Backcountry to the Future

The Breakthrough: It’s free up here. The Skills: learn at the resort, show it off in the backcountry. Photo: Devon Balet/devonbaletphoto.com

We asked our readers if the future of the sports of skiing and snowboarding was at the resort or out in the backcountry. Our minds were blown when 91 percent of you said it’s in the backcountry. It must be more complicated than that, right? Steve Casimiro sure thought so. So we thought it would be best to have him face off with backcountry freak Rob Coppolillo over where to find the future of the sport.

Earn Turns

Ten million people will inhabit Colorado by 2050. Next time you’re huffing carbon monoxide on I-70, just squint your eyes and imagine twice the number of cars. Imagine ten-million mouth-breathing, car-crazed bipedal snow-monkeys hellbent on sliding downhill with Chinese-made equipment strapped to their feet. Imagine that line of unwashed humanity twice as long and twice as mean, at ten times the price. Welcome to the future.

Is that really what the ski/snowboard experience is supposed to be? That’s a dim future. Here’s what will really grow the sport, what will make people fall in love with the experience:

Why don’t we all just take our AIARE Level 1, ditch the Dukes for some Dynafits, read the CAIC bulletin, call in well and hit the backcountry? Peace and quiet, untouched snow, the rhythmic breathing of the uphill, relying on partners you trust, and the feeling of a bottomless snowpack, I’ll take these over mouthbreathers stacked four abreast, the six-hour trip from the far side of the tunnel on a Sunday afternoon, I think I can handle that future. But hey, maybe that’s not your gig.

I get it, we all need to practice and learn in-bounds, but on-piste skiing is to backcountry what a flight simulator is to flying. If all the resorts closed tomorrow, there would still be skiing and snowboarding. Plenty of it. And as prices, crowds and petrochemical shortages rise, more and more people will turn away from the resorts.

Okay, I’m overstating my case. I love resort skiing. It’s early season and I’ve already been up to Breck and Loveland to conduct some Serious Ski Journalism. But as the ant pile has grown, the resort schtick has become a tough proposition.

Some will say the risk of avalanches, the difficulties of learning without the ease of the lifts and the physical demands of the backcountry will deter the everyman among us, but I say it’s about time the average Joe trades his eight-dollar chili-in-a-bread-bowl lunch for the satisfaction of a perfectly set skin-track. Let the backcountry redefine the American man and woman.

Or don’t. Maybe the backcountry’s already crowded enough.

Rob Coppolillo grew up skiing in Colorado and driving I-70 before it became a parking lot. He teaches avalanche courses for Alpine World Ascents and skis plenty in-bounds, despite his backcountry leanings.

Resort to This

Does the future of skiing lie in the backcountry or in ski areas? That’s easy: ski areas.

Without question, most of the last decade’s ski stoke has been generated by what’s happening in the backcountry and sidecountry. It has been nothing less than a revolution as rippers have taken to the fresh and deep beyond the patrolled boundaries, fueled by major advances in alpine touring gear and, more importantly, the allure of untracked adventure skiing. So the spirit says backcountry. But for the “future” of skiing—in which the sport remains vibrant and dynamic, with new ideas and participants—the answer is ski areas.

Here’s why: Ski areas are a superior gateway. They’re easier, less threatening, safer and offer faster access to the joys of snow sliding. The odds of anyone learning to ski outside a developed setting are near zero—it’s just too difficult, too intimidating. New skiers and their progress will always come through the resorts.

Ski areas simply allow you to ski more, and the best thing you can do to become a better skier is ski. It’s all about the mileage, and nothing beats making laps on a lift to gain experience. At a resort with high-speed lifts, you can get a season’s worth of backcountry runs in just a couple of days.

Ski areas also allow for increased social influence. More people equals more opportunity to see how others do it, whether you’re on a lift watching someone goat a sketchy face or standing in the KT-22 liftline eyeballing the race to the Fingers. Nothing inspires like witnessing rad lines all day.

Ski areas offer the best first taste of the backcountry fruits. Your initial flailing attempts at deep snow come at the ski area, then you start to figure it out, then you get decent at it, then one of your buddies says, hey, I know a place where there’s no tracks, and then all of a sudden you’re in the sidecountry. You gain skills, gear and motivation to go deeper—via the ski area.

The backcountry? Sure, it’s where I want to be, always. But, the future? It starts with a lift.

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal and the former editor of Powder magazine. His first turns were in a ski area, his last turns were in the backcountry.

Reader Response from the Web

Because in the world of anonymous online comments everyone has a say.

When the best price you can get for Keystone is $97, they’ve priced themselves out of being worth it. The drive, the gas, the parking… I can take my backcountry skis and hit Echo Lake in 45 traffic-free minutes from Littleton, ski for three or four hours, then drive home. There’s no stress and the only cost is the price of gas. I haven’t resort skied in two years and I’m not missing it. The traffic and the all day commitment were tough enough, but $100 lift tickets? That’s three strikes and you’re out!
—Reg Cox

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