The Backcountry Scene

This is Not A Sport

Backcountry skiing is blowing up faster than you can deploy your shiny new avalanche air bag. More and more people are discovering it’s the most fun you can have in the winter with your clothes on, or off. You get to go wherever the hell you want and literally fly down mountains. But the allure of untracked powder is not the only reason folks are heading off-piste.

Mountains are the ultimate venue for true adventure, self-reflection and engagement with this life.

Mountains are the ultimate venue for true adventure, self-reflection and engagement with this life.

Social media and marketing campaigns aimed at the adventures of the backcountry may also be a culprit. Open any ski magazine today and behold how the major ski companies and manufacturers have jumped on the backcountry growth bandwagon and are pumping out ad after glossy ad featuring new, sexy, “must-have” gear for this latest, greatest sport. But herein lies the issue, or the issue is the lie. Backcountry skiing is not a sport! Tromping out into powder with fresh cut climbing skins and the new brightest 6 layer Gore-Tex shell could get you killed in the backcountry, even if you do have one of those cool air bags or beeper thingies.

 

What we do in the backcountry is not a sport. Sports are where you keep score, high-five, focus hard on staying within the lines and playing by the rules of others. There are timers, judges, fixed courts, flat fields, and goals. You get jerseys. They even have your name on the back so you don’t forget it. Maybe you get a coach to yell at you and tell you what to do. In sports, grown men, getting paid millions of dollars fall down on purpose hoping to draw a foul or a colored card.  WTF?!  In all my years of skiing I’ve never fallen down on purpose. My one main goal is to remain standing up.

 

The liability of outfitting folks and sending them into the big bad dangerous backcountry is understood by manufacturers, but the sick images and amazing adventures being promoted more than overshadow the fine print warnings of “education” and “inherent risks of avalanches”, or whatever wording the legal teams approve. Just as lacing up shoes doesn’t mean you’re ready to play for the NBA, however, showing up for one class on avalanche safety doesn’t mean you’re ready to start dropping steep powdery slopes while rubbing out a selfie on your Go-Pro pole.

Nothing is out of bounds.

Nothing is out of bounds.

It’s a slippery slope with skiing because the consequences are real. The majority of people being converted to the backcountry are resort skiers. Skiing in a resort area with its manicured runs and marked hazards falls deeply into the “sport” category. Don’t get me wrong it’s a gay old time, but once you’ve left a gate, or ducked a rope and outrun your friendly ski patroller, the game has changed significantly though the gear has only changed a little. Boundaries and definitions are what define us so let’s be definitely clear, this is not a game, and the backcountry is not a sport. For many reasons, bros everywhere have escaped the resort pen and are coming in droves seeking more wild and untracked descents. Perhaps they’ve grown tired of paying a hefty sum to ride on the hamster wheel all day. Welcome brethren! However, getting rad on controlled slopes does not instantly give you permission to fulfill your big mountain wet dreams of riding dirty like Jeremy Jones in a Coors Light ad.

 

Backcountry skiing is free from all that sport nonsense, but it does require that you use all of your senses. It isn’t rollerblading or fucking racquetball. A headband and short shorts will get you onto any court where you can suck all you want with little to no consequence. In the backcountry there are no bleachers, no fans getting fat on overpriced beer and hot dogs while they hope that their prayers and face paint will alter some action and give meaning and significance to their lives. For the most part nobody will ever know you were out there getting after it in the mountains. The next storm will wash away your insignificant tracks.

 

It’s not a sport, so what is it? Backcountry skiing is more of an art form. You must become an apprentice. It must be mastered and earned. It’s a lifestyle to be submersed in. It’s a world of weather, frostbite, avalanches, exhaustion, navigation, and decisions that can be a matter of grave consequence, even life and death. Each year dozens of people die in this pursuit in the U.S. alone. This is the reality of backcountry skiing that needs to be acknowledged. We can’t gloss it over even with the glossiest of ads. Please don’t try and compare this to activities that are at their basics just arguing over an inflatable ball.

Do I have a solution? Hell no, I’m just a ski bum off on a coffee fueled tangent trying to keep myself sane by spewing inflammatory content while I wait for winter. But I pray to Ullr that a new snow trend, or actual sport will soon rise up and redirect the focus of the outdoor industry and save our backcountry from being “cool”. (Park skiing anyone? Can we please bring back park skiing?) Until then can we treat the wilderness with the awe and respect that it incites and deserves?

Sports are like masturbation- fine if that's all you have time for, but they lack the deep, penetrating intimacy of a long committing walk in the woods.

Sports are like masturbation- fine if that’s all you have time for, but they lack the deep, penetrating intimacy of a long committing walk in the woods.

Sure, buy the gear you need to have in order to get that tits deep banger photo for Instagram, but know that it’s a slow and patient process to safely get there and more importantly, get back. Take the time to actually practice with that “safety” gear. Attend avalanche classes. Read all the great books out there and become truly snow educated. Check local forecasts often and become a weather geek. Partner with a seasoned backcountry veteran (they are the ones with duct tape on their clothing) and go out in mountains with them again and again and again. Start mellow and slow then build into it. There is a time and a place for all things to be shredded. Know how to choose when that time is. This is zen shit. Tune out the hype and listen to the mountains. And if this sounds like too much work, and make no mistake, it is a lot of work, then maybe just find a fun sport to play instead.

 

 

 

Noah Howell is based out of the Wasatch Mountains of Utah where he’s studying to become one of those crusty old mountain dudes.

 

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Noah Howell

Noah Howell

What trends have you noticed in your backcountry community?

We've been using social media to get "insta" snowpack observations using #WaObs. This is a cool development and way to share and receive information on current conditions.

7 Comments

  1. In Deep
    November 18, 2015 at 2:52 pm — Reply

    for those unfamiliar with Noah’s unique brand of humor, i’ll save you the 5-minutes of internet searching.

    google search -> noah howell

    Voile sponsored Athlete: ✔
    Mtn Hardwear sponsored Athlete: ✔
    Gnarly Nutrition sponsored Athlete: ✔

    Brand sponsors sell athlete in general terms of Webster’s definition of athlete: ‘a person proficient in a sport.’

    claimer of ‘backcountry touring’ being his favorite sport (Mtn Hardwear blog): ✔

    Producer of 10 films exploiting our beloved backcountry environment (to which the Outdoor Industry Association cannot thank him enough for doing so): ✔

    Participant in the fast growing lycra-clad sanctioned winter sport here in NorAm, Rando/SkiMo racing: ✔
    this which by the way, is a subset of ‘backcountry touring’.

    User of Strava: ✔
    curious as to if you are in possession of all the pertinent avy tools when skinning preseason laps for time/vert up at unpatrolled brighton/alta/snowbird? photos of you/your friends that have been posted up on social media in the last few day seen quite contradictory to the article above.

    Writer of published hypocritical bovine scatology: ✔

    heres irony in the eye of the beholder: you are your own problem.

    you’re welcome

  2. Jerry Miller
    November 25, 2015 at 7:39 pm — Reply

    Very well written and to the point !!!!

  3. Joe
    November 27, 2015 at 12:57 am — Reply

    I don’t know what your talking about Noah, Park skiing is totally where it’s at currently. It’s all I have been doing for the last two decades and it’s my favorite discipline.

    I only ski park these days and will be a park skier until I die.

    My favorite parks these days are

    Parc National Des Ecrin, Rocky Mountain National Park, Parc naturel regional du Queyras, and parco nazionale Gran Paradiso.

    Park skier for life. Park is cool, It just wasn’t 15-20 years ago when everyone was skiing in terrain parks and the industry didn’t have instagram to value a skiers worth yet. Education wasn’t cool yet, and if you did wear Gore Tex you were obviously not cool. Staying warm and dry was far from fashionable. Backcountry meant going to the local pass and building a kicker next to the road in the eyes of the industry and the photogs at the time too.

    Regardless, Great read, My favorite piece of ski journalism in a long time. I almost spit out my coffee at rubbing out a selfie.

  4. November 28, 2015 at 1:23 am — Reply

    You are so right.. In Norway we have a word that doesn’t translate well to English: friluftsliv (trans: open air life).
    Read more about it here: http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/blogs/how-friluftsliv-can-help-you-reconnect-with-nature
    or just google: Friluftsliv english

    Have a great day!

  5. Matt
    November 30, 2015 at 11:47 am — Reply

    Interesting take from a fella who devoted many years to introducing the non sport of backcountry skiing to resort skiers, beginner BC skiers, experienced BC skiers and maybe even a few non skiers.
    “Social media and marketing campaigns aimed at the adventures of the backcountry may also be a culprit.”
    Do the Powderwhore movie series achieve “culprit” status amongst the finger pointing? Seems as though I’ve come across some blogs posts from the author that provide any skier with decent Internet access some solid information on BC equipment/products. No biggie either way I wholeheartedly agree with 99% of the humor and words of the tangent as I am embracing my own crusty mountain man status with open arms but I could have done without some of the finger pointing.

  6. Bane
    December 1, 2015 at 7:00 pm — Reply

    Sounds like someone got picked last at recess one too many times…

  7. Wes Wylie
    December 7, 2015 at 6:24 pm — Reply

    Damn Noah, I’m sensing a change in your demeanor….

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