Considering the Light and Dark of Backcountry Skiing

By MARK VOSBURGH

It’s easy for me to gush about backcountry skiing. It’s an amazing sport. The camaraderie of like-minded souls, breathtaking wild terrain, meditative climbs, and exhilarating descents where time stops and nothing exists but you, the snow, and the rhythm of your turns.

Given this, I thought it would be easy to write a blog on my favorite sport. Wrong. In writing this I’ve had to wrestle with issues that have haunted me throughout 35 years of skiing. I’ve come to believe that skiing, like the solstice of our winters, has a dark side that exists regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge it.

 

Billy Poole hucks in the backcountry. Photo by WillWissman.

Simply put, as much as I love backcountry skiing, and for all its joy and beauty, things can go seriously wrong out there.

This reality has been creeping steadily into my world for years. I’ve skied and toured with professional steep terrain skier Doug Coombs, who later died in a fall while skiing in the French Alps. I’ve become friends with the Missoula family of professional big mountain skier Billy Poole, who lost his life in an accident filming a ski jump in Utah. One of my mentors and world class ski guide Ruedi Beglinger survived an avalanche accident that killed seven of his experienced clients and guides-in-training.

Closer to home, several friends and ski partners have been caught and pummeled in avalanches that could easily have taken their lives. Slopes that I’ve skied often and know well have become the sites of accidents and death.

Pretty grim stuff. These accidents bring into stark relief the fears that have lurked at some level in my awareness since my first day of skiing.

Backcountry hiking in a whiteout. Photo by DonGisselbeck.

 

My response to ski risk has been to take countless workshops, classes, tests, and certifications on skiing, avalanche safety, wilderness first aid, and backcountry travel. I’ve enjoyed and benefited greatly from all this training, and I recommend it to anyone.

However, neither knowledge, nor level of experience, nor our luck or fate alone determine outcomes in the mountains. More likely, some undefinable combination of all of the above, along with our judgments, influence whether we return safely from the mountains. A sad and frightening reality of accidents is that victims are unaware of the full danger of their situation until it is too late.

Strangely, I know that it is the dangers of backcountry skiing that are part of the attraction for me.

 

In the backcountry among the snow ghosts. Photo by PaulTravis.

In our society, life can be reduced to a bland and ultra-safe existence. Navigating the mountains in winter is tremendously satisfying and enlivening precisely because the danger and the beauty, the dark and the light, are both very real. Our choices in the mountains have immediately observable outcomes. In many ways, the world of backcountry skiing is far more “real” than the day-to-day world we inhabit.

And so I continue to climb mountains and ski back down them. I am still inspired and thrilled by the experience. I wholeheartedly believe that the mountains somehow shape me. They teach important lessons that carry over and inform my life: How do I stay confidently realistic? How do I make decisions and not blind myself to danger? How do I not be paralyzed by staring too deeply at all the things that can go wrong?

At the end of the day, it is the light side of the backcountry that wins out for me. Even so, I’m not done wrestling with a certain amount of fear and danger.

And I’m not done skiing.

 

Billy Poole's last run. Photo by WillWissman.

 

Special thanks to the photographers and Billy Poole’s mom, Phyllis Erck, for permission to share his photos. Please visit the Billy Poole Ski Foundation’s website to learn more about him or make a donation to the memorial fund, which helps children get outside and experience nature through skiing and other outdoor programs.

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Mark Vosburgh is a fourth-generation Montanan from Boulder and a 26-year resident of Missoula. He’s worked as a chemical engineer, backcountry ski guide, and wildfire scientist. He plays in several local bluegrass bands and enjoys the usual assortment of Missoula’s great outdoor opportunities. Check out the Ski It Missoula archives for more ski posts by Mark and more local skiers.