The winter storm systems that grace Washington typically roil in care of the Pacific. Heavy with moisture, they dump a maritime snowpack that is quick to stabilize, and supports an active backcountry skiing population. With that in mind, the winter of 2017 was especially good to the Pacific Northwest, and the Mount Baker area in particular. Good storms rolled in, and average snowfalls were met or exceeded.
But early on that season, a different system started growing. It grumbled along under the breath of locals looking at a busy Mt. Baker Highway, or groaned at the sight of a full backcountry parking lot. Behind closed doors and beneath mossy roofs, a storm of anti-local sentiment brewed. It’s reactionary, spurred on by some perceived attack on a way of life, and it needed an outlet. The last inhabited dot on the highway boasts a few ski shops, a bar or two and a crowd of ornery locals with free time to kvetch about whatever strikes them as wrongheaded. This season, it was maps.
In the winter of 2017, Bellingham, Washington guide company Baker Mountain Guides began printing a backcountry ski map, laying bare popular lines directly outside the ski area, complete with preferred ascent tracks. As you can imagine with small-town ski bum politics, some in the backcountry community began to lose their collective shit. While many saw the positives to a map, just as many saw it as a public sell-out of the terrain they scrubbed dishes all year for, or worse, a $10 ticket-to-ride for enthusiastic novices who would end up dead. The aggro-localism typically confined to primo surf breaks reared its head, ready to protect what’s theirs. The West still retains some wild, and many bristled at the thought of losing their piece of it.
The first volley came through only a few minutes after the post went live.
“Bogus… sell out my stomping grounds, and water down the adventure in backcountry. No thank you.”
What followed wasn’t pretty. Conversation whipped up into a hellbroth beneath the announcement that a new backcountry map would be sold, with many throwing around the idea of an earned right to an area and the ever-charged term, “kook.”
It’s this entitled attitude that rubs John Minier the wrong way.
“I think that guy is full of shit. People think that because they have been here for 30 years, that they are the most knowledgeable source of information on the terrain. Experience is very valuable, and if you’ve been somewhere for a long time you don’t want to see that change,” Minier says. “But times they are a-changing. There are a ton of people in the Baker backcountry.”
John Minier is the owner of Baker Mountain Guides, and his sentiment about overpopulation is undeniable. The two areas featured in the map sit directly adjacent to the ski area, probably more deserving of the title of slackcountry. Bagley Basin stretches west from the upper parking lot, and the Shuksan Arm is only a short bootpack from the end of Chair 8. The two areas see a huge influx of users following a solid storm, with many runs becoming as tracked out as the ski area they rise above within a day or two.
“In a place like Bagley Basin or the Shuksan Arm, it’s so popular already that we need to establish a code of ethics. You can’t be skinning up these big lines that people ski, there needs to be somewhat established ascent tracks, or someone is going to get an avalanche kicked out on them,” Minier says.
Minier created the map as a tool to use in the AIARE Avalanche 1 courses he teaches. Clients from across the U.S. would come to take the course and be unfamiliar with the Baker backcountry, and when it came time for them to plan a tour they wouldn’t know anything about the zone. Supplying the map was enough to get them talking about terrain, and having the names of runs gives a common language to communicate about what they will or won’t ski. It allowed them to think critically about terrain.
Minier says that people will do whatever they want to do. But when you give them tools to do what they want to do better and more safely, and show them some social norms that they can follow and get along with other people in the backcountry, they are going to listen to you.
“I am sensitive to the fact that there are people here, who have been here a long time, that are sensitive to this,” Minier says. “But there is no harm that can come from encouraging people to sit down and think critically before they tour.”
Washington backcountry skier and splitboarder Reid Pitman subscribes to the “earned knowledge” concept. The idea that experienced backcountry users act as gatekeepers to understudies and take people to terrain once they see that they can handle it. This is how he entered the backcountry. His take on the map? Bad idea.
“That’s the kind of thing that you learn when you go out there with people who are better than you,” Pitman says. “It’s best to be shown by someone who can give you the information first hand.”
Pitman sees a map like this as potentially dangerous to those who aren’t yet skilled enough to tackle the terrain, or as an open invitation to the runs he would obviously like to keep on the down-low.
A few years ago, Pitman found himself as an ambassador to an app that allow users to find big backcountry lines. As time went on he ended up leaving the position when he disagreed with the idea more and more. His reasoning came in the form of “Seattle yahoos” who can barely ski a double black diamond, but were using the app to find extreme runs. He was finding tracks in areas he had never before. A ski patroller began naming lines and publishing them on the app. Chaos ensued.
“I’d hear guys saying ‘that’s so stupid, you’re giving away everything so every yahoo who can afford a topo will be out there.’ And sure enough, you’d see guys out in the backcountry with their phones out, searching for lines,” Pitman says.
This is where that kernel of localism rises from. It’s the idea of a right to a place, an earned keep. Put in the hours and it’ll pay dividends. The truth, however, is that no one can own the backcountry, same as no one can own a wave. The public domain of shred welcomes all. And when people are going to go, whatever you say, Minier argues that he’d rather put good information in their hands. Pitman, however, remains wary.
“You’ve shown someone where the highway is, but you haven’t checked if they have their driver’s license,” Pitman says.
“It was bad luck man. Both of us were experienced skiers, and it was a moderate rated day in the avalanche forecasts. They had no idea what triggered it, it just peeled off the wall,” Mt. Baker local Peter Stark says. “I wish I remembered it.”
When the rubber meets the road, just where does this map lie. When Stark was helicoptered from the side of Mount Herman two years ago he was hypothermic, and had severe head and leg injuries. He would spend six weeks in the hospital, and lose all recollection of the month prior and after the avalanche. His partner died in the slide.
Today, Stark sees the map in a different light. Reminiscent of a utilitarian ethic, the benefit of the many outweighs the possible risk to the few for Stark, and while he can’t be sure that a map like this could have prevented what happened to him, he also knows that any additional information just might have changed something.
“The more information that you have to make a decision in the backcountry, the better. No matter what. It doesn’t matter what that information is or who gives it to you,” Stark says.
Stark’s accident really opened his eyes to the importance of more open communication in the backcountry, and to the type of elitism that he sees as fostering a closed-door policy to people who want to be safe. Maybe if they had talked to somebody that day, they wouldn’t have ended up where they did, he believes.
“It just rubbed me the wrong way when I saw those comments online. I get that you don’t want to encourage people to do unsafe things, or that if you write it down it might seem more accessible. I just think that people who do this sort of stuff are past that,” Stark says.
As some storms tend to do, the whirlwind around the maps died out as quick as it came up. Probably distracted by the news of another true storm coming in, the locals either learned to deal with it, or simply forgot about the map entirely. But that fiery reaction says something about this terrain, the people who call it home, and maybe the sport in its entirety. The backcountry is still very much a wild place, with little rules, high consequence and huge potential for enjoyment. The simple fact seems to be that maps like these are growing pains for areas that host more and more backcountry users as time goes on, and since you can’t stop the people, you might as well keep them safe.