There seems to be a lot of discussion about ethics these days: if it’s not Trump insulting the justice system or discriminating against people for their ethnic background, it’s backcountry skiers complaining about other backcountry skiers not spooning turns or making dumb skin tracks, which to some folks are more egregious sins than any awful executive order. But backcountry skiing and really all of these silly outdoor recreational activities we do are all about having the freedom to act as you wish in the great outdoors, with few, if any, limitations. In fact, it’s the ability to flee the trappings of our normal society ‘s crowds and associated rules of order and escape into wilds with only the nature’s rules to abide by that generates the appeal of outdoor recreation. But as our hills become more and more popular, is it appropriate to apply ethics, and even rules? And would they “work?”
Recently an enthusiastic member of the local backcountry ski community came to the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance and the Utah Avalanche Center asking for help in “getting the word out” about the many ethical violations that he had been dismayed to see his fellow skiers conducting early this season. His proposition was simple: since there are many people who have similar aspirations of appreciating a limited resource, The Community should come up with a Code of Ethics that people should follow. And via the interwebs and via physical signage at popular trailheads this Code of Ethics would be published, posted, and promoted, so that all users were literally “on the same page” and thus peace would be achieved throughout all the backcountry land. It’s a great concept, but achieving peace is not so simple.
First, the Forest Service isn’t very keen on unofficial signage at their trailheads. If they allowed a laminated page of Backcountry Ethics they’d probably have to also allow fliers for The Snerts playing at the Urban Lounge on Thursday night as well. Second, you could post your ethical rules online, but where? What site, pray tell, does “everyone” see? In terms of winter recreation in the Intermountain West, the local avalanche center’s advisory is probably the most well-read document, but is it an avy center’s role to tell people how to interact with our fellow riders appropriately? When it comes to safety, sure: basically, don’t endanger other people! But even that simple concept can be quite gray: what happens when you finally top out on that incredible 2000’ run that you just spent an hour-plus putting a skin track in on, you finally top out and are about to rip skins off and rip turns back down, and realize that there’s another party on the skin track far below? Do you wait 45 minutes for them to ascend to you, or do you drop on them? Or you climb a south facing line to ski a north facing slope and realize that someone far below you is putting a “wrong” skin track right up the ski line in lieu of doing a “right” one up through the adjacent protected trees?
Recently there was a slide that came across the open Teton Pass road and tumbled a car off, and the Jackson community assumed that it was triggered by a backcountry skier and apparently felt a lynching was in order for the perpetrator. But what if he had been simply doing a ski cut on a relatively small chute to make that bit safe, but it ran and in turn propagated a much bigger slide than anticipated? Whose responsibility is it to be “safe?” And what exactly is “safety”, in an activity where there may be people crawling all over the place? There are no simple solutions.
And when you start getting into true “ethics” (as opposed to actual safe travel/protocol practices) the distinction between right and wrong gets even blurrier. Do we really have an obligation to spoon turns to conserve untracked snow, even if the standard-setting turns are little wiggly turns made at 3mph that you last did on your skinny tele skis in the late ‘90’s? Or if you are a wiggler and the first guys down were Big Mountain Rippers are you compelled to match their 100-vertical-foot, 60 mph turns? “Half Lappers” seem to be popular type to hate: those folks who stop midway up a skin track to rip and drop. But what if they are actually being responsible to their previously agreed-upon turnaround time and are simply getting in what they can? Or they aren’t comfortable with ascending or descending the last few hundred vertical that ramps up to the avy-perfect 38 degrees? Do we scream at them for their disrespect and line poaching, even as we know that we’ve all been Half Lappers at some point, for some reason? And skin tracks: whooo boy, there’s a topic rife for letting opinion drive ethics: too steep! Too mellow! Not enough kick turns! Too many kick turns! Too dangerous! Not in the right place!
Recently I heard a complaint that a guy skinning up a trail that also serves as an exit had someone come down the trail and go past him going “way too fast!” Hmm. Ok, what is “way too fast?” 6mph, 15 mph, 30 mph? Apparently the perpetrator didn’t think he was going “too fast”; maybe it was Ted Ligety out for a little backcountry tour and he was in absolute control? But according to the victim, the perception was that speed at that time by that guy was just too fast.
And what of the non-skiers/snowboarders who are also dundering around the mountains with us? Are snowshoers, hikers, runners, fat tire bikers, dog walkers, wedding photographers, inner tubers in BYU sweatshirts and jeans or fuzzy pink snowsuits, snowmobilers, and extreme snow anglers entitled to equal recreational rights without being denigrated, or should we invoke a winter travel ban on those deemed not worthy? I’ve heard some skiers complain about others “postholing the skin track” but that practice by backcountry riders went away when Voile introduced the split board. Now “booting” in the skin track is usually just hikers trying to go for wintertime hikes, which are usually on summer trails that skinners are also using. So are we actually skinning in their hiking tracks?
Climbing and mountain biking are both sports that are somewhat akin to backcountry skiing in terms of mountain use and popularity, and actually have worked on codifying behavior. Generally speaking, downhill cyclists are expected to yield to uphill riders (and there is formal signage indicating this), but even this is changing: many less-experienced cyclists are tired from climbing and relish the opportunity to stop for a rest, or maybe they are intimidated by downhill riders whom they see as having the dominant speed so they stop and move over. On the other hand, some wide trails have plenty of room for two cyclists to move past each other, but dogmatic ascenders are furious if there is not the requisite yielding by the descender. Where’s the happy line?
Climbing ethics are a deep and passionate topic among climbers: clean vs. bolted, climbing “style”, dealing with crowded approaches/crags/routes, oxygen/porters vs. pure, light and fast. These have prompted the International Mountaineering and Climbing Association to create and publish a formal code that they expect/hope that all climbers will follow. Do we backcountry skiers need to do that as well? I can hardly think of anyone I know who would abide by almost any “rules” when backcountry skiing. A year and a half ago the website Wild Snow published their version, but even as I read the points, they seem mostly self-evident or subject to a fair bit of variability, context, and debate.
Yes, there are some universal truths that we can probably all agree on: don’t litter, don’t knowingly/recklessly endanger someone, don’t piss on or shit near the skin track, and probably a couple more. But the truth is this that there’s only one real rule: Don’t be a Dick (my version of the Golden Rule). As our hills get more crowded with people looking to capitalize on our diminishing valuable resource of untracked powder snow, we need to acknowledge that we have chosen to be in a popular area and as such we need to – perhaps grudgingly – acknowledge our effect on other backcountry users. And there are lots of ways to skin a track, so try to be tolerant of other folks’ actions as well. That said, perhaps if you breach plenty of ethical standards you’ll be President someday. Sad!