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.
Bobsled and Luge Rides
The Adventure: Described as a “ribbon of concrete, steel and ice that zigs and zags down the face of Mt. Van Hoevenberg,” the now-public bobsled track at Lake Placid is an Olympic-caliber venue. For $75, a professional driver and brakeman will pilot you down the twisting ice track, where banked walls produce multiple G-force turns, and freeway speeds are guaranteed to freeze a smile on your face.
The Venue: Frozen gorges of Minnesota’s Sawtooth Mountains.
The Adventure: More than 50 whitewater streams cut precipitous paths through the Sawtooth Mountains while rushing en route to Lake Superior on Minnesota’s North Shore. In winter the rivers’ surfaces freeze, while below the whitewater continues to roar. The University of Minnesota Duluth’s Outdoors Program guides adventurers up these mostly frozen gorges for a unique activity called rivering: roped together for safety, participants on cross-country skis and snowshoes negotiate the path, skirting open water and rapids that rage even in below-zero temps.
The Venue: Big waves in the frigid Gulf of Alaska.
The Adventure: Dodge ice chunks and hang ten on waves in one of the planet’s more improbable places to surf. Alaska boasts dozens of choice spots along its immense coast, from breaks near the town of Seward, just south of Anchorage (where water temps average around 50 degrees) to beaches in Yakutat, which sits at a latitude of 59 degrees north. Yakutat’s Icy Waves surf shop services the 20 to 30 local surfers in the area—plus visiting wave seekers—who even in below-freezing temps hanker to suit up and paddle out for a set.
The Adventure: Ascend the frozen waterfalls of Ouray’s Uncompahgre River Gorge, where a local organization aims hoses and sprinklers off cliff edges each winter to grow dozens of immense ice climbs. Guide services teach newbies to swing ice axes and kick crampons on the walls of white.
The Adventure: Clip into skis, loft a parachute in the wind, and zip off across a frozen lake or snowy field. The sport of kite skiing has grown from a fringe activity to a near-mainstream sport, with guides and clinics available around the country. Skiers and snowboarders tether themselves to the nylon canopies with seat harnesses, while control bars pull parachute lines to regulate speed and direction of travel in the wind.
The Venue: Utah’s Wasatch Mountain Range.
The Adventure: This one-of-a-kind guided backcountry journey leads intermediate and advanced skiers across 21 miles and six Wasatch Range ski resorts. Participants on Ski Utah’s Interconnect Tour ride assorted chairlifts and traverse wild backcountry terrain during the $250 daylong tour. Skiers start at Deer Valley Resort in the morning and finish at Snowbird in the evening, passing through Park City Mountain Resort, Brighton, Solitude, and Alta Ski Area en route.
Winter Mountaineering Clinic
The Venue: High Peaks of California.
The Adventure: Crevasse rescue. Avalanche safety. Rope-work on snow. SWS Mountain Guides teaches the basics of cold-weather security and more on its introductory expeditions on Mount Shasta, Mount Lassen, Mount Whitney, and other snowy California peaks. Participants shoulder a pack and ski or snowshoe miles into a remote backcountry base camp with SWS guides. Final exam: ascending a vertiginous, snowy peak.
The Venue: North Woods of Maine.
The Adventure: Tether up to a team of huskies at the Wilderness Lodge on Nahmakanta Lake, where three-day dogsled trips depart each winter from December through March. Participants stand on the runners and learn how to shout commands and commandeer a team of Alaskan sled dogs. No experience is necessary, but aspiring sled drivers must be in reasonably good shape to learn the basics of harnessing, hooking up, and solo driving a dog team into the forest wilderness of northern Maine.
The Adventure: As a United States Olympic Team training site, Milwaukee’s Pettit National Ice Center has hosted speed-skating stars like Bonnie Blair and Apolo Anton Ohno. But the arena also operates one of the largest skating schools in the nation. Here, on several days each month, first-timers can rent long-blade speed skates and lace up to sample a sport in which experts whiz along at 40 mph or more on flat ice.
The Venue: White Mountains of New Hampshire.
The Adventure: Explore the serene winter wilderness of New Hampshire’s White Mountains on snowshoes. The three-day REI Adventures trip sends pack-toting participants into the snowy forests on an approximately 21-mile-loop route that starts and ends at the Crawford Notch base camp. Mountain huts afford a heated retreat after each day’s long trek. Offered on weekends December through February.