One ski slid in front of the other. I was touring up Snodgrass in Crested Butte, slowly gaining altitude on a road that was packed solid by ski tracks. Moving up well-trod paths on skis is a unique and underappreciated feeling. It is comparatively easy, and with calmness comes time to think. It is while skinning and hiking that I do my best thinking. The activities aren’t mindless or mindful. Rather, they drive insight and creativity.
Locals go to Snodgrass to exercise, train, and simply get out in the sun. But they also describe the place as a sacrificed part of the wilderness. The idea goes that Snodgrass gets overrun so that other places remain untouched. There is a disappointment in the idea, but there is also an acceptance that it is the best option in the face of a rush of new backcountry skiers. Interestingly, the sacrifice often has less to do with its ecology and with animal populations than it does with experience.
Yet, while skinning and thinking and thinking and skinning, it seemed to me like Snodgrass was one of the most beautiful places in the world. Rather than trampled and destroyed, it felt well-loved. I moved on the tracks of hundreds of other people pursuing the same basic pleasure. The land was not an abstract idea of wilderness, it was a place full of people who had collectively agreed to keep it in a certain state that served human purposes but left other forms of life relatively undisturbed, and which concentrated impacts on a comparatively small space.
Since the origins of the movement in the 1970s (sometime around when “backcountry” overtook “touring” as the sport’s most frequent name) places like Snodgrass have served ambiguous purposes. For skiers past and present the turn towards the backcountry was an ode to a nostalgic past before chairlifts, snow machines, grooming machines, and crowds overtook ski areas. Before 1936, there were no lifts of any sort within the United States, and as late as 1960, chairlifts were still a treat, only found at region’s biggest and best-funded ski areas. But as skiing industrialized, many felt the best part of the sport was slipping away.
Over time, this also led to a sense of ownership over non-developed lands – places where athletes could use skis to experience wilderness and to conquer mountains without the help of machines. As historian Mark David Spence demonstrated in his 1999 book Dispossessing Wilderness (book here) the idea that National Parks represent a primordial nature was fabricated through the creation of national parks. Rather than preserving “primordial nature,” early parks such as Yellowstone or Glacier National Park were built through the active removal of Natives from these lands. The expulsion of Native people was of course at gunpoint. Expanding on this argument in his 2003 book Crimes Against Nature (book here), historian Karl Jacoby showed how Natives, Blacks, and poor-whites access to these spaces were regulated while wealthier people whose goals were recreation or scientific extraction were welcomed in.
The desire for outdoor recreation and the way it has manifested in recent years was not inevitable. The late-historian Hal Rothman has contended that by the 1970s (for this article right around when backcountry skiing took off) people stopped consuming sport or environments, rather they sought “experience.” Experience, he explained, came with a type of social cache that increasingly played a key role in various social and class circles within America. The wealthy could return to their respective metropolis and tell the story of how radically different the wilderness was then the city. Meanwhile, the ski bum (and to some extent other locals) could tell stories about the wild and empty terrain they skied – a conversation that was (and is) almost universally steeped in biocentrism. (For more on backcountry skiing, experience, and class reach out to historian Alex Miller, who is an expert in the history of Alpine touring.)
As Jonathan Thompson recently pointed out in an article (read here) for Writers on the Range, has led to fights between backcountry skiers and conservation battles. Even when things like wildlife protection only removed small bits of terrain from backcountry access, the most extreme supporters of the sport would at times fight back, going as far as hiring prestigious law firms to sue federal agencies.
Historian Michael Childers wrote in his book Colorado Powder Keg (book here) about the long history of legal battles between ski areas and environmental groups who wanted to preserve lands for flora and fauna. A recent fight in the Tetons suggests that some backcountry skiers, even if they reject the technology-driven experience of in-bounds skiing, fell into the same legal battles as their fellow skiers. In many ways, because they rejected technology, they presumed their recreation is a low-impact activity. This brings us back to Snodgrass.
When I got to the top of Snodgrass, the view off the backside was beautiful. But meeting people at the top also had perks. The space was confined, and it was shared, and there is no reason we can’t learn to value these experiences over an obsession with and a feeling of ownership over more distant spaces. Acknowledging in day-to-day life that these places were not and are not truly wild can go a long way towards building this type of community and culture. People do not need skiing and they do not need backcountry access. Skiers would be better off striking the word “need” out of their vocabulary, it might give some much-needed perspective.
The largely avalanche-free terrain on the edge of Snodgrass certainly suffers from overuse. It is not a utopic space – and it never will be. What Snodgrass is, is a beautiful example of people sharing a space. There is no illusion while skiing there that the land was never and continues to be unoccupied and there is a much-needed radicalness in accepting that the relationship between people and Snodgrass and people and things like wilderness areas are not that different.