As an indigenous backcountry skier, my connection to the land includes powder but it also runs far deeper to include a respect for my grandparents, the future of our water and the knitting together of our society.
My breathing and the steady scrape of the nylon skin on the crusted snow create a synchronized rhythm. Lift. Push. Breathe. I stop in the skin track to reassess the snow conditions now that I am above treeline. I deliberately push my ski pole into the snowpack next to my skin tracks to feel the layers of snow beneath me—no change from a few hundred feet below in the trees. I gaze up at the spindrifts tumbling off the ridge above us and wonder if any of my ancestors came out here during the winter.
This thought is essential to the way I place myself here. After moving to Colorado a couple of years ago, I became a backcountry skier. In doing so, I developed friendships and a deeper connection to mountain landscapes like this scene in front of me. I noticed my ski partners paying attention to the rhythms around them in a way similar to that of my own family and the way we keep track of the changes in the land.
I grew up in a Navajo (Diné) family where I was taught to understand the environment in which we live. This ethos has deep roots in a culture and an identity intrinsically tied with the landscape around us. For example, our discussions about the weather focused on deeper rhythms about the plants, animals, snow and seasons and how they affect us both physically and spiritually. This intimate knowledge grounds me in my identity. It connects me in a deeper way to all people around me.
When I find myself in a landscape where I am unaware of the cycles of the land and the seasons, I feel a deep sense of discomfort. I feel alien. My grandfather, a traditional Navajo healer, taught me the importance of listening and paying attention to these cycles—and that, at some point, my life could depend on this knowledge. He also told me that it would eventually be my responsibility to teach younger folks about how to maintain these relationships with nature. I see myself applying this knowledge here, now, skiing.
To backcountry ski, you musrt be in tune with the mountains, the changes of seasons, and the snowpack. Being out deep in the backcountry in the winter requires days, if not weeks, of preparation to ensure your own safety and that of your ski partners. It requires training and practice. To travel safely through snow-filled mountains requires a heightened level of presence. No matter how much we research the avalanche reports, or consult with folks who have been out before, we have to put our full attention to where we are in the moment.
When you ride a lift, the resort controls the terrain and hazards. The backcountry gives you the feeling of being simply a visitor in this mountain landscape. You must prepare for the dangers. This preparation requires a basis of humility and respect. Learning in a classroom, we receive immediate feedback on our decision-making processes. However, backcountry travel often provides little to no immediate feedback as to whether our decisions have created undo risk and put us in danger.
Backcountry skiers also develop a knowledge that runs deeper than the present joys and dangers: Understanding the cycles of the seasons allows us to plan for seasons to come. The snowpack is a bellwether for our preparations for wildfires, wildflowers, animals and drought. In many ways, backcountry skiing teaches us things that native folks have known about these places for millennia. Thinking ahead about the seasons and the land is what sustained us as a people for thousands of years in these places, and it is what will sustain generations after us.
This is where I feel the Navjo respect for the land can have a big influence on how I ski the backcountry. How we approach the environment and our relationship to the risks it poses can be an important predictor about the risks we take out in the backcountry. Do we view nature and mountains as something worthy of being dominated? Or do we see a need to live within the balance? How one answers these questions likely will determine how much risk they will seek while traveling in the mountains.
When I ski deep snow in the Colorado Rockies, I also see a story beyond this present moment. These mountains are the headwaters for seven major rivers that eventually flow into the Gulf of Mexico (and at one time, before irrigation sucked off the water of the Colorado River, the Sea of Cortez). With Colorado positioned at the source of this watershed, our impacts create rippling downstream effects on other communities. I recently I moved from the Colorado’s Front Range to Tucson, Arizona. But here in the Sonoran Desert, 60 some miles north of the Mexican border, I still rely on water from the snowmelt west of the Continental Divide up in the Rockies because Phoenix and Tucson pump water over 300 miles and 3,000 vertical feet from the Colorado River.
My heart aches seeing the snow forecasts for this season and knowing I’ll be missing dawn patrols out my backdoor. However, I know that this weather will bode well for this coming summer and improve projections of water shortage along the Colorado Rver. The snow we ski today is the water for communities downriver.
How this snowmelt water is managed and allocated in these waterways is a complicated and legally fraught business. One important element of water law west of the Mississippi River is the Winters Doctrine, also known as prior appropriation. This means that folks who have been using water for “productive purposes” for the longest time have senior rights over other users who began using this water later. The water in the Colorado River is allocated among over 100 water users such as cities and power plants. Not all of the water claimed by these rights is actually pumped or used, sometimes the users may only have rights on paper that they can’t actually use. The Winters Doctrine came to be after a tribe sued the federal government for not giving their reservation adequate water rights, even though these indigenous people had been using this water for centuries. Tribes who have used this water the longest often have senior water rights—including my tribe, the Navajo.
Skiing in Colorado’s backcountry has helped me become a better ancestor to those who will be coming after me. At the most practical level, the skills I have developed serve the goal of finding elusive powder stashes that I can tell them about once I’ve made it out safely. The ethics I’ve learned in the backcountry have honed my keenness to pay attention to the land, the seasons and the snowpack, and to plan accordingly for the next season. This attention has deepened my own identity, which is imbued in these mountain landscapes.
I believe that these lessons and grounding are readily transferable to other parts of life. I see the connections that I built with others who value being with the mountains creating a stronger fabric to society. As a Navajo, I was taught to protect and conserve the land I call home because of how critical it is to a functioning society. With that connection comes responsibility: We love this place, we give our sweat to enjoy it, undoubtedly, we will protect it.
Looking up that windswept ridge again my question was answered, my ancestors are here with me today.
—Len Necefer is the founder and CEO of Natives Outdoors (natives-outdoors.org, an outdoor products company that supports indigenous people. He’s an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, a board member for the Honnold Foundation and an advisory group member for the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.