Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Are Internet Bloggers Ruining Backcountry Skiing?

Here’s a topic that has fueled no shortage of virtual and real-life discussions.
This conversation might be better framed as, “Is the Internet ruining the backcountry?”
My spin on this is going to be biased (this is after all, an Internet blog where the content is regularly dedicated to the pursuit of backcountry skiing adventures), and is specific to Alaska, since that’s really all I can speak to.
Obviously, this is a very subjective debate, so I would say the first thing that needs to be addressed is the definition of “ruined.”

The Jewel Glacier in Crow Pass has a reputation for getting skied hard in October and early-November.
Lots of things can ruin backcountry skiing: wind, rain, no snow, warmth, other users, other user groups, limited access, a hard night of partying – just to name a few.
In the context of this conversation, ruined refers to the more controllable human factor, it refers to the number of people skiing an aspect, an area, a zone, or in general: “the quickness that said geographic feature or region gets ‘tracked out’” – another subjective concept.
It also extends to the feeling of whether the backcountry truly is the backcountry, or just an extension of a public park or ski resort.
If we define ruined under any of these contexts, than I would say that, in short, yes, the Internet is ruining the backcountry.
Hurrah! Down with the blog, the Facebook, the Instagram (let’s get rid of Twitter, cellphones, fiber optic cable, satellites, and ah hell, fire too [damn smoke signals have been giving away the goods for millennia!])
In long: the Internet is ruining the backcountry, only in the way that individually, rain, wind, or warmth ruins skiing after a mid-winter rainy, windy, and warm storm.
If you slept through English, this is called a “metaphor,” and the Internet is like one piece of that crappy storm.
The storm, as it is, is mammoth: it’s the explosive growth in the popularity of backcountry skiing, both in Alaska and the Lower 48.
Also to blame in this storm are:
The ski manufacture industry.
The ski clothing manufacture industry.
Ski-related publications and video productions that have glamorized the backcountry.
This storm has been complex, and not unlike a powerful extra-tropical system unleashed upon an Alaska mountain range, its impacts could appear both positive or negative, depending upon the lenses from which they’re viewed.
A lot of good has come from this storm.
Arguably, while the backcountry may feel more like the front country on some days, help is far closer than it has ever been before in the event of an accident; I think that knowledge on avalanche safety among backcountry skiers is greatly improved; snowpack monitoring is way up; access rights are potentially better protected by a greater number of users; and while gear is still spendy, the economy of the industry is theoretically healthy and strong, promoting growth of ever more safe and capable equipment.
The negatives can be highlighted by no shortage of Internet ranters and angry skiers in a crowded pullout on a sunny February morning.
In my opinion, if any one single element is to blame above all the others for the growth in the popularity of backcountry skiing, it’s last component: gear.
It’s lightweight, efficient gear that lets skiers and riders from a much wider spectrum of skill levels get out of the lift line and onto the skin track.

A line of skiers makes their way up Sunburst in December.
There was a time when backcountry skiing meant more work, more exposure to the elements, more suffering, and all of it was done on gear that paled in comparison to what we use today, both on the way up and the way down.
It’s not to say that backcountry skiing has become a total walk in the park, we are after all still hiking up the damn hills to get the goods instead of riding a chairlift, but when I ski with some of my wiser friends who were doing this over three decades ago, well, I bet it’s been a while since anyone has scraped pine tar off their bases at the top of a run in Turnagain.
So, as such, in those days, they often skied what are now popular locales completely alone.
That perhaps explains one component of the so-called storm, but how about the Internet factor?
I’ll back up for a second, as some background on my point-of-view seems relevant.
I started “backcountry” skiing with my friends when I was maybe 13.
We didn’t call it backcountry because we didn’t know there was such a thing. We were just tired of skiing the same dozen runs at the local ski hill, getting chased out of the closed areas by ski patrol, and didn’t have cars or driver’s licenses to go to the bigger hills. We did the only thing practical: hiked up into the Green Mountain National Forest in our backyard and made our own runs.
I learned later on that people actually did this as a sport, and even made a point of not riding lifts.
The Northeast has a few well-known backcountry locales, the comparative Tin Cans, but in central Vermont where I grew up, if you knew of a good hardwood glade that boasted 1,000 feet of vertical, you kept your trap shut if you knew what was good for you. Forget catching heat on some Internet forum, spilling the beans would have been worse than backstabbing your best friend.
Indeed, if someone was stupid enough to go out and post GPS coordinates of all the local stashes – both inbounds and out – that can be found in the Northeast, it would take an Internet second before someone would offer some choice words and/or a death threat.

One of my favorite stashes growing up, seen in December 2012. Still not saying where.
A similar reaction can, and has been provoked for bloggers and forum posters here in Alaska too – though I can’t say I have ever been the direct target.
It obviously cracks me up.
I admit, there are a few areas in road-accessible Alaska that are worth keeping “quiet” about. There are some nice areas that are even nicer not to share or blab about. I wouldn’t call these places secrets though.
Realistically, backcountry skiing in road-accessible AK is limited only by one’s own physical abilities and their imagination.
You can see, plan, and execute a great number of lines from the comfort of your still-running car. A near-infinite number of others are executable with a topographic map and some limited base knowledge.
The idea that there are secrets in these mountains, or that they are being spilled like BBs from a jug by the keyboards of Internet bloggers and forum posters, is right up there with tin foil hat conspiracies (there are a lot of folks up here who wear tin foil hats, and as such, plenty of rage).
The truth is, that while someone could find motivation or reason to ski somewhere simply because of an Internet post or picture, they could find an equal amount of inspiration because they can see a skin track leading to the same peak.
That’s the thrust of my comparison here with where I grew up and AK: you can’t spot sweet hardwood glades unless maybe you’re a trained forester, and even then, where’s your vantage point, on a road surrounded by trees? A lot of finding good spots to ski in Vermont was either inside info, or having the curiosity to go explore and get shut out.
Here in the AK, backcountry skiers have used the inter-webz in an ever increasing amount to stay on top of weather and conditions in the nearby ranges through a suite of resources, including posts by others. I myself have absolutely used other’s posts to plan and execute descents, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t have done them without those resources either.
I’ve also gone and checked places out simply because there was a skintrack there.
Just as anyone who has ever chased a worthless skintrack can tell you though, the truth is, blogs can, if anything, be fairly unhelpful, depending on what the blogger choses to include.
A few rad pics might make me want to check out a peak or an area, but odds are, I will rely on my own experiences, interpretations of conditions, and first-hand information, before I will charge off will-nill with powder fever because some picture gave me powder fever.
In my own blog, I tend to play a balancing act. If skiing something that is directly visible from the road, ya, there is no ambiguity: this is where I was, and this is how it skied. For more worthy objectives, I may actually choose to throw in a fair amount of detail. My thinking is, if it’s was a long approach or felt like a challenge, it probably will be for others as well. If you’ve got the motivation to skin for over 4 hours, endure mandatory booting, or deal with a heinous exit, just to nab a line, you’re no slouch. Additionally, if I see issues (a false summit ridge, a route that goes through a high-hazard area, a zone known for past incidents, etc) I’d feel guilty not calling them out.
Sometimes I land somewhere in between the two.
There really is no way to say if this approach is right or wrong, it’s too subjective. There will be some who would argue just posting a pic is equivalent to offering a detailed route description and topo map with a giant “GO HERE” label. Others might find the same info insufficient or unhelpful.
In the end, I land in the same place. The backcountry is definitely a busier place, even in my own 7 short winters here. I don’t even think skiing within 1-mile of the Seward Highway in Turnagain Pass or Hatcher Pass road qualifies as backcountry skiing anymore, at least, any more than skate skiing in the Anchorage Hillside. Good or bad, it is what it is.
That being said, I’ve skied on days where these same zones had parking lots that were filled to capacity, and I’ve still gone the bulk of the day without encountering a single other individual. The fact is, we live in a place with a lot of country, and it takes a surprisingly short skin to leave it all behind.


Tim Kelley said...

Dante, Great and insightful post! I’d like to add my views as a fellow Internet blogger (of sorts) and a fellow former VT’er that backcountry skied before I, like you, knew there was a thing called backcountry skiing.

When it comes to the effects of Internet blogging on backcountry recreation, it seems the “hip factor” needs to be taken into account. Some activities are hip, some are not. Internet blogging has the biggest effect on hip activities. Backcountry skiing, fat biking, crust skiing – they are all hip. So blogging does “ruin” these activities for venues where the access is easy.

Take crust skiing, something that is part of my web-o-sphere. 20 years ago Portage Lake was an “unknown” (in relative terms) crust skiing location. You’d go there and be the only ones. But Internet and media exposure helped make this activity and venue very hip. Now it is swarming with people on nice days, because it is easy to get to. So yeah, it’s “ruined”. I don’t even think about going there (or Skookum or Glen Alps) for crust skiing any more. Too many people. Too many hipsters.

Same with backcountry skiing. When conditions are posted as good at easy access locations, people flock there. I used to backcountry ski (on wide boards) until it started getting hip, and too many people started doing it.

Now take xc skiing. Cross country ski racing on groomed trails is cool and hip. Cross country skiing in general is not. Especially doing long skate ski trips on remote trails. Internet blogging certainly has not hurt this game based on my experience. I have blogged for a decade about great xc skiing routes. But I have seen no increase in people out in my favorite places in the Mat and Su Valleys.

The key here is hipness and access. What I do and blog about is not considered hip. And most people don’t want to do 60 mile day trips. It’s not easy. If it were, there would be more people doing it. And then it might get more hip, like fat biking.

So to sum up my thoughts: Internet blogging “ruins” backcountry sports if what is being blogged about is hip and easy. I’m incredibly thankful that my backcountry passion is not considered hip! I like going decades without meeting other people out doing what I love to do. To me, that is the vision I have of Alaska. And if you can live your vision, all is cool.

Cheers. And keep blogging! Tim

Jack said...


Ah, but you omitted knuckledragging from your litany of ruinous acts. Had the wide gliding, sidestanding, knuckle dragging ilk not dared to exist, 2 plankers would surely still be riding skinny and lonely.

Now, how about the lat/long for that syrup farm?

Jack said...

I wouldn't know whether Tim's Performance Skiing blog is hip or not, but I thank Tim for posting it. Keep on writing and posting Tim, Dante, and the rest!

From Billy to Dongshow, and easy trips by Luc, too!

Still waiting for VT stash location with explicit route directions :)