This one’s tricky. Not in the, “oh damn, there’s nowhere to go backcountry skiing” way, but in the “where-to-start” kind of way. Not a bad predicament.
So where do I start?
The straightforward answer for those seeking to earn their turns around Crystal is “look north, look south, and head through the gates.” You can’t go wrong either way, and both access points have Mammut transceiver check systems set up at the top (with a transceiver practice area set up at the base of Chair 6). The Northway zone (again…the size of Mt. Baker’s inbounds terrain total!) is challenging, and though some descents begin easy, all eventually turn into gritty turns. Morning Glory Bowl is perhaps the best option in the mix, and the approach time isn’t bad from the top gate and Northway Notch. The only complaint seen in the Northway section is the tendency for bumps to replace classic backcountry powder near the bottom runouts of the Northway terrain – but if you take what was previously backcountry and put a lift in it (as Crystal has), you’ve got to expect a bit more traffic.
The Southback section of Crystal, off of Chair 6, might get more popularity. Head towards the Silver King Peak (7,012’), and drop in on either side — Avalanche Basin or Silver Basin. The bootpack might take some time, but how many resorts allow you to ski patrol-controlled backcountry with a bottom cat track back to the lift? Some say that because this section is controlled by patrol, it isn’t backcountry, but merely sidecountry. Sidecountry is a myth that only promotes bad decision-making through a false sense of safety. If it isn’t in the classic inbounds terrain boundaries, it isn’t getting the heavy skier compaction that really mitigates avalanche risk. Treat the Southback zone as backcountry (you’ve got to earn your turns here, anyway). And besides, standing on top of the King, looking down on unturned snow… that might just be the best backcountry in all of the Crystal area.
For those looking to venture further out than the lift, park in the C lot of Crystal and head up towards East Peak. From there, the options are endless. Ski some laps off East Peak, or head down and ski around the Cement Basin. Norse Peak is another mountain in the immediate area, and can be quite epic. Bullion Basin and the Morse Creek area are also excellent opportunities. If you’re looking for a multi-day adventure, follow the Pacific Crest Trail and the Morse Creek Basin will be your best bet, offering plenty of alone time away from the crowds and lift lines.