On the Mountain, Off the Piste12/08/2023 03:12PM ● By Deb Olsen
Featured in Steamboat Magazine Ski Edition 2023-2024.
Steamboat Springs, CO - Pillows of powder, 60-foot cliffs, boulders, aspen groves and pine forests – Mahogany Ridge and Fish Creek Canyon, the new 650-acre expansion area on the northern edge of the Steamboat Ski Area, encompasses rugged terrain and secret stashes of deep snow.
The area has been a backcountry mecca for generations. You earned your turns, no lift service was available. It includes such legendary shots as Golf Course and Boulder fields and Outlaw Draw. Until now, those names didn’t appear on maps; instead they were a part of local folklore. Gladed tree skiing for which Steamboat is famous abounds in the expansion area. Located to skier’s right of Middle Rib off Pony Express, Mahogany Ridge evokes visions of Closets and Shadows runs, off the top of Mount Werner.
Other than the addition of the Mahogany Ridge Express lift, which bisects Golf Course Field, and the Edge of the World Trail, which runs along the rim of the canyon, very little has changed in this rugged terrain. A limited number of clean shots exist in the heavily treed acreage at present, but the potential is there for acres of new skiable terrain as crews remove standing dead trees and clear underbrush from the area.
Access to the new area is via Pony Express; exit the lift to the left and from there, a trail brings you directly into Mahogany Ridge, which comprises 355 acres of the new expansion. From there, either traverse back to Pony Express or ride the ridge, which is categorically advanced terrain.
A third option is to exit through one of six newly installed gates to the unmanicured, double-black diamond terrain of Fish Creek Canyon, where cliffs, some in excess of 50 feet, guard the canyon floor.
“Fish Creek Canyon is extreme terrain, in bold with an exclamation point,” says Dave Hunter, vice president of resort operations for the ski area. “The slopes can exceed 50 degrees in pitch; there are unmarked hazards, there are large cliff bands.”
“The two most important things about going into Fish Creek Canyon are familiarizing yourself with the area, and going with a buddy,” says patroller Sally House. “Know before you go,” locals say. “If you don’t know; don’t go.”
“It is going to ski and ride this winter much like it has for the last two decades, with one key difference,” Dave says. “We’ll be actively patrolling it and performing avalanche mitigation.
Previously, rescue efforts have been mounted when skiers or riders found themselves “cliffed out” at Hell’s Wall, the most infamous section of Fish Creek Canyon. Longtime backcountry skiers worry that the number of those rescues will increase proportionally to the increased amount of traffic in the area this winter. To address those concerns, the yurt at the top of Pony Express is being replaced with a full ski patrol station, and up to 10 patrollers will be assigned to the new expansion area daily.
Patrol is working to fully rope off Mahogany Ridge with a couple access points off Pony along with the access gates to Fish Creek Canyon. With clear and straightforward roping and signage in place, resort officials are hoping to reduce, rather than increase, the number of skiers/riders who become lost in the area. “People will know exactly what they are getting into when they venture into these two new advanced and expert zones,” Erin Campbell reported on behalf of the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp.
As sad as touring skiers and riders are to lose exclusive access to their hidden stashes, ski area officials are relieved about the opportunity to have more control over the terrain.
“Now that it’s a part of our boundary, we’ll be able to go in and put in all the directional signs and information for our guests so that they understand how to best get in, get to their favorite ski or snowboard shot, and how they get out,” Dave says.“The way that you’re going to get out of Fish Creek Canyon, it is, on average, a 30-45 minute traverse from the bottom of Fish Creek Canyon, up over a ridgeline to get back to the bottom of Mahogany Ridge Express.” Climbing skins, AT or telemark gear or split boards will be handy gear to have.
With the opening of Mahogany Ridge and Fish Creek Canyon, Steamboat becomes the second largest ski area in the state. At the same time, it addresses the persistent criticism that while Steamboat is a great place for families, it lacks steep, challenging terrain.
Be adventurous, but be safe.
For more information on this area, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnmxExfR87E
– Steamboat Magazine publisher Deborah Olsen is a 40-year resident of Steamboat, and a longtime backcountry skier. She admits to being among those who are saddened by the loss of their private powder stashes. At the same time, she hopes readers enjoy the newly opened terrain while erring on the side of caution.