Comparing Steepness of Ski Trails

outer-limits
Above, staring down Outer Limits, Killington VT


The math and reasoning is sort of explained below. If you want to skip that stuff and just get to the facts, scroll down the page…

The claims are ubiquitous: “Steepest in the east!” or “Longest and steepest in the midwest” or “Longest sustained pitch in Colorado” and of course the always popular, “If you can ski here you can ski anywhere.”

Ski areas are notorious for making claims. They exaggerate almost as much as skiers. In fact, the ski area spokesman’s propensity to enhance and embellish the treachery of a steep trail is second only to those of us who ski them. We lobby for our favorites, dismiss those at lesser mountains, and generally have no clue about the facts. As for the ski resorts, they often speak in terms of “percent of grade” or some other obscure measure that is only understood by engineers. You can ask an engineer to explain it, but chances are you’ll nod off during their ensuing discourse.

How then, to honestly compare and categorize steepness, and dumb it down so the rest of us can understand it?

The angle of the slope, expressed in degrees, is probably the best method for a moderately educated person. Most of us know that if a cliff goes straight up, it’s a 90° angle. That’s too steep to ski. Cut that down quite a bit, say, to the angle of a modern staircase, which is about 38°. Still too steep for most people to ski. If you cut even that in half — less than 20° — you’d say that’s a very low angle staircase. But put on a pair of skis, and even most advanced skiers will pause at the top of a 19° slope to pick their route.

Regardless of whether or not you can ski it, chances are that you can understand the steepness of a slope if someone tells you what the angle is when expressed in degrees. The question then becomes, how to determine the “degrees” of a ski slope?

Thanks to NASA, the US Geological Survey, the Google, and a dead guy named Pythagoras, we can come pretty darn close to accurately measuring the angle of any given ski slope. Because elevation data is now available at the click of a mouse, we can measure the altitude at the top and bottom of a slope and be accurate to within a few feet. The difference between the numbers is the vertical drop, and we can start to sketch out a right triangle. If we use the measuring tool on a map program to find the actual distance between those same points — specifically, “ground distance,” like pulling a tape measure down the hill — we now have the hypotenuse of our right triangle:

slope-angle

What we’re trying to find, of course, is the angle indicated in yellow in the diagram above. Armed with the length of the slope (the hypotenuse) and the length of at least one other side (the vertical drop) of this theoretical right triangle, we thank that old Greek dude for providing us with the math. I sat next to a cute redhead in geometry class, so I really can’t be much help here. It’s something about the square of the other sides equals the square of the hypotenuse, then you divide the “b” side by the hypotenuse, invert something, take the sine of that, and you get the angle. Yeah yeah, whatever. Ask an engineer.

This won’t solve all of our arguments, however, because the reality is that most hills are shaped like this:

slope-angle2

In which case, you cannot measure the length of the ground slope because it is no longer a triangle. You could measure the theoretical hypotenuse, or measure side “b”, but then you’d have an “average” angle. The average on a consistent slope like Outer Limits at Killington is meaningful, but the average on a slope like Shay’s Revenge at Snowshoe — with a long lead in and run out — gives no indication of how steep the headwall is. So what we’ve done on a slope like that is measure just the crux of the trail, kind of like the red line in the diagram immediately above.

In this manner we’ve selected the most fearsome section of each trail. In some cases, that’s a very short headwall. In others, it’s virtually top-to-bottom for 1,000 feet of white knuckle skiing. To put these in perspective, we’ve segregated the trails by the length of the steepness. In other words, the half mile on Sugarloaf’s Gondy Line at 30° shouldn’t take a backseat to 100 yards on Mount Snow’s Ripcord at 35°. So we compare apples to apples.

The key is:

  • How steep is the steepest part?
  • How long is the steepest part?

Armed with this information, we now have a semi-legitimate basis for comparison.

Angle in Degrees of Select Ski Trail Sections
Below: Minimum section length 2000′
Ski Area Trail Name Angle
(Degrees)
Length of
Measurement
Vertical Drop of
Measured Length
Notes
Arapahoe Basin, CO Pallavicini 32° 2152′ 1113′ virtually entire length
Taos, NM Al’s Run 31.4° 2841′ 1481′ virtually entire length
Stowe, VT Lookout 29.6° 2148′ 1062′ entire upper section
Sugarloaf USA, ME Gondy Line 29.6° 2027′ 1001′ Snowfield & entire upper section
Killington, VT Outer Limits 29.5° 2241.5′ 1105′ virtually entire length
Sun Valley, ID Limelight 29.2° 2607′ 1273′ upper & middle section
Jay Peak, VT Can Am 25.7° 2006′ 870′ avg of upper & middle section
Plattekill, NY Freefall 21.7° 2144′ 791′ virtually entire length

 

Below: Minimum section length 1000′

Ski Area Trail Name Angle
(Degrees)
Length of
Measurement
Vertical Drop of
Measured Length
Notes
Crested Butte, CO Banana Chute 39.5° 1723′ 1096′ avg overall; 1st 1k is 40.9°
Squaw Valley, CA KT-22 38.3° 1367′ 847′ 75 Chute
Alta, UT Alf’s High Rustler 36.5° 1606′ 955′ top to cat track
Smugglers Notch, VT Black Hole 35° 1013′ 586′ virtually entire length
Cannon, NH DJ’s Tramline 34.1° 1035′ 581′ below Middle Cannon
Hunter Mt, NY Westway 34° 1307′ 738′ 2/3 of length
Sun Valley, ID Exhibition 32.5° 1279′ 688′ from dogleg left turn to bottom
Whiteface, NY The Slides 32° 1441′ 758′ Slide 1
Killington, VT Double Dipper 31° 1207′ 625′ from drop off point to bottom
Snowbird, UT Mach Shnell 29° 1404′ 671′ from drop off point to bottom
Whiteface, NY Upper Northway 28° 1035′ 483′ main pitch
Sunday River, ME White Heat 27° 1635′ 742′ snowfield section
Jay Peak, VT Haynes 27° 1319′ 602′ upper section
Whiteface, NY Mountain Run 26° 1384′ 620′ the steep part
Whiteface, NY Upper Skyward 26° 1708′ 737′ Approx. 1/2 of trail
Beaver Creek, CO Ripsaw 26° 1169′ 519′ most of trail
Gore, NY The Rumor 25° 1335′ 566′ entire route
Beaver Creek, CO Birds of Prey 24.4° 1108′ 458′ Pete’s Arena
Beaver Creek, CO Cataract 23.7° 1079′ 434′ most of trail
Snowshoe, WV Shay’s Revenge 23° 1172′ 455′ headwall
Copper, CO Sawtooth 22.5° 1535′ 588′ lower half
Beaver Creek, CO Birds of Prey 20.4° 1213′ 423′ Golden Eagle & Abyss
Sundown, CT Gunbarrel 19° 1014′ 332′ upper 3/4 of trail
Seven Springs, PA Avalanche 18.8° 1098′ 353′ most of trail

 

Below: Minimum section length 500′

Ski Area Trail Name Angle
(Degrees)
Length of
Measurement
Vertical Drop of
Measured Length
Notes
Squaw Valley, CA KT-22 43° 790′ 540′ Johnny Moseley’s Run
Squaw Valley, CA KT-22 42° 709′ 475′ GS Bowl
Arapahoe Basin, CO Pallavicini 40° 706′ 453′ Pally Face
Stowe, VT Upper Starr 38.7° 512′ 320′ headwall from top
Alta, UT Alf’s High Rustler 38° 795′ 491′ Upper half
Jay Peak, VT Can Am 32° 740′ 390′ top section only
Cannon, NH Avalanche 31° 545′ 281′ Banshee Cut to Banshee section
Sugarloaf USA, ME Gondy Line Extension 31° 537′ 275′ snowfield section
Breckenridge, CO Mach One 30.8° 686′ 351′ from drop approx 150′ down trail
Whiteface, NY Upper Skyward 30° 806′ 406′ topmost section
Blue Knob, PA Extrovert 29.9° 909′ 453′ top to dogleg right
Mountain Creek, NJ Pipeline 28.6° 607′ 291′ headwall to old Fitz’ Folly trail
Vail, CO Riva Ridge 28.4° 517′ 246′ Tourist Trap headwall
Gore, NY The Rumor 28° 615′ 284′ top half
Whiteface, NY Cloudspin 26° 933′ 414′ from a bit below the top
Beaver Creek, CO Birds of Prey 26° 866′ 383′ The Flyway
Wengen, SWITZ Lauberhorn 22.6° 828′ 318′ Hanneggschuss
Seven Springs, PA Goosebumps 20.7° 634′ 224′ most of slope
Massanutten, VA Mak Attack 19.4° 628′ 209′ drop off to Showtime connection

 

Below: Minimum section length 300′

Ski Area Trail Name Angle
(Degrees)
Length of
Measurement
Vertical Drop of
Measured Length
Notes
Jackson Hole, WY Corbet’s Couloir 53° 350′ 280′ average of drop + chute
Jay Peak, VT Green Beret 38° 361′ 223′ headwall
Jay Peak, VT Face Chutes 37° 352′ 212′ with trees
Arapahoe Basin, CO Pallavicini 36° 465′ 275′ Pally Main Street
Jay Peak, VT Tuckerman’s Chute 36° 400′ 240′ with trees
Mount Snow, VT Ripcord 35° 437′ 235′ headwall only
Montage, PA White Lightning 32° 400′ 213′ headwall only
Belleayre, NY Upper Yahoo 30° 300′ 151′ headwall only
Attitash, NH Middle Ptarmigan 26° 332′ 145′ section between cross trails
Blue Knob, PA Stembogen Bowl 22.7° 329′ 127′ skier’s left into funnel
Seven Springs, PA North Face Slope 18° 327′ 100′ headwall

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT A COMPLETE LIST. It’s just a comparison of some popular trails that we’re able to make pretty good measurements on. That’s all it is.

ANOTHER DISCLAIMER: We update these from time to time when more accurate data becomes available. In other words, when Google Earth gets updated data.

So what can we conclude from this? Would the 31° of Al’s Run on Taos powder be more or less challenging than the 29° on Killington concrete? Would 100 yards of 53° packed powder on Corbet’s Couloir be hairier than 100 yards of 35° blue ice on Ripcord? This table, as it continues to grow, is neither intended nor qualified to be the final arbiter in a discussion of trail difficulty…it is merely an additional point of reference.

While individual steep sections give the above trails their notoriety, there are other trails that are better known for the overall experience. These are the grand courses of downhill skiing: Trails or routes over one mile in length, universally known by name. Some are steep in sections; a few of those sections are listed above. With these trails it is more important to consider the length and vertical drop of the overall run. The slope angles may not appear impressive, but remember this is the average of the entire course — in some spots it can be twice the number shown.

Average Angle in Degrees of Entire Courses
Minimum Length One Mile
Ski Area Course Average Angle
(Degrees)
Length of
Measurement
Vertical Drop of
Measured Length
Notes
Aspen, CO Ruthie’s Run 14.3° 5507′ 1366′ length of lift
Beaver Creek, CO Birds of Prey 16.8° 8606′ 2484′ regular mens downhill
Beaver Creek, CO Birds of Prey 18.4° 7002′ 2215′ mens downhill weather start
Beaver Creek, CO Birds of Prey 19° 6165′ 2005′ mens super G
Timberline Lodge, OR Palmer Snowfield 16.4° 5295′ 1497′ summer public lane
Wengen, SWITZ Lauberhorn 13.3° 14,698′ 3373′ regular mens downhill

Top photo CC BY-SA 3.0