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.
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.
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?
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.