Ski bowls or (known as cirques in Europe) are natural geological features caused by glacial erosion. They create enormous wide, bowl-shaped depressions that collect snow, making them ideal for skiing and recreation. But where do ski bowls come from?
Ski bowls are natural features of erosion that occur under a specific set of conditions. Usually located higher up on the sides of mountains they attract plenty of snow during winter to make interesting terrain for skiers. Ski bowls are located around the world, but the geology of the United States and Canada means they are more frequently found there.
Ski bowls run down from the top of the mountain widening out as it descends, with a variable slope down to the base. It is these sloping sides that create the interest for the skier, making a choice of descents.
Ski bowls are found in mountain ranges across the world including Reunion Island, the Circo de Gredos in Spain, and Cirque (cirque means crater) de Garvanie in the Pyrenees. There are numerous ski bowls in the United States and Canada (see below), and even one in Chandra Taal in India.
How are Ski Bowls created?
Ski bowls are often about 1km wide and 1km from top to bottom. Their shape varies depending on the glacial erosion they have undergone, so some bowls are full, and some are half-bowls. They are usually located high on a mountainside and surrounded by cliffs on three sides. For the correct formation of a glacial bowl, the potential bowl needs to be protected from sunlight and prevailing wind.
These sheltered conditions encourage snow to accumulate in the bowl, which then gradually transforms into glacial ice. This glacial ice then acts as a powerful agent of erosion, hollowing out the rock underneath and breaking it up. Over thousands of years, repeated layers of broken-up rock are carried away by the glacial ice to leave the final wide bowl shape.
What is Bowl Skiing?
The lucky geology of the United States and Canada means these two countries have plenty of opportunities for bowl skiing. While there are smaller, natural bowls or cirques in other parts of the world, they have become a routine part of recreational skiing, especially in the US and Canada.
Most bowls offer wide-open areas of usually ungroomed snow and powder, where skiers can enjoy the freedom and scale of the mountainside. Bowls offer a wide variety of terrain where skiers can safely push their ability.
Experienced skiers are often enthusiastic about skiing bowls. They enjoy the natural setting, the excellent powder, and the sheer choice and difficulty of trails to the bottom. There is plenty of scope for beginners to practice their skills too, so long as you follow a few simple rules.
Precautions in a Ski Bowl
Take your time to acclimatize to the layout of the bowl, particularly if it is your first visit.
Weigh up the conditions, the weather, and what other skiers are doing.
Keep an eye out for warning signs and stick to them. If you see a sign saying ‘out of bounds’, take it to mean there is danger and take a different route. Signs are put out to help you enjoy a safe day not just the fun of it. If you see a ‘caution’ sign it is alerting you to some danger. Possibly it’s a particularly busy part of the trail or there is some obstacle. Keep alert to the messages you see.
The gradient of some sections may look doable until you reach them. For a bowl with marked runs, use these to build up your confidence gradually rather than just diving in.
A natural part of skiing bowls is that the terrain can change drastically and quickly. One minute you can be flying over powder only to be suddenly dumped in chopped-up snow. Keep alert to changes such as this so you can anticipate and react in time.
Most bowls are located high up on mountainsides where the elevation means the weather can change very quickly. Always keep alert to changes, particularly increasing cloud cover and wind, and react accordingly.
Bowls are generally wide-open expanses of terrain where there is little opportunity to take cover. Low visibility and poor light make reading the snow surface more difficult. Always have an escape plan in mind, so that if the weather closes in suddenly, you can make your way down quickly and efficiently.
Ski bowls are not usually groomed. So, take care when choosing your route down particularly if there are a lot of other skiers around. Watch out for boulders and tree stumps – they can be easily mistaken when covered with snow.
When approaching the bottom of the bowl keep your wits about you as skiers will be congregating from every direction. Get ready to merge and keep a single file.
The Best Ski Bowls around
1. Big Sky Resort, Montana
Big Sky is situated on the Southern tip of Montana, not far from Yellowstone National Park. It’s understandably a wild and beautiful place, with six ski bowls in total. Liberty Bowl, one of the most popular, is an advanced run, so you need to be upper-intermediate at least to enjoy this one. Big Sky resort has a great variety of terrain and with elevation beyond 11,000ft, the views are world-class.
2. Vail Ski Resort
One of Vail’s best qualities is variety, in that skiers of different abilities can all ski together happily. The resort is huge. The third-largest, single mountain resort in the US, where even the back bowls cover an area encompassing 3,017 acres. There are seven bowls and Blue Sky Basin, which is an intermediate level, tree-lined expanse, for an authentic backcountry experience.
China Bowl is one of the most popular bowls on the backside of Vail. China Bowl is a good introduction to bowls as it has a consistent, intermediate run low down, which is groomed daily.
Sundown and SunUp Bowls create a stunning mix of wide-open, expansive terrain, and gladed runs.
Teacup Bowl might be short in stature, but it makes up for it with a few cliff features to test your skill. Siberia Bowl is one of the steeper bowls. As you move towards the Mongolia Bowl and then the Outer Mongolia Bowl, you will find that the steepness of the ski slope decreases. This area is for advanced skiers, as the terrain is ungroomed and changeable, although it can offer some of the best powder on the mountain.
3. The Sugar Bowl Ski Resort
The Sugar Bowl Ski Resort is in the Lake Tahoe area and has a reputation for high snowfall and advanced skiing. The Sugar Bowl is about 17% beginner, 45% intermediate, and 38% advanced across all its runs.
4. Telluride, Colorado
Telluride Ski Resort is an old gold- and silver-mining town but is now regularly listed as one of the leading ski destinations for expert and advanced skiers. The Black Iron Bowl has a reputation for all grades of challenges that skiers can test their skills. Revelation Bowl, at the rear of the resort, is less intimidating but still offers great powder.
5. Copper Mountain, Colorado
Not for the faint-hearted, Copper Mountain, has no less than four double-black diamond bowls, each with its own individuality.
6. Alta Ski Resort, Utah
Alta is a beautiful and remote resort that has a great reputation for bowl skiing. It’s one of the oldest ski resorts in the country and is renowned for its heavy snowfall. The wildcat ski bowl regularly attracts thousands of skiers.
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