Shooting Star Couloir, a steep, backcountry run just five miles southeast of Winter Park on James Peak’s east face, is a fleeting ski. Too dangerous for much of the winter, the descent becomes safe for a few weeks during the late spring—after the risk of snow avalanches decreases but before the thaw sends ice and rocks hurtling down the narrow cleft like asteroids. Timing is critical, says Littleton’s Nathan Kurth. Fortunately, Kurth has a secret weapon for determining the optimal window that most backcountry skiers don’t: a 230-horsepower bush plane.
Over the course of a couple of weeks in 2019, he spent his mornings assessing the couloir’s conditions from just a few hundred feet above the Continental Divide. After battling the unpredictable air currents that buffeted his single-engine Super Stinson Voyager, he finally saw the fickle snow come into form. “I snapped a few photos and sent them to my friends,” he says. “We went up a couple of days later. It was perfect.”
Kurth is part of a cadre of Coloradans combining out-of-bounds skiing and mountain flying—two of the country’s fastest-growing adventure sports, according to market research firm the NDP Group and Plane & Pilot Magazine, respectively—in search of untouched snow, ideal conditions, and hidden lines. While the growth of backcountry flying is minuscule compared to backcountry skiing, the expansion is obvious to local pilots. “If you went to the airport in Boulder 15 years ago and looked at the airplanes and compared that to the ones there today, there are a lot more backcountry-capable planes,” says Patrick Romano, a Boulder-based pilot and independent flight instructor.
Simply flying over the Rockies requires a special skill set. The same sketchy weather that makes hiking high-alpine terrain on a summer afternoon risky is exponentially more dangerous in the air, thanks to the Continental Divide. “Think of it like a dam,” Romano says. “When water spills over the top, it’s turbulent.” So, actually getting close enough to mountain peaks to scout ski lines takes another level of expertise—one that took Kurth nearly 20 years to acquire.
The hobby’s demanding nature and high costs keep the community small (Romano estimates the number of bush pilots in Colorado to be in the low hundreds), but you don’t have to grab the stick to reap the benefits. Andy Young, owner of scenic flight company Boulder Air Tours, offers ski-scouting trips starting at $158 for the first 30 minutes. Just don’t expect him to act as your chairlift. Unlike in Alaska, where smooth glaciers and wide gravel riverbeds make great impromptu landing strips, touching down close to a backcountry ski run in Colorado isn’t practical: Whether you’re a customer or a private pilot with your own plane like Kurth, you still have to hike in to earn your turns.
For Kurth, the ability to mesh his two biggest passions more than justifies the workout. A week after successfully skiing Shooting Star, he flew back over James Peak for another look. “It wasn’t doable anymore,” he says. “We had such a small time frame, and we nailed it.”