The Hardest and Steepest Ski Runs in North America

Published on 06/02/2023 · 9 min readThese runs are so steep, so committing, and oftentimes so dangerous that the mere mention of their names can induce shudders. Let's get into them!
Ian Greenwood, Ski Expert
By Ski Expert Ian Greenwood

Top view of Corbet's Couloir. Photo by CS Nafzger

To ski is to brag. That statement might sound a bit harsh, or maybe patently untrue to the uninitiated, but if you’ve spent a good amount of time partaking in winter sports, you’ll know it’s as much a part of the mountain experience as apres-ski beers or blower pow.

The contents of said “bragging” can vary. Some will use their gear as leverage, saying things like “Dude, I just got a new pair of DPS skis,” or “My speed turns are waaay more functional than your shifts.” Others will rely on their skiing prowess, “My touring-to-skiing transitions are the fastest in the group,” they might say, or “I bet you can’t backflip as well as me.” One of these two bragging categories is infinitely cheaper than the other and arguably more effective at impressing your friends. I bet you can guess which one that is.

The ski-skill brag owes its roots to the design of the ski resorts themselves. Every trail at nearly every ski area has a designated colored shape to indicate its difficulty. Kids on the slopes, in an effort to one-up each other, frequently refer to these shapes to prove that they’re better than their friends. Telling your adult friends repeatedly that you skied a black diamond bowl probably won’t land as well as you might hope, though, and will likely come off as a bit juvenile.

However, there are a select few runs throughout the world that exist outside of the green-to-double-black-diamond scale. These runs are so steep, so committing, and oftentimes so dangerous that the mere mention of their names can induce shudders. Only the most elite skiers and snowboarders make it down them in one piece.

So, if you’ve accepted that one-upping your friends is just a part of a day in the mountains and are ready to take on some of the meanest slopes around, read on for a list of the runs in North America with the most street-cred potential. Name-dropping one of these bad boys is the schoolyard equivalent of “I skied a double black diamond”; they’re sure to impress your friends far more than your new lightweight touring setup that weighs less than 1,000 grams.

1. Corbet’s Couloir

A couloir is defined as a “steep, narrow gully on a mountainside.” Sounds pretty scary on its own, right? Sure, but imagine that in order to enter said couloir, you have to jump off a 20-foot vertical drop headwall of snow. This combination — narrow gully and mandatory 20-foot cliff drop — that’s Corbet’s Couloir - one of the steepest ski runs in the country. In French, the language of its origin, couloir means hallway. Another phrase you might like to know in French while you peer down into Corbet’s from the top is je suis terrifié, which translates to “I am terrified,” because you are about to drop into one of America's scariest ski slopes.

You can find Corbet’s Couloir at the famous Jackson Hole, which is the biggest ski resort in Wyoming. Corbet’s earned its name from Barry Corbet, a Canadian skier and mountaineer who dropped out of Dartmouth in the 1960s to live the ski-bum lifestyle. During a trip up the peak that would eventually become Jackson Hole resort, Barry saw the couloir and said “Some day, that will be a ski run.” While he was right, he wasn’t the first to swallow his fear and drop into Corbet’s. That title goes to Lonnie Ball, a Jackson-Hole local and patrolman. Barry himself eventually took the plunge sometime in the late 1960s.

Today, Corbet’s Couloir is the venue of a freeride competition called the Kings and Queens of Corbet’s. The event pulls in a cadre of elite skiers and snowboarders who don’t just ski down Corbet’s, they flip into it. Yep, you heard that right, to earn a medal at the Kings and Queens event you’ll probably need to launch off the cornice and throw a backflip or cork into the couloir. In the 2020 event, pro skier Parkin Costain stomped a massive double backflip into the couloir.

Remember when I said that entering Corbet’s requires a mandatory aerial drop of 20 feet? That isn’t necessarily true. Sure, to ski Corbet’s with the most style, you should drop the cornice; however, there’s a small slice in the cornice that forms yearly and allows you to enter without going airborne. Taking this conservative approach will still net you the title of “Corbet’s survivor” with considerably less risk. Should you decide that you must huck yourself off the cornice, don't do it on a day when the snow is firm. Instead, wait until a storm has blown through. That way, your landing will resemble a soft pile of pillows rather than a boilerplate.

2. Brain Damage

Of all the runs on this list, Brain Damage certainly has the most fearsome name. Images of cracked helmets and blurry memories come to my mind. However, Brain Damage isn’t quite as fearsome as you might think. Unlike Corbet’s Couloir, it doesn’t involve any airtime for a flawless run. Instead, its upper portion is flanked by partially hidden boulders, which makes it a “no-fall zone.” A no-fall zone is a portion of the mountain where a fall wouldn’t be very fun, to put it lightly. Unlike a fall on a wide-open snowfield or groomed trail, which is downright pleasant in comparison, a fall in these regions puts at you risk of sliding incredibly far while pinballing your way off rocks.

If the idea of some exposure is exciting to you, then Brain Damage will be right up your alley (or should I say... couloir). To find it, you’ll have to travel to Crystal Mountain, Washington. It’s located off the top of the King summit, the premier free-riding zone at Crystal Mountain, which is a short hike away from the High Campbell lift.

Much like Corbet’s Couloir, don’t risk attempting this run in poor conditions—only approach it when the swells are high and the snow is deep. No one wants to get stuck in a steep chute, wishing that they brought their ice skates rather than skis. P.S., don’t forget your avalanche gear including your beacon, probe, shovel, and other backcountry gear—Brain Damage resides in a “sidecountry” zone with minimal avalanche control and is certainly not a place to bring your beginner or intermediate friends.

3. Delirium Dive

Third on the list is Delirium Dive. To take the dive, you’ll need to head to beautiful Sunshine Village, a quick drive outside another incredibly picturesque locale, Banff, Canada. While you’re there hunting for thrills, make sure to stop by Lake Louise, another resort down the road from Banff that is renowned for its waist-deep blower pow. The entrance for Delirium Dive is located next to the top of the Continental Chairlift at Sunshine Village. Much like Brain Damage, Delirium Dive is loosely controlled, so you’ll need your avalanche beacon to get through the entrance gate.

Unlike Brain Damage and Corbet’s Couloir, Delirium Dive is a full zone. This means that entering the Dive puts you in a choose-your-own-adventure situation with plenty of terrain options. The section known as “Dive Proper” is only a minor challenge for the advanced skier or snowboarder. That said, there are plenty of highly technical notches and cliff drops to be found throughout Delirium Dive, should you choose to pursue them.

Accessing these areas without a local who knows the area is not recommended. If you take a wrong turn, you could get cliffed out and have to clamber out like a mountain goat. Getting stuck above a hundred-foot cliff band with no exits isn’t a lot of fun, but Delirium Dive wouldn’t be on a list of the most dangerous runs if there wasn’t a little risk involved, right?

Once the navigation of the more challenging portions of Delirium Dive is complete, you’ll be treated to a paradise of fresh powder and gentle slopes. After snagging some freshies, the chair awaits, and if your nerves aren’t too fried, you can head back up and do it all over again.

4. Paradise

The tagline for Mad River Glen, located in Vermont, is “Ski It If You Can.” Sure, such a tagline is a little presumptuous, but it’s also an effective taunt. Who doesn’t want to find out if their skiing is up to snuff?

What Mad River Glen lacks in massive peaks and exposure, it makes up for in spades with its steep and technical terrain. The notable run from this resort is called Paradise. If you think you can handle the endless moguls, tight trees, ledges, and occasional frozen waterfall, hop on the iconic single chair and follow the signs to the top of the trail. Mad River Glen is known for its excellent terrain, partly due to the diligence of its founder, Roland Palmedo. Paradise is a result of Palmedo’s impeccable design philosophy. You’ll hardly notice the lack of West Coast summits as you battle your way down this run’s expertly curated path.

Mad River Glen may be the best stop on your search for the most challenging runs in North America. It’s a unique mountain with a unique history. The term “mom and pop” gets thrown around a lot in the world of snowsports, but few resorts actually occupy the vision that the phrase prompts. Mad River Glen does. It’s the only cooperatively-owned resort in North America — a decision initiated in the 1990s, which solidified the Glen as an outlier among the growing influence of corporate resort empires like Alterra or Vail. If you’ve grown tired of the Disneyfication of snowsports, don’t neglect Mad River Glen.

A word of warning though, this resort is among the trifecta of North American resorts with a draconian “no snowboarders allowed” policy. If you’re a single planker, you’ll have to preemptively scratch this one off the list, although there are some similarly great options located in Vermont, if you get that East Coast itch.

Closing Thoughts

Some other legendary resorts for steep and gnarly terrain include Crested Butte Mountain Resort and Arapahoe Basin in Colorado, Taos, New Mexico, Big Sky, Montana, Snowbird, Utah, and Palisades Tahoe, California. This is hardly an exhaustive list of the steepest and most dangerous runs in North America. Just about every resort you visit will have its own legendary challenge, one that separates the advanced skiers from the truly expert skiers. To find these mythical runs, all you have to do is ask, and you’ll surely find an excitable local willing to test the mettle of your interloper self.

Remember, though, while braggadocio may be a hallmark of the snowsports we all enjoy, it’s all in good fun. Seeking out the region's most imposing slopes just to impress your friends will eventually feel hollow. Do it for yourself, and do it for the thrills.

If you have any questions or you want to get geared for these monster runs, reach out to a Ski Expert here on Curated!

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