s hard to imagine doing it as a retirement center activity. Ski today what you can’t tomorrow. As David Lee Roth howled “Better use it up before it gets old.” To this end, it’s a good idea to develop a hit list of desired chutes then choose the appropriate one for the conditions that day. As fun as glaze ice is, sometimes it’s better to find something you can set an edge in.

Chute skiing, like aid climbing and real estate, is all about location, location and location. There’s nothing like the feeling of standing at the head of a 3,000’ line that springs from your boots and falls away to the valley floor in a continuous flow of white. By nature, chutes tend to be steep, rock lined and direct as they are often the sewer systems of the mountain, formed by years of carrying debris down the path of least resistance. Like all good addictions, your first tastes are usually free, courtesy of the ski areas with runs like Alta’s Main Baldy, Solitude’s Honeycomb Cliffs or the Wasatch-Cache’s magnificent Pipeline. From then on, you’ll have to work to feed the need by hiking and skinning in the backcountry to get your fix. With areas like Little Cottonwood Canyon, where over 40 slide paths hit the road and many times that lurk further back, there’s a lifetime supply of lines for even the most addicted Chute Geek.

I didn’t really appreciate the Wasatch until I started to travel away from it. The access, terrain, snow quality and logistics are unmatched. Oftentimes, getting back to your car is something that you start to think about with only half an hour of daylight remaining. Unlike other states, where you have to trek for hours to get to skiable terrain, in the Wasatch you can turn literally right to your tailgate. The snow tends to settle out quickly and layers often heal instead of linger. Compare that to say, a certain rectangular state to the east where the snowpack is so notoriously unstable that skiers have missed whole seasons due to constantly high avalanche danger.

Aside from just being fun, there is also a practical side to chute skiing. Most importantly is the lack of any sort of required skiing skills or technique. Any combination of hop turns, kick turns, sideslipping or linked recoveries will do. Survival skiing is seldom pretty. And speaking of pretty, unlike powder skiing, which requires a dainty powder suit, there is no such thing as a chute suit, so you can save all sorts of money. An old pair of diapers will work just fine.

Another key element of chute skiing is the sense of exploration. With a few notable exceptions (The Hypodermic Needle comes to mind) chutes are rarely straightforward affairs. They twist, turn, cliff-out, split and merge with splendid complexity. Little thousand footers are like short stories – a bit of character development, a surprise here and there, then an ending. The big ones, those over 3,000’, which the Wasatch happens to have a multitude of, are like epic novels that unfold as you progress down them. You might start in a tight couloir, traverse, rappel, enter another couloir, split to the left, climb over a ridge, ski through a roller coaster gully and finally trace arcs down the apron before it’s all over. They tend to stick in your mind like happy childhood memories.

One of the prime hazards of chute skiing, or any type of backcountry skiing for that matter, is avalanches. With sports such as climbing or alligator wrestling, the hazards are always there and almost always very obvious. With avalanches, the risk varies all the time and isn’t always obvious. You can be in the middle of your third run on a perfectly clear and sunny day when one breaks loose. Your best defense is to take avalanche safety classes and develop good backcountry habits. In some ways, chutes can be safer as they have less volume than a wide-open slope. If you find a way to safely get to the top of them and drop a cornice, often times it will flush out the entire chute. The downside of chute skiing is that you are in an enclosed space and may not have anywhere to go if a slide starts above you. Always try to stop either on top of some high point, or behind a rock spur. Another slim rationale for chute skiing is that they tend to be steeper than the prime 38-degree avalanche bulls eye, and thus don’t hold as much snow. But, unless the chute ends in a cliff (a dream come true) it will eventually taper back into the prime avalanche angle, which you have to be aware of.

In comparison to the Northwest or the East coast, skiing in Utah is like dying and going to heaven. Or, being forced into retirement and put out to pasture. Everything is so easy. Where’s the challenge in floating down vast fields of 5%? At a minimum, chute skiing involves a wide variety of challenges, from route finding, physical endurance, avalanche forecasting, logistics and mental fortitude. With more advanced outings, add in mixed climbing, setting anchors and large doses of mountaineering. What more could you ask for? Imagine the blissful feeling of erratically hop turning down a tight, narrow couloir far from the road. Rock walls loom over your head and race up to greet you with every turn. Instead of turning your mind off and floating to the bottom, you are fully engaged and absorbed in the motions of getting your skis around, under control and then doing it again. It’s the difference between skiing something wild, or something mild. It’s tracks on the wall, versus tracks in the mall. To ski chutes is to be alive.

Don’t get me wrong – chute skiing isn’t all just fun and games. You have to pay your dues almost every time you go out. To get to and from your chosen line, you often have to ski through those heinous powder fields. It’s just something that you have to endure and comes with the territory. Personally, when I’m confronted with one of these beasts, I close my eyes, hold my breath and suffer through it as best I can. With your knees slightly flexed, click your tails together and repeat, “There’s no place like chutes. There’s no place like chutes…”

Copyright - Andrew McLean Back to Writings Index