The AJ Interview: Writer John Branch on Death in the Backcountry

John Branch was working as a manager at Costco when his wife suggested that he go to journalism school. He liked Costco, and says he’d work there again if he needed a job, but knew he that was not how he wanted to grow old.

As a kid, Branch “gobbled up the sports section” so it seemed natural to become a sports reporter. After getting a journalism degree, he worked at the Fresno Bee and later “got lucky” when a position opened up at The New York Times, where he has now worked for 15 years covering sports and California.

Since then, Branch has won almost every award in journalism and finds himself seeing what he can “get away with” at the New York Times. He’s written about climbing and skiing and surfing. He’s covered competitive dog grooming, and the yo-yo and lumberjack world championships. And he’s even written a few personal narratives, though he says he scared of writing a memoir.

Branch’s third book, Sidecountry: Tales of Death from the Back Roads of Sport is a collection of his best work including “Dawn Wall,” about the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It also includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning feature “Snow Fall,” which is a detailed account of the Tunnel Creek avalanche in Washington.

Adventure Journal talked with Branch about his career arc, this new collection and reporting from the fringes of sport, or, what he likes to call the sidecountry.


Adventure Journal: You’ve had a storied career at the New York Times and you have a large body of work. How did you select the stories for Sidecountry?

JB: The initial idea was to make a book of outdoor and adventure stories, including “Snowfall,” “Dawn Wall,” and “Deliverance,” which was great, but when I went to sit down to think about it—I made a list off the top of my head of what stood out to me. Then when I started going back through it, I realized I didn’t love all of them. So, we decided to expand beyond the outdoors and include stories that still fit the idea of the sidecountry and include things like the one about Rubik’s cubes that involves my son and the Vegas shootings that involves my daughter.

Most of these are stories that mean something to me, stories that stick with me either because the reporting process stands out in my mind, or because I feel like they have some sort of heart or emotion to them. So, we expanded what sidecountry means to stories beyond the realm of mainstream sports.

You are considered a sports reporter, but you cover some quirky things that aren’t always about the competition. Do you think of yourself as a sportswriter?
I am a sports writer, proud to be a sportswriter, but I can’t tell you about the famous quarterback or what happened last night at the baseball game. Sports is such a broad area that I see myself dabbling in the edges of it. I see it as a dare to stretch the sports section to get away from the mainstream, and expose readers to places and things they otherwise wouldn’t get exposed to. There are plenty of people writing about the Lakers and Tom Brady. I’d rather write about people that most people haven’t heard of.

How do you find these offbeat stories?
I’ve always thought that storytelling is coming up with a good idea, and I think I have enough of a childlike curiosity that makes me look at things and think, how do they do that? Or, why do they do that? I will go to a tennis match write about how they mow the grass. I go to a baseball game or basketball game and am looking at the dugout or up in the crowd trying to figure out what to write about other than the players on the court. Maybe I could do the same stories everyone else is doing and do them well, but if I do something different, there is a chance to stand out.

In this collection, there’s a story about competitive dog grooming. That was a story where just the photographer was going to the event, which makes sense, it was colorful and interesting how they groom these dogs in different shapes. That was kind of my wheelhouse of niche and quirky stories. When somebody asks you to go to a championship dog grooming contest the answer is yes. The answer is always yes and that remains one of my favorite stories.

You’ve written a lot of fun, light-hearted stories, but you’ve also covered avalanche fatalities and mass shootings. How do you talk to sources about traumatic events and handle reporting these sensitive stories?
Early in my career, I was kind of the guy that liked quirky fun stories, and then I started covering stories where people died, stories like “Snowfall.” I think those are the ones that are important. Those are the ones that mean a lot to me because they stick with me. How? I think just trying to be human, just be a listener.

There is nothing more difficult than sitting next to someone who just lost someone and having them open up to you. There’s nothing more—I can’t think of the right word—there’s nothing I take more seriously than that privilege, of someone revealing themselves, fully. It’s a huge responsibility. I get that. But I don’t think there’s any special trick to it. Just be human, be fair and treat people the way you want to be treated.

The Tunnel Creek avalanche was big news in the ski community at the time, but there are plenty of avalanches. Why did you decide to cover this one, in particular, so in depth?
We didn’t decide to do a story about avalanches, generally, until about six weeks after that avalanche. The sports editor came to me and said, I think there’s something more there. More people are going into the backcountry, ski companies are enticing them with protective gear, and ski areas are opening up boundaries. These avalanches are claiming the lives of more and more professional skiers.

The initial idea was not Tunnel Creek, but it was the deadliest avalanche of that season and it had a rare thing, which was a lot of witnesses. My first calls were to two journalists who were there, Megan Michelson and John Stifter. If anyone was going to talk to a journalist it would be another journalist and both of them returned my calls. From there I was kind of off and running. It was a slow process though.

As the weeks went on, more and more people sat down and talked to me. I wanted to give everybody who was there an opportunity to talk. In a typical story, I would I have said, okay, I have enough, but this time it became a quest of mine to get everybody in the story, all 16 people. They respected that we were trying to take this seriously, that we were taking our time. We were not trying to sensationalize and I was not interested in pointing the finger. I really just wanted to lay out what happened.

If I’m not mistaken, your Dawn Wall reporting was the first time climbing was on the front page of The New York Times, is that correct? Do you have any insight to the decision-making to put the Dawn Wall on the front page?
I have no idea how that decision was made back in New York—I was as surprised as anyone that A1 was going to take it. But I do know that it seemed to capture the imagination of readers who saw this as an incredible adventure, of human desire. It struck a nerve with people who don’t know much about climbing.

How did covering the Dawn Wall climb compare to cover other mainstream sports?
It was tricky because the first story came on day six, it wasn’t at the very beginning. I don’t have a lot of interest in writing about an aspiration to do something because there’s a million people who say, I’m going to walk across America, or I am going to swim to Hawaii. But these guys seemed serious enough about it that six days in, there was a story.

I had a sense, through them and through others, how much time it could take, so in my head, as a reporter, I’m thinking, what else can we do here. Then, when Kevin stalled, it gave us a little bit of time. We did a profile of Tommy, and a profile of Kevin. Then it became a news event, after writing those features.

It took off unexpectedly. We got so many questions: how do climbers do this, how do they go to the bathroom. So, we needed to write an explainer, here’s the lingo, here’s how this kind of thing works. We got Alex Honnold and Beth Rodden to come on board as the experts for reader questions. We didn’t have a plan, but I would write 6 stories over the course of 10 days and it seemed to grow. We just went along with it.

When you were digging through your archives selecting stories, what did you notice about yourself as a journalist? Are you critical of your past work, or do you feel like you’ve grown in any certain direction?
I’d like to think I’m a better writer. I think I’m probably a more somber writer as I get older. When I first started, I could be a little critical. That kind of writing now drives me crazy. More and more, I want my stories to have meaning, something deeper. The older I get, the more I see this as a serious pursuit. But I’m also not one who takes it that seriously. I’m a daily journalist at heart and once it’s written I don’t think about it a whole lot. I’m always looking forward.

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