Shaun Deutschlander has witnessed ski touring’s popularity boom first hand. She is the founder and lead guide at Inspired Summit Adventures, a year round guide service that offers custom backcountry ski trips, mentorship and avalanche classes. The company is based in Park City, Utah and operates right in the heart of “Wasangeles”, one of the most accessible and fastest growing backcountry zones in the country.
As the editor of this site, I spend a lot of time following ski touring news and articles. A common theme I’ve noticed this season is the foreboding attitude that pervades conversations about the backcountry getting busier. Of course, it makes sense — many of us head off piste to get away from people and ski untracked snow. A busier backcountry puts both of those experiences (among others) in question.
A few weeks back, I stumbled on an a short interview Shaun gave about the positive potential of a busier backcountry. And so, I decided to call her up to hear more about what that could look like.
WS: How’s the winter been so far? What trips and courses have been the most popular?
SD: We, like much of the backcountry industry, have exploded with bookings. We were on a really strong growth projection over the last seven years but then Covid multiplied everything for us by 500 percent.
The most popular trip has definitely been our mentorship program. It’s a three-day totally custom itinerary that focuses on everything from avalanche education to technical skills. In the spring we might have someone coming out looking to get more into ski mountaineering so we’ll work on uphill travel, rope work and stuff like that. We do movement skills, too, someone wants to be a better powder skier or wants to learn what backcountry skiing is all about.
WS: Are you seeing a different kind of clientele?
SD: It’s an unprecedented number of people just getting into it. ‘Hey I got all the gear for Christmas, I want to try it.’ Or, ‘hey I’m going to rent the stuff to see if I like this.’ Or, ‘I’ve never done it but am an advanced skier at the resort.’ Definitely way more never-evers.
WS: I haven’t skied much in Utah and the Wasatch area, but I hear it’s pretty popular for ski touring. What’s the vibe this winter? Is it noticeably busier like everyone is expecting it would be?
SD: I’d say it’s 100% busier. Every trailhead is full, which was a hurdle before Covid. You have to think ahead and have a couple trailheads in mind before going out so you have options A, B and C.
At the trailheads, there’s kind of a tailgaiting vibe (laughs) it’s not all bad. I look around and see new users trying to learn these skills and that makes me happy. There’s a part of me that’s like, well look at this. People aren’t defeated, people aren’t deflated because there’s a pandemic. People are choosing to be motivated in the face of something that could really deflate a human, and they’re choosing to seek nature for expression, for freedom, for fun. And that to me is why I started doing what I do personally.
I teach avalanche courses and I always say after every course, let’s be encouraging members of the backcountry. At the end of the day that’s who we are, and who is out there with us are all these people we see at the trailhead.
And so what if somebody chooses to have music on a backpack playing while in the backcountry? Let’s not discount this person as not being a worthy human being because they choose that stylistic approach to the mountains. I think there’s a balance between passing judgement and walking around with some sort of ‘we’re all holier than thou because we’ve been out here for longer’. The more we can be open and inviting and listen to why somebody wants to have music playing in their backpack and then say, look, there’s a reason we don’t. It’s because we need to be in tune with the mountains. If your music is blaring, you’re not going to hear a booming collapse, you’re not going to hear the mountains talking to you. You might not pick up on the changes of wind direction, which all leads to your safety but our safety as a collective community out there.
WS: So, we can all work on trying to cultivate a culture of more openness and acceptance.
SD: Yeah. And I think Covid has fast-tracked so many trends that were already in place. We were already seeing this new user come in and this explosion in backcountry. My hope is that, when things are slow growth we can kind of hide a lot of bad behaviors and the repetitious sneaky slow evolution of things, but maybe with this all being in our face more, we have immediacy and so we can choose to respond and tweak our own reactions and interactions in a more profound and meaningful way than trying to whisper and deny, like ‘this isn’t really happening, it’s cool, we’re just going to keep back talking these new users,’ etc.
WS: What is your vision of what a friendly busier backcountry looks and feels like?
SD: There are certain circles in the Wasatch central core who are hoping to collaborate more and to have more of an inclusive community. One of the thoughts that was communicated during this year’s snow and avalanche workshop is how two way radios have become really popular and they’re an amazing tool. And they’re on open bandwidth, so anyone can jump on. So the thought was: why don’t we designate public channels for each drainage? That way if no one can see a group skinning up the line you’re about to drop you can communicate to them like ‘hey so you guys know we’re waiting up here. We’re not going to drop on top of you but so you know we’re here waiting to please don’t hang out and eat your lunch in the middle of our ski run.’
But like all new ideas, some people in the community were like, ‘Radios? I’m not out there to communicate, I’m not out there to make people feel better and make them feel more included in this experience. This was always about me, and this is where I always escape for me’. And they’re two very valid approaches.
My ultimate vision of a busier backcountry isn’t very idealistic, it’s just respect. Maybe I’m somebody who is more ‘I’m an individual, I’m not out there to be communicating with anyone’, but I do know that in the back of my head if I did need to communicate with somebody I’m going to carry a radio. That way I can be part of it when I need to and know that it’s a tool people are using. But I’m not going to have my radio on and I don’t care what everybody in Little Cottonwood Canyon is talking about.
And then other folks are like, this is cool. Communication is helpful. It’s helping the next generation lean on each other, build consensus, and learn from one another.
My thought is: The backcountry is going to get more busy. It is what it is. We can choose to be begrudging about it and create a very exclusive, unsafe environment, or we can choose to be inclusive and choose to communicate when needed and communicate with kindness and a vocabulary of inclusivity versus judgement and exclusivity.
That’s more a philosophical note of what I hope the backcountry becomes. I do hope I see and hear less radio backpacks (laughs) but again, I’m happy to talk to somebody and understand.
But also, my hope for my own personal self and for our community at large is to be honest with our own bias. We all have them. And understanding that we only know what we know. If we can remember that and hold on to that — like this whole new generation, they only know what they know. They know front side activities. They know how they’ve approached mountains as it pertains to being at a ski resort. So it’s not that they’re idiots or that they’re disrespectful, it’s that you really don’t know what you don’t know.
WS: Are any particularly bad or damaging faux pas that people are doing in the backcountry that maybe there should be more public service announcements about? For instance, we’ve gotten a lot of comments on the site about being aware of who’s below you and making sure you aren’t skiing on top of other people.
SD: That’s the number one, and the biggest message we’re trying to get across as professionals as avalanche educators, as avalanche forecasters communicating to the public: Be mindful of people below you. That’s not even that new to Covid, right because the Wasatch is such a consolidated range, we don’t have the boundary of physical fitness that some other places have.
Something else we’ve been talking about a lot is forecasters showing and using test slopes, really being aware that if you’re marching around remotely triggering avalanches that you know for certain that nobody is below you. Then there’s general etiquette too — don’t pee on the skintrack — and that sort of lightness.
We are such a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ species and culture. My whole goal, whether through Inspired Summit or AIARE avalanche education is really making sure that this new wave of backcountry users understands that their decision making matters. Those of us who’ve made a career of this, whether it’s a professional career or lifelong passion career, we ought to always know why we’re doing things and why we’re not doing things. How we’re approaching things and how we’re not approaching other things. Cultivating a culture of mindfulness in this new wave is something that I’m trying to do. I don’t know if it’s a bigger movement, but I’m doing it.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.
Thanks for this write up and continuing hard work.
Blaring music? What about blaring snowmobiles?
Seems like many backcountry “skiers” do much of their backcountry with snowmobiles.
Seems to me that there are so many profit minded business endeavors related to backcountry skiing that have materialized in the last twenty years that they are the prime mover of the crowds to the backcountry. They never mention how much money they have made out of their love for the mountains business, it’s all about how safety minded they are. Just my opinion but they are the ones responsible for getting as many people as they can to pay them for bringing them in hordes every year to the pristine wilderness of the winter mountains. Profit is there prime motivation after all is said and done. Borrowing from JFK how about “Ask not what your mountains can do for you, but what you can do for your mountains.”
Maybe this was true in some places pre-COVID but definitely not the case in southwest MT. We have a handful of yurt/cabin operators that offer guide services but those groups are limited by the number of beds (typically around 6) in the yurt/cabin and I suspect most of the users are not first timers and are on a DIY trip.
Our trailheads (in areas not serviced by the yurt/cabin/guide set) are PACKED this season. It’s the first time in my 20+ years of BC riding here that parking has been an issue.
Given the explosion of new BC skiers I imagine some enterprising folks will try to create a business like the ones you refer to. Kind of a “chicken or the egg” situation.
Great Point Phillip. Couldn’t agree more. The profiteers are the real problem in our backcountry areas. Christie, you will hear my sled for exactly 5 minutes before I am gone. I had to buy a snowmobile to specifically get away from the profiteers. So, thanks for your patience.
Yo Idaho Dawg, please don’t tell anyone that I have been known to use sled tracks versus breaking trail on occasion to get deeper into the BC.
i’ll keep it under my beanie! 😉
Sheesh guys, this article is about being nice to each other…
To the point about profiteers, I wonder if sports like football and soccer became American mainstays because companies boosted their marketing and aspiring coaches started camps and hoped people would show up.
Laying blame (if in fact blame deserves to be laid) on any one entity for the growth of an activity that is super fun and meaningful and gives a lot of people enormous amounts of joy doesn’t really hold water. It also doesn’t change the changes.
There are many animals and birds that do not hibernate. Winter is a brutal frozen desert landscape for them.
But now here comes so many snowmobiles, partiers, etc. disrupting their already precarious struggle for survival.
Please stop glamorizing and hiding behind woke speak and POW bumper stickers. Hypocritical greenwashing just makes it worse.
Just like Mountain Bikers, this will soon end up having to be controlled and regulated.
So, have you stopped skiing in the BC or limiting the number of days you go out?
Seeing this in Vermont too. I’m still pretty new to the scene here (last few years) and I can still notice the trend. Biggest contributor is overall growth of skiing and people wanting to ditch the resort experience. Passes like Epic and Ikon have pushed more people to resorts that stay the same size. Before I left the resort, I saw so many kingpins and shifts showing up, just so people could access side country and try to beat the crowds to the know stashed.
Between the crowds and the yuppie/entightlement culture at the resorts, its such a better experience to get one run out in the woods then eight runs in bounds with all the city folk…its easy to see that for a lot of people. In the same way folks have to learn to ski more conservatively, focus on safety, folks have to learn to ditch some of there resort behaviors and the whole “me-first” entightlement mind set.
VT is really lucky to have collaboration between local, state and federal agencies to increase backcountry glading and access. I think the future for BC is bright, even if there’s more people. People at the resort don’t value the wilderness and mountains the same way. Mountains are a means to an end–skiing–at the resort. Its flipped in the BC, skiing is the means to an end, accessing the mountains…
One last thing, scaled skis with old school 3-pin cable binding open up sections of BC that folks ripping skins look right past. I find so many stashes on my altai koms…so there’s still options even in little ol’ Vermont
Of course, it’s less fun if your planned slope of powder or corn is all tracked up.
But at the same time, isn’t it great to see so many people who value the outdoors and nature?
And then there is the safety factor. If there truly are other parties nearby, that makes any kind of rescue, whether avalanche, crevasses, or evacuation, a lot more doable.
And how about avalanche centers? They rely on donations and observations. More people out in the backcoutry =more people to make an observation or donation.
And finally, there is the simple morality: unless you are on your own private property, anyone else as much right to be there as me, so let’s be kind to others.
Then there is the psychological aspect. If you go out with a mindset of “I hope I don’t see anyone else”, every time you do, your day will be a little bit worse.
If you go in with a mindset of “I love that other people enjoy this a s much as me”, your day will become a little bit brighter each time.
I appreciate this article immensely I find the spurious localism of the mountains exhausting. The entitled ownership and secrecy disheartening. You were not the first person to ski at Berthoud Pass, Glory Bowl is not your secret stash. Guides, and guidebook authors are not selling out the backcountry. Get over it, if your place is overrun like mine is, get fitter and go farther.
On another note I am torn on the idea of waiting at the top of the run because someone else has decided to ascend the same slope. How long should I sit up there? What if I my toes are cold!
Well said Harkin! I recall the helpful older timers, who waaaay back in the 80s turned me on to backcountry skiing. They too lamented seeing more people in the BC around Summit County but were always willing to lend a hand or some sage advice about gear and snowpack. So fast forward to this year, I’ve found myself helping BC newbies with how to get in and out of their tech bindings on a number of a occasions knowing full well most of them will disappear in a few years once we put covid in the rearview mirror. But mostly I am thankful for the profit motivated companies that have evolved the avy gear, boots, bindings and skis we use today as it has been a great evolution. BUT I remain fearful of the bulletproof mindset many of the new AT crowd bring to the BC as mother nature remains unforgiving.
I agree with Kevin and Harkin.
BC skiing is the noblest sport and needs to be shared. I am generally happy to help new skiers or skiers from elsewhere have good experiences.
Without the growth in the sport we would not have the much improved equipment that most of us enjoy. However, I respect the few traditionalists still skiing on gear I knew and used decades ago. They are a roving museum.
Now, as for snowmobiles and their riders, it should be clear that snowmobiling drives out all other BC users, not to mention its effects on wildlife. It would not be so bad if the snow motorists left the regions easily accessed by BC skiers and went farther away, but, alas, not around here. They often compete with BC skiing, even in zones where prohibited.
The resorts are pricing themselves out of existence, so its no wonder in these stay near home times that people are getting outside and enjoying the mountains self powered. It would be nice if the increase in people could also bring an increase in recognizing that we all share the same wild areas and should work together to protect them and to encourage safe access. Its bad enough walking around town in the era of Covid and having people avoid your greeting and give you a wide pass with their eyes averted. It also sucks to run into groups in the backcountry doing the same because they feel you are there to ruin their day as opposed to sharing a friendly greeting. With a little effort or getting up earlier you can still find good skiing (its getting harder compared to 10 years ago for sure). It would be much better to spend your energy doing some BC activism to encourage more trailhead access and parking to assist in spreading people out as opposed to viewing all other BC users as ruining your day.
“The resorts are pricing themselves out of existence”.
They sure seem to be.
Here is a quote from a short story called Animality which I wrote for the Black Diamond Winter Catalog in 2004/2005 and is included in my novel The Snow Leopard Manuscript. “The confines of the timbers washed over me with new understanding. I ranged farther into the woods like some antlered beast driven deeper and deeper, where the white snows lay, quiet, still and undisturbed.” It is a way, a path always there, .even in these somewhat difficult times.
Kind of a long read (for the internet), but this article about Benton MacKaye’s original vision for the Appalachian Trail seems quite apropos to the problem at hand. https://placesjournal.org/article/an-appalachian-trail-a-project-in-regional-planning/?fbclid=IwAR0qRn0Dab7sn65u8KdSPVfhe5fH_BqD9Dy1WiquDeeP6aNIrudp9UvCJn8
Of particular note to the problem at hand is his approach to dealing with growth whereby “greater numbers [are] accommodated by more communities, not larger ones.” Much of the conversation about dealing with the increase in users in the backcountry focuses around issues at already established areas. Perhaps a better approach would be evaluating where access to safe terrain could be improved, thereby reducing pressure at popular areas. Extended winter maintenance of existing roads (or simply having access to roads that are already maintained, but locked out) would be a much more straightfoward means of mitigating the impact at already popular areas rather than implementing another layer of rules.
The trade-off in backcountry skiing losing its sense of exclusivity as more people take up the sport is that we gain a far more powerful voice as a user group to influence management policies.
That is a great point, and a positive, actionable , suggestion!
I’m new to the backcountry this year, and I often feel guilty telling people that because I think they will react in a similar way as some people in the comments or described in the article. I feel like I need to defend my entry into the backcountry – that I’m not a COVID resort refugee, that backcountry skiing (and eventually ski mountaineering) is the natural evolution of my summer trail running and backpacking hobbies. Is this right? I hope not.
Welcome! This was exactly my progression, for summer sports anyway. In winter, I had many many years of using cross country gear for adventure purposes similar to trail running or hiking, only on snow. Since finding AT gear, I’ve found winter and spring nirvana, and in Colorado anyway, spring is really the best season. This truly is the best sport of all, and sharing it with other like minded people is part of the fun. This isn’t surfing, thank goodness. If you are willing to hike two miles, especially in spring, even crowded places like the front range are wide open for exploration and solitude.
And the rules of politeness for crowded zones are pretty easy, don’t post hole the skin track, and don’t leave bodily wastes strewn about where people can step in them. The safety stuff is much more complex, but if you are looking for low angled fun, it’s manageable even if you don’t have a snow science PhD.
The issue of highly concentrated crowded zones is more problematic. There is inadequate parking in some spots like Berthoud Pass, and I’m sure in Little Cottonwood Canyon in UT and Teton Pass in WY. Weekends in those spots are probably not for people seeking solitude and exploration. Those seem to be the areas that have the potential for conflict. But there are probably 100 spots more crowded than these in the Alps, and they seem to manage.
Welcome to the backcountry Zach! You definitely shouldn’t need to defend your right to be in the hills, though I know the feeling. The more we talk about it, the less I hope people feel that way. I mean, we’re all doing one of the most fun things on earth! We should all be stoked.
Zach I find it amazing the resistance of certain “locals” towards folks who are new to their resort community or their chosen activity knowing full well that at some point they too were new as well. Enjoy the sport, ignore the negative folks and to add to Kevin Woolley’s comments focus on the safety aspects. Low angle is the key this year in Colorado due to snowpack(and great for those newer to the sport) and my favorite BC spots are very crowded due to the covid effect. So as I skinned up Abasin Sunday morning I was again amazed by the number of folks doing the same thing before sunrise. More impressive was the number of skinny, fast guys who flew past me on the up who were average intermediate skiers on the down and that was cool to see as they are obviously newer to skiing and skinning! More power to them and you as the growth of the sport has led to much improved gear and tech which us old, fat guys appreciate!
Hey Zach! Welcome to the bc! This is not right and you should not feel guilty telling people that you are new to backcountry skiing. Its a great lifestyle and past time. Like everything else we all need to remember to show a little grace to each other no matter how many days youve spent out this season. Hope you enjoy your first season and are getting fresh turns wherever that may be!
I think this article and the accompanying comments bring up some excellent points. The ourdoors are evolving and with that comes growing pains. How these issues are addressed by all of us will determine the next genrations recreational options. However the biggest change i have noticed in the last 40 years is society’s inability to deal with multible differing view points. Complex problems cannot be solved if a community cannot come together as one. As they say, a good marriage is bulit on compromise.
My experience so far this season has been significantly more crowded parking lots but essentially the same number of people on route as pervious years once I’m 45 minutes into a tour. This is actually very similar to the dynamic I find in the summer while hiking and climbing. Being in the Seattle area, crowded trailheads are a way of life, but I find that 90% of people stick to <10% of the available routes. Once you get off the beaten path, on an obscure trail or off trail route, people become very scarce. I've often had the experience of fighting for a parking spot, spending a mile or two on a crowded trail, making a turn, and then seeing no one else for the rest of the day.
I think backcountry skiing will settle into that same pattern. The majority of people will stick to the popular, well documented, easy to access routes, but there will be plenty of solitude and freshies available for those willing to put in the effort. In some ways this will be good for the sport as it will create popular pressure to maintain access and protection. Parking headaches and traffic will suck, but maybe that just means adopting a strategy from the summer: drive up the night before and camp at the trailhead. Time to start looking into some hot tents…
I have made the same observation this year repeatedly (around Seattle). Super crowded parking lots but actually few people are seen beyond close/easily accessible terrain.
Ultimately, new users should be embraced and mentored. This is ethical and right. Buuut…. I go in the backcountry because it relieves me of the pressure of being socially acceptable, if only for a little while. Sometimes, it is really helpful to not have to be nice to people (not that I don’t enjoy this too). When the backcountry is crowded, it is hard to find a balance between society and solitude. I do enjoy people very much, but like a lot of other BC users, I sure need regular breaks from them.
I used to live in the Wasatch at a time when I almost never saw others in the backcountry. I feel the fact that it is actually crowded really changes the dynamic and the BC experience. Especially if you have to be cognizant of people below you, compete for parking and socially engaged with others (if only superficially) it takes away from the sense of primal wildness, autonomy and freedom. Of course, no one has any place to say who can and can’t enjoy the BC; that is pretty arrogant. For me, I can’t BC travel in a setting like this, and I wouldn’t fit in with this vibe of embracing the crowds, however noble and sustainable this practice is.
Thoughtful and important perspective ECN. I agree that BC skiing would have a different feel/appeal with more human interactions. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for the interesting article.
All these issues are just symptoms of the same old problem. Too many people. In 1980 there were 220 million Americans, already vastly over populated. We continue to grow between 2-3 million more per year. More than the populations of many of the commenters states. In 2021 there are 330 million Americans and the country is not 1sf bigger. Every problem we face, from a crowded backcountry to global warming to loss of open space is driven by this unending human pressure and every solution gets further away the longer we ignore it. As Ed abbey said, infinite growth in a finite area is the lifestyle of the cancer cell. He also noted, nothing that is free or wild or beautiful will survive the ongoing tsunami of humans. Not PC or woke, just the truth. Pressure the politicians as if your lifestyle depends on it. It does.
I believe your concern is misplaced. Western Europe and East Asia is already depopulating. The places we ski in the US are desirable places to live in and will probably increase in population even if the overall US decreases (which is likely will, as the US follows the long term trend of the rest of the developed world). I would be curious what trends depopulation in the EU and Japan has had on land use there. My suspicion is that the two are not very closely correlated.
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