As a teenager, my summer hiking and climbing quickly broadened into winter XC skiing. Wonderful years of skinny skis, dodgey boots, japara jackets and woollen pants.
A decade or so later, on a trip to the Main Range, I skied with some guys of similar skill level who were shredding slopes that I could barely get down. This was my introduction to the wonders of plastic boots and heavy gear. Like quite a few of my friends of similar age, I made the transition to fatter skis and started chasing steeps as well as enjoying my backcountry pottering. My equivalent of a mid-life sports car was a pair of Liberty skis with Axel bindings. I even bought a pair of skins. I never looked back, happily skinning up mountains after years of bagging my mates that had crossed over from the One True Religion of pattern based skis.
In the same way we have those subtle changes in our individual lives, these also play out on the larger level of the backcountry community. The last few years I have seen some interesting changes in back country (BC) culture. I suppose a lot my reflection is influenced by where I ski (mostly the Hotham/ Feathertop area, and Mt Stirling, with a couple of longer BC trips each year). So maybe its an observation that doesn’t ring true elsewhere. I haven’t skied out of Falls or Thredbo in about 3 years. And I certainly haven’t tried to cross reference it with any data.
But my observations are:
That there are more people in the back country. This is great. There were a few years there where it got a bit lonely. In popular spots it can feel chockers now days. Earlier this month as I headed up Mt Stirling, ski patrol said that 52 people had been camping out on the mountain the night before.
The crew is getting younger. Also good. I think this is largely because of the rise in the numbers doing backcountry boarding. More on this below. But the ‘oldies’ are still out there, so the age mix is healthy.
Snowshoeing has taken off. Sometimes on Stirling, people on snow shoes have been 30% of those heading out.
The crowd is still male dominated. But it seems that there are more women than there was, and more younger women.
Alpine Touring is taking off, but slower than I expected. I have tended to associate AT set ups with people who ski the side country around resorts. But I do see more and more people on touring rigs than ever before. This is helping more people get out of the resorts, and there are probably more traditional resort skiers looking for something new rather than back country fanatics.
I don’t know if we should blame Jeremy Jones or just look to the high cost of going to resorts. But either way, there are loads more boarders in the back country. They’re a mix of boarders on snow shoes and split boarders, and they tend to be younger than a lot of the skiers, and mostly male. While some do get into the touring aspect (I once met a guy on the Bogong High Plains on snow shoes, pulling a rolled up canvas swag with a snowboard tied to the top) it seems fair to say that most of them are out there for the steeps. At Stirling they tend to go straight up Bluff Spur to the biggest terrain on the mountain at Stanley Bowl, rather than touring the mountain.
I think all these trends are good. There is some interesting data you can find about sales of BC versus resort gear and the rise of the split board, etc, but these reflections are all just based on my experience on my regular mountains … please feel free to tell me what I’ve got right and where I’ve gone wrong.