This season marks my 25th year snowboarding and I still feel like I’m just discovering what it’s all about.
Like most I got my start at a resort. As a teenager, I made the switch over from skiing in a paradoxical act that included equal servings of rebellion from what I thought was the elitist skier industrial complex, and conformity to seek acceptance from the pack of other teenage boys flocking to the punk rock attitude of snowboarding.
As my skill progressed, so too did my obsession for fresh lines. I moved to Whistler in my early twenties and while the pow days were plentiful, there is only so much fresh for 30,000 people to schralp. Of course, the resort got busier over the years and the easily-accessible powder became more rare.
But Whistler and Blackcomb are only two mountains amongst a virtually endless Coast Range that extends all the way to Alaska. The same thing is true for most other mountainous areas in that the resort is but one small portion of the terrain among a vast resource of possibilities. In broadening one’s interpretation of snowboarding beyond lift-accessed resorts that person gains a lifetime of exploration opportunities beyond the ropes.
Sure, you’re still strapped into a board sliding sideways on the way down, but that’s about where the similarities end between a splitboard and a snowboard. The backcountry offers lines in abundance for those willing to work for it. Not only that but it’s full of analogies we can use in our daily lives that will result in increased wisdom and happiness. The following are only a few:
Mother nature demands respect and humility. It’s pretty simple: make an unlucky mistake and you die. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first day out of bounds or you’ve been doing it for decades; the mountains have claimed people of all experience levels without bias. Learning about the conditions that produce avalanches takes a lifetime of study and one can never let their guard down.
It’s not a place to think you have all the answers. It reminds me of the Shakespeare quote: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” The smartest thing you can do in the backcountry is admit your ignorance. It seems paradoxical until you live it yourself and see the beauty in knowing that we don’t know much. That said, by understanding the risk you can appreciate your place amongst the powerful forces that surround you – places that an overwhelming majority of people on the planet will never see or feel. Admitting your ignorance in life is never a bad thing either. Owning your weaknesses and working on them daily with study and experience gained isn’t the worst philosophy to adhere to.
Everything can change in a day. Nature is so incredibly dynamic and the mountains exacerbate any nuances in the weather. If the wind was blowing the night before, you’ll surely know by the sight of a wind-scoured, or wind-loaded slope. Fresh pow yesterday will be gone, providing perfect slab conditions on the opposing slope. And rain can ruin a beautiful canvas of powder in minutes, or fresh pow can turn a sheet of ice into heaven-sent bliss. Things are always changing.
All of that is just in what you can see and feel. The snowpack beneath the surface is constantly changing and shifting, especially in warmer months toward the end of the season. The point of all this is that snowboarding makes you treat conditions day-to-day, and you cannot dwell on what it was like the day before; whether good or bad. The key is to just get out there and adjust to whatever is happening in the moment. Living in the moment is definitely something I want to try to do every day, not just up high in the alpine.
Presence is a virtue. This point is relevant on so many levels. From the minute-to-minute focus of skinning up a seemingly endless uptrack, to the ability to call off a descent due to bad weather knowing you’ve blown the opportunity to hit that zone until next year. We can get into trouble when we try to force things without reading the situation. Embracing the present moment, we may attain a natural state of ease and flow — both in the ecstatic dance of surfing pow, or in persisting through the challenges that allow us to become better people in our day to day lives.
The work is the reward. By becoming proficient in the last point you begin to understand the beauty of how you spend the majority of your time out in the backcountry: with skins underneath you climbing one step at a time. Many people who do not splitboard fail to understand why anyone would want to actually use their own energy and muscle over a period of hours for a single run down (or two).
But for every heart-pounding, sweat-inducing step upward you earn a millisecond of down in fresh snow that makes it totally worth it. The feeling of powder underneath one’s board provides an inexplicable feeling of floating in a space between the Earth and sky. To attain that feeling from putting in the time climbing up the hill, you feel a sense of satisfaction that doesn’t happen from buying a ticket at the window and sitting on a chair.
The skin up becomes a meditative state, allowing those who focus to get into a rhythm that helps quiet the mind and energize the heart (in more ways than one). Forget the pride you have when you know you truly earned a descent that some people pay huge money for. The ecstatic ride down simply becomes a cherry on a rewarding cake that lasts all day, and for many days to follow. See the parallels here? Work hard at anything you love, and the rewards will eventually present themselves. Which stays true in pretty much any other aspect of the human experience.
To the trailblazer goes the spoils. If you only go where everyone else goes, you miss the point of being out there altogether. Aside from getting to make your own mark on a blank canvas with fresh tracks, you are not relegated to runs and closed areas. This of course raises the risk factor by an infinite margin and the responsibility lies in you and you alone for your safety. But this is always true, whether or not you’re inbounds. One only needs to see the multiple deaths this year from inbounds avalanches to understand that one can never let their guard down.
But for those who do the diligent work to learn how to navigate terrain safely, as well as how to rescue someone if shit does hit the fan, then you have access to virtually unlimited terrain on this planet that would take several lifetimes to fully see, never mind getting to know intimately. Hate to sound cliched, but basically, without a little risk, there’s no reward. Life does not become great within the confines of one’s comfort zone.
Take your time. Speed and efficiency are not necessarily the number one choice. Aside from emergency situations, or a change in the weather, there is no need to rush or expend excess energy. It’s a whole different attitude that you get from a resort where everyone is rushing to get the goods first before the mountain tracks out. Aside from some of the really heavily-trampled zones you can pretty much find a way to get away from everyone else, earning an always-shrinking resource of solitude amongst the giants of nature.
Our society mistakenly values the busy over the quiet. But the times of silence are what allow us to put things in perspective and digest our thoughts without the next one racing in. That might be more important now than ever. Riding the backcountry teaches you to slow down. You have to. Besides, it never pays to rush through anything in life.