Some Thoughts on Backcountry Skiing, Risk, Learning and Life:

“The art of being a warrior is to balance the wonder and the terror of being alive.”

Carlos Castaneda


Serene, exhilarating and always uplifting.


There have been 6 avalanche fatalities so far in Colorado this year. It is only March. There is no doubt that winter backcountry exploits involve hazards. Yet, I do not know a set of activities that are more serene or exhilarating while always up-lifting. Sure this is a cliche but the mantle of snow and ice adds a purity to the world that is often lacking. The harsh reality of the environment provides a rare simplicity of purpose. The sublime beauty leaves a patina of happiness. One that is hard for even the grind of my urban reality to break through. The sensation of floating says more to me about freedom than walking out of a cell following a student prank gone wrong.

Reading social media I see a variety of responses to the tragedies. There is a wide cross section of personal histories, understandings and experience. There are those affected who do not indulge. Those that love it and feel the conflict of a tragedy. Those that do not understand why people do it. Those that believe they are above reproach and wish to hold court. Those that are lucky and been around for years. Those that are new to the game. On reading though, opinions are often polarized. It strikes me that finding a compassionate middle ground will serve us much better. 

While everyone’s motivations can be different there are some consistent themes. I want to challenge the picture of a bunch of space cadet hoons who have no care for their own well being. It is irrational. Yes, people have different levels of risk tolerance. They have different levels of understanding and experience. Painting people with the brush of “they have a death wish” is unreasonable and unrealistic. When I get into a car with a young man who drives way too fast I don’t believe he is suicidal. He hasn’t had children or had the time to think about things as those of us who are older. He may be loosey-goosey at the wheel while my knuckles are white and stiff. Yet, I do not believe he has any less of a desire to live to a ripe old age than I do. 

Fear is keeping you from reaching your potential. Conquering fear should be your primary goal in life.

Stan Beecham

For me there are better explanations for why people indulge in risky behaviors. For ten years I have been grappling with meditation. Sometimes I feel successful, sometimes not so much. It is a discipline. While I certainly understand it’s benefits and know how it is good for me, there are days when I manage to forget to invest in it. Mainly, because I cannot guarantee that I will get out of my own way. I will not allow the experience to be as powerful as I know it can be. Yet, I cannot remember a time where climbing a harder route without a rope did not create a sense of being present as strong as any meditation I have done. The moment so intense that distractions were not able to chip at the walls of my mind’s defenses. By being present I forgot everything including myself.

“The self expands through acts of self forgetfulness.” 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

Free Solo won the Oscar for best documentary. It comes at an interesting time. In the past the “warrior mindset” was more understood. Love or loathe what Alex Honnold does, it is wise to seek understanding rather than dismiss it. Extreme activities are filling a void. They replace an opportunity that was available on a day to day basis. Life contained dangers. It allowed us to work through aspects of the human condition we are often now sheltered from. Please do not think I am advocating courting senseless hazards. What I am saying is that when obliged to be present we stop burying our heads in the sand. We stop pretending that we are happy spinning our senseless hamster wheels. We meditate on what we are here on the planet to do. We ponder our connection with the planet and people. I will even state that adventure activities are the ultimate “Moral Equivalent to War”. A concept coined by philosopher William James. James saw people became the best versions of themselves in times of great duress. Courting risk has less to do with seeking adrenaline and far more to do with being present.

The other thought I am currently grappling with surrounds why people are so judgmental about “risky behavior”? I struggle most with folk who are involved and see the need to find fault in what others do. Yet no straight thinking backcountry rider can deny “there but for the grace of god go I.” The beautiful thing about backcountry riding is its complexities. The volume of understanding, experience and knowledge you need to be both safe and successful. It has a long learning curve and benefits from a cautious approach while learning the craft. It is hands down the most fun I have had teaching because I have to consider progressions of experience and content at length. It has helped me a great deal in considering the best way to guide my son through his learning. In particular I have contemplated how native Americans taught their children. How without “a lesson” they slowly provided the experiences and guidance needed to absorb the necessary understanding. I have thought about how I learned about snow. The classes and training I took and taught. Teaching winter backcountry travel consolidated and clarified concepts. The real understanding though came from repetition and making connections. I think about the thousands of modified rutschblocks cut with an ice axe. How I could not report the data because it was inconsistent with a standardized norm. But when I compared my results with conditions I saw over time, I learned a great deal. When teaching I have always used an experiential model. One, where we do something and then reflect on it. When teaching Cai I do not focus on reflection half as much. Because I have infinitely more time with him I let him just indulge in the experience. My hope is he will make the connections without necessarily being able to name them. When I am teaching students I am always highlighting slope angles and instabilities in the snow pack. With Cai I mainly ski, only sometimes raising attention to what we are doing. What I am hoping is that he develops the secret sauce of good outdoor practitioners. An intuition when something is right and when it is not so. As a young practitioner I had to analyze everything, now I just “know”. This knowing is the result of all those analyses. Going back to the native American way I believe their teaching style leads the student to this place of knowing without all the analysis. It just needs a substantial investment of time. 

So why do I explain this? Because most of the people who I see judging have been taught by people like me in a formal setting. What we teach has often become dogma. This mortifies me because it is not the intention. I want Cai to feel the shape of the terrain. I want him to naturally avoid terrain traps and slopes steep enough to slide on days when it is likely. I want him to intuit when it is likely. I want him to blend all this information together like a skilled native American blends paddle strokes and finds a route through the jigsaw of a rapid. I want him to feel comfortable enough with his own skills and understanding that he does not need to judge others. I want him to gently guide those that need it and appreciate the mastery of someone who makes it all look easy. 

So where does this all bring me? The best way to learn backcountry winter skills is by finding a decent mentor and throwing in formal lessons for good measure. What we need is compassionate and caring outdoor practitioners who tend to activism. Ones who have been sufficiently inspired by their experiences and want to do the work needed by  environmentalism and social justice. The question is what do each of us need to do individually to make it happen? How are we going to mentor? How are we going to create a kind space and help people to flourish? How are we going to make sure our great, great grandchildren inherit the world we want for them? 

Wil RickardsComment