Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Order, chaos, ethics and the backcountry

Can we have unfettered liberty and powder for all?

In the seventies and eighties rock climbing went through an adolescence of sorts. As the pursuit’s popularity grew, the elite climbers of the day, guys like Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robins and Tom Frost took the existing concept of climbing “by fair means” and developed it into a code of ethics to ensure the newly mainstream sport wouldn’t collapse under the weight of its own popularity.

It was quite a feat, given the anarchic band of self-confessed degenerates and misfits that constituted the climbing fraternity of the time.

This set of ‘rules’, developed by the people at the lunatic fringe, dictated the big no-nos, things like chipping holds and retro-fitting bolts to a climb, as well as things to be avoided like scaring the rock by hammering in pitons and de-vegetating cliffs to establish routes.

At the same time they somehow managed to instil the concept of good or ‘pure’ style into the climbing culture. The epitome of which is the on-sight free solo; a lone climber ascending a previously unseen cliff, un-assisted by ropes or equipment, from bottom to top in a single push, then leaving it completely un-changed for the next person.

It’s a philosophical goal that not many climbers ever achieve, most are happy to accept impurities like anchors, a rope and harness, but the idea that climbing is really just about testing your mind and body against the rock and gravity is a concept that’s held the climbing community in good stead for half a century. By applying a little order to the chaos, climbers have created and preserved a sport that has a ‘soul’ like no other.

These days, looking at the steady crawl of people skinning out of the Remarkables , it would seem that backcountry skiing is going through a similar growth-spurt.

A new breed of burly touring bindings like Frichi Freerides and Naxo NXs mean that skiers can now carve up the resort’s groomers, tackle the terrain park, and tour the backcountry all with the one rig. Now you can have your cake and eat it.

Consequently AT bindings are becoming the SUV of the ski field. You can be certain that most of them will never make it off the piste let alone out of the resort. But even so, with sales of these all terrain vehicles booming the resort-adjacent backcountry that was a land of anarchic solitude just a few years ago is becoming decidedly, ahem, social.

So do we need to start thinking about a code of ethics and style for winter backcountry travellers? Can we apply order to the chaos? Should we?

I’m increasingly thinking perhaps we should have a go. Over the years the amount of people I’ve seen making ski touring faux pas seems to have increased exponentially. It seems every time you go out now you see skiers and boarders dropping into slopes with people skinning below them, skiing drunken descent lines that track-out a bowl in three runs and my favourite, heading out ridiculously under-equipped – armed with skins and a transceiver… but not much else.

The question is how do you do it? How do you get a bunch of people who’ve left the resort largely to escape the plethora of rules and regulations, to self-administer a whole new set of rules? I don’t think there’d be many who’d welcome (or who’d read) signs saying, “Welcome to the backcountry, please follow these rules or else… and have a nice day.”

Perhaps the answer lies in convincing the lunatic fringe to think level headedly about the future of the backcountry. Perhaps we need to get the professionals, the gear manufacturers, the mag editors, photographers, guides and of course bloggers to lead the concept of good ethics and pure style in the backcountry rather than just worrying about their sales or circulation statistics.

It might take a bit of effort, but I think saving the soul of the backcountry is probably worth it.