Into the Untracked

“This Is Your Decision Point” says the sign on the gate dividing the ski area from the unpatrolled powder fields on the other side of the boundary. Know what you’re getting into, it says—avalanches, tree wells, self-rescue—and don’t venture out unless you’re willing to accept the risk. If you aren’t, turn back now....As if.  In truth, the decision to go out will be made well before you get within transceiver range of a backcountry gate. It will be made on the lift. Or over breakfast. Or, more likely, the first time you take a big fat shot of blower in the face and there’s no one around but your buds and a heap more perfect turns below you and then another chair ride and a slippery exit from a ski area to do it all over again. Powder is the most sublime, addictive form of snow there is, and when you discover the easy access of the chairlift, well, there’s no going back. 

But this you probably already know, because the big thing in skiing over the last decade or so has been the explosion in backcountry access via ski areas, and somebody had to contribute to make it a boom. A whole lot of somebodies, in fact, which no doubt includes you. And as longtime tourers, ski mountaineers, and powder-afflicted souls, us too. Sure, the park scene is big, but the backcountry—sidecountry, in this case—well, it doesn’t really matter which is technically bigger. The backcountry has a certain grounding that gives it…not to put too fine a point on it, soul. So to us the question wasn’t why the pursuit of untamed powder blew up, but why it took so long. 

For years, the backcountry was a relatively empty place, no matter how it was accessed. Equipment was primitive—or at least a whole lot more likely to make you sink than swim—and avalanche knowledge was just taking baby steps. But the 1970s saw the beginnings of the modern BC movement, with a countercultural embrace of the anti-establishment turns outside the Man’s boundaries. It was a happy, pioneering time, with bota bags of red wine, big sideburns, and the scent of patchouli or something in the air.

But the 1980s turned dark. Aspen lost a landmark multi-million dollar lawsuit to a skier who was injured and claimed the ski area was at fault, and as a following wave of litigation and sharply higher insurance premiums swept through the snow world, resorts cracked down on speed, jumping, and using their lifts to go into the backcountry. The passion for untracked snow didn’t die, of course—you couldn’t dampen it if you tried—but skiers were forced farther afield, to Canada and Europe or, more commonly, away from ski areas altogether. If the 70s were poetry, pot, and powder, the ’80s were pure backcountry—long approaches, steeper lines, bigger mountains. Instead of the soft soul seeking of the 1970s, the ’80s backcountry reflected the times: macho, aggressive, with something to prove. 

Those who stayed at ski areas continued to strain against the rules. It was an outlaw era of rope ducking and clipped season passes. Slowly, the pressure began to take effect. Between the boom in traffic at Whistler and Blackcomb, where Canadian common sense allowed free and unfettered access to the backcountry, and the groundswell of internal pressure, ski areas began to see both the potential and how it could be managed. They installed access gates, slowly at first, then in a flood, and when Jackson opened its boundary in 1999, the sea change was complete. 

And what a turnaround! Once given access, skiers tasted the delicious treats that had been so long withheld. The backcountry buzz spiraled upward…better gear, fatter skis, plastic tele boots, digital transceivers…it built upon itself until what had been old school and underground for so long wasn’t just out in the open, it was the biggest thing on the hill. 

Now we’re in a new era. Tele gear looks like alpine, alpine weighs less than tele, people are resort skiing in touring boots, alpine bindings pivot for skinning…crazy! In some areas, backpacks are more common than not. It’s not just coloring outside the lines, it’s coloring inside, outside, and all over the lines. Anything goes, everything goes. 

The future is impossible to predict. But as surely as the rebellious 1960s led to the mellow 1970s and the ’70s led to the crackdown ’80s and the ’80s to the wide-open ’90s, so will today’s backcountry free for all evolve into something completely different, but built on the past. Perhaps there will be a new age of enlightenment and good judgment and we’ll get a winter where no one has an avalanche mishap. Perhaps ski areas will see the energy, challenge, and payoff of untouched slopes and cease the brutal grooming.  Who knows? With this many brothers and sisters laying down new lines and fresh tracks, whatever the future, it’s bound to be big and it’s bound to be good, 

So, onward, into the untracked, and let’s see what’s on the other side.

Photos by Grant Gunderson