This somewhat to assist dialog in the greater culture, but mostly to clarify things for folks new to backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering — especially regarding the definition of the term “backcountry skiing.”
When I published my first guidebook in 1985, publisher Mountaineers Books debated me about whether to spell “backcountry” as two words or one. I don’t think their crotchety editor even had the portmanteau in her personal lexicon, and might have even thought it was poor English. I got the impression she thought the word “backcountry” was something a Colorado ignoramus cooked up while bar stooling in Aspen.
(Full disclosure: I’ve been told I make too many word joins in my writing. Probably so…)
I blew the dust off a moldering copy of “Colorado High Routes,” and sure enough I can’t find one use of the word “backcountry” on the front or back cover. Nor is the word utilized much (if any) in the text. It seems the term “ski mountaineering” was favored instead — even though many of my routes in the book are low angled ski tours far from any summits.
Yet even back then the term “backcountry” was in full use, and I lobbied for its inclusion as one word. This was of course subsequently done by magazines and many other screeds of epistemological significance. So the term is now in common use.
Since then, the backcountry.com domain name was purchased for $80,000, and the word is used to describe everything from flashlights to underwear. As for WildSnow.com, “backcountry skiing” IS who we are (though as of 2015 the term “ski touring” seems to be gaining traction).
So what’s our written definition?
Wikipedia does a decent job of it. Their intro paragraph:
Backcountry skiing is skiing in a sparsely inhabited rural region over ungroomed and unmarked slopes or pistes. More importantly, the land and the snow pack are not monitored, patrolled, or maintained. Fixed mechanical means of ascent such as ski lifts are typically not present.
Wiki goes on to expound at length, as is their destiny. But we need something short and pithy. The “unmarked” part has to go since many backcountry trails are marked or at least signed. More, plenty of backcountry skiing is done with mechanized access or ascent, so that needs to be addressed differently.
My initial effort:
Backcountry skiing is skiing ungroomed “natural” snow in sparsely populated areas, generally outside designated ski resorts. Human power is frequently the means of access and ascent, but mechanized means such as helicopters and ski lifts may be used so long as the land accessed is backcountry.
The terms “slackcountry” and “sidecountry” simply refer to backcountry that’s easily accessed from a resort. Really not a big deal, and still “backcountry.” The issue with slackcountry and sidecountry is in the U.S. quite a few unprepared skiers are venturing off resorts into these areas, and getting into trouble. Hence, the terminology is useful for things such as accident reports and conversation. For example, “the noobs ducked the rope for some slackcountry powder, didn’t have any self rescue gear, and nearly died.”
Esteemed blogsters, care to take a stab at it? Comments on.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.