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America's Wildest Winter Adventures

The sky is gray. The wind is whipping. It is December in Minnesota, where lakes flash-freeze each winter into barren plains of snow and ice. Tighe Belden, a guide with Lakawa School of Kiteboarding, adjusts a line tethered to a client on skis. He whips the cord to puff up a kite lying limp on the ice ahead. “Hold on tight!” Belden shouts, the kite’s canopy rising, filling with wind and shooting into the sky.

Kiteboarding on skis—or snowkiting—might, like many extreme winter activities, seem insane; after all, its participants hook themselves up to huge lofted parachutes and rocket across miles of frozen void on wind power alone. But as extreme winter sports go, snowkiting is actually fairly accessible—almost anyone willing to bundle up and strap on skis should get the hang of it. And, says Belden, “Most students require only one day to learn the basics.”

Of course, the learning curve for all winter adventure activities is not so quick. And yet, from ice climbing to backcountry skiing, these adrenaline-pumping sports are drawing increasing interest, as active vacationers sign up for novel travel opportunities: ice biking festivals, dogsledding clinics, bobsled workshops. Once practiced by just a few hearty souls, extreme winter sports have gone mainstream.

In Utah’s Wasatch Mountain Range, for example, where powder snow falls by the foot, Salt Lake City–based Ski Utah has designed a pioneering guided trip for aspiring backcountry skiers. For $250, the daylong, 21-mile Interconnect Tour provides intermediate and advanced skiers a chance to sample up to six ski resorts in eight hours—plus the swaths of backcountry terrain between them.

Before pushing off in the morning, Ski Utah guides discuss avalanche safety and give basic instructions on backcountry travel. Then, ducking in and out of bounds and ascending slopes on assorted chairlifts, skiers link from ski area to ski area via the white-capped Wasatch’s backcountry routes.

Not 400 miles away in tiny Ouray, CO, adventurers are lured by a different winter wonder: the frozen waterfalls of the Uncompahgre River Gorge. Every December the keepers of the (self-proclaimed) Ice Climbing Capital of the World drench the towering rock walls of the ravine, creating castles of ice that can grow as tall as apartment buildings. A handful of local operators run classes to teach first-timers how to scale these icy cliffs with little more than spiked boots, ice axes, and climbing ropes.

But scaling frozen waterfalls is—ahem—only the tip of the iceberg. For their extreme-weather settings and speed-inducing slippery surfaces, snow and ice have long been preferred mediums for thrill seekers. These days, innovative travel outfitters have made exhilarating cold-weather adventures as accessible as Caribbean escapes—and much more fun to brag about back at work.

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