In two decades of skiing, I have never witnessed such a radical, exciting time to be in the backcountry. The tracks in the snow tell the story: There are straight runs and AK turns and noodly little single helixes. There are booter divots, bomb holes from huckers, mountain-goat lines that looklike the stumble of a morning drinker, and steep scratches that make you pucker just to gaze upon them. There are tracks leading from ski areas, tracks leading to ski areas, snowmobile tracks in half the drainages from here to Missouri, and enough miles of skin routes to circle the globe. It's like we're writing in the snow with all the languages of Babylon. There was a time when the only people you met in the backcountry were stoners on edgeless skis and floppy leather boots. But those days are long gone: The backcountry subculture has completely lost the "sub, and is now populated by nearly every stripe of skier and snowboarder. It's a mixed-up stew of creativity, ballsiness, passion, and expression, the likes of which I've never seen and don't think existed before.
The backcountry scene is one of the brightest spots in the sport. Annual sales of alpine skis have fallen from a high of 1,089,000 units in 1989 to 750,070 last season, according to the ski industry trade group SIA, but backcountry equipment sales are growing (Black Diamond's sales of alpine touring bindings increased 400 percent last year). While total sales for backcountry gear are a mere fraction of alpine sales, backcountry garners a disproportionate share of the spotlight, energy, and buzz from the media. There are newly opened backcountry-access gates, at least two backcountry-specific mags, dozens of backcountry competitions (including new-to-the-States randonnée racing), and a website—backcountrystore.com— that's touted as one of the rare successful online merchants. In short, backcountry is hot.
The boom is in part a reaction to the dark ages of skiing—the 1980s—when a wave of litigation against ski resorts prompted areas to crack down on fast skiing, ungroomed terrain, and other so-called hazards that might expose them to liability. (Perhaps the most telling comment of the decade came from Scot Schmidt, who said, "People who sue ski areas should be shot.) The human spirit wants to huck, and when the lawsuits started pouring in, skiers with vision fled to the OB and to Europe, Alaska, and other corners of the world where you could do as you damn well pleased. The seeds planted by Schmidt with Greg Stump's film crew, the mountaineers of Whistler, and others, took root, and 15 years later, we're reaping fruit: The masses are finding freedom on the other side of the rope.
In a way, we've come full circle. During the pioneering days of American skiing, the 1920s and '30s, you hiked for your turns or you didn't ski. You accepted the hazards and an uncontrolled environment as part of the thrill. What was backcountry, what was front country? It was one and the same—just skiing. Entrepreneurs built lifts and cut runs throughout the 1940s, but the wild nature of skiing remained. If nothing else, long-ass skis and nonreleasable bindings saw to that. Self-reliance, an adventurous spirit, a modicum of courage: These were the virtues of the early skiers. Now those qualities are back in a big way.
Of course, the rush to the backcountry isn't without problems. Crowding is an issue in some places. Snowmobiles, whether gunned by slednecks or skiers, are noisy and polluting and are, to many, anathema to the wilderness experience. And the biggest problem of all can never be underestimated: Avalanches will almost always be the predominant risk in the backcountry. In the last 10 years, we've lost close to 90 skiers and snowboarders in this country to avalanches—plus many more in Canada.
But risk is a big part of the appeal. If we wanted to be completely safe, we'd stay home and play Xbox (being mindful, naturally, to avoid repetitive stress injuries); that's not how skieers are wired, however. We want the freedom to hang it out there and make our own decisions, and the backcountry offers that in spades. The big allure of leaving the rules and groomers behind is that you can go where you want; ski where you can; poach all the freshies you can hike to; kill yourself jumping if that's your thing; get naked—whatever.
There are as many reasons for venturing into the backcountry as there are people who go there, but this unfettered independence is the biggest one of all. The very act of skiing is freedom: the speed, the glide, the cold, brisk wind in the face. All speak of limitless potential, of momentary immortality. Take that into the backcountry, and it's the purest experience of all—just you, your skis, and what you make of it.