This past weekend, I did something I haven’t done in almost 20 years: I skied one of Southern California’s most popular local hill, Snow Summit. On the rare occasion that I’ll hit the SoCal mountains, I’ll go elsewhere – Mountain High or Mt. Baldy are closer or less crowded. But, you know, circumstances and all that. And so on Saturday I found myself standing in a lift line, looking at the skiers and boarders around me and noting how dramatically different it felt.
For one, there were tons of Asian folks, perhaps as much as a third of all the people — a fantastic improvement in these lily-white sports. Unfortunately, especially given the size of their populations in L.A., Hispanics and African-Americans were disproportionally absent. No real surprise there, but still, one would hope for better. Skiing’s price remains out of reach for most, and the industry’s outreach has always been anemic no matter what your skin color.
The larger notable difference, though, was the complete and total absence of backcountry culture. There wasn’t one O.B. oriented backpack to be seen, not one shovel peeking out of a zipper. There were no gates, no warnings, no transceiver practice areas. I should haven’t expected otherwise — despite fantastic backcountry when conditions are right, L.A. skiers are not rope duckers — but having spent the vast majority of my time in places like Jackson, Alta, Blackcomb, and Mammoth, it was jarring to be surrounded by skiers and boarders who were perfectly happy within the boundaries of the resort. Who were so happy, in fact, they probably didn’t even see the boundaries.
It was like stepping back in time, like going back to the early 90s, when carrying a pack was an anomaly. And I’m not sure I liked it. Despite the dramatically more intense pressure on backcountry adjacent to ski areas, a culture that is infused with backcountry stoke is more dynamic, engaged, and adventurous. It’s richer, more focused, and more connected by the common goal of chasing pow. Snow Summit was an awesome place to be last Saturday — it was sunny and warm, people were happy and friendly, lift lines were 10 minutes at the most — and it won’t be another 20 years before I’m back. But on a mountain where people accept risk to chase snow, it’s tangible that skiing is a way of life and not just something to do.
Photo of Arne Backstrom, Dave Rosenbarger, and Seth Morrison in Chamonix, France, by Christian Pondella.