Editorial: Backcountry skiers hear call of the wild

Thursday, February 23, 2017

There was a time in recent human history when outdoor adventures were just that – adventures. If you wanted to set sail for the Caribbean, you had to know the stars and how to spot a change in the weather long before it was upon you. There was no way for a lost hiker to make a phone call. And if you wanted to ski down a mountain, you climbed it first.

Modern sailors no longer need to know how to use a sextant or read the winds, because they have GPS equipment and real-time weather reports. Hikers know that if things go wrong, they can always dial 911 (hopefully they were smart enough to buy a Hike Safe Card). And skiers need only a lift ticket – and patience as they wait in line – to get to the top of a mountain.

But there will always be people who reject the comforts of modernity, who believe that to truly be in nature one must be far from the trappings of the madding crowd. People like backcountry skiers, for example.

“Those who take to the backcountry today are seeking untracked powder, far from busy resorts now choked with skiers,” wrote mountain guide Nick Aiello in the Boston Globe on Sunday. “Heading into the woods is the antidote to a formerly elite sport that for many lost its luster long ago.”

Aiello gives particular attention to the Granite Backcountry Alliance, which according to its website (granitebackcountryalliance.org) aims to “improve the playing field for backcountry skiers” in New Hampshire and Western Maine. For the alliance, that means creating and developing ski glades, building partnerships with landowners, teaching skiers about safety, respecting the environment and opposing bootleg trails. The group even has a “Backcountry Ski Festival” scheduled for March 11-12 in the Mount Washington Valley.

It’s an organized, admirable mission – and a rejection of the idea that there’s only one way to go skiing in New Hampshire.

Much of the inspiration for the Granite Backcountry Alliance comes from the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program launched by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 that led to the creation of dozens of alpine trails to accommodate the growth of skiing in New England. Many of those trails were absorbed by resorts; others were forgotten or reclaimed by nature. But those old CCC trails have been rediscovered – and the word is out.

The alliance says that backcountry skiing is the fastest growing segment of the ski industry, and while its members see that as reason to celebrate, they also rightfully worry about the price of popularity: more unprepared skiers; more avalanches, injuries and rescue operations; more stress on too few trails; and more risk of angering landowners who haven’t given renegade skiers their blessing.

It is to the alliance’s great credit that backcountry skiing enthusiasts spotted the pitfalls of the sport’s growth and came together to clear the way – literally and figuratively – for a mass migration back to New Hampshire’s skiing roots.

Backcountry skiing is a celebration of what makes New Hampshire’s North Country so special. As long as safety and respect for the land remain core principles of the alliance and other like-minded groups, who knows where once-hidden trails could lead skiers and the state.

After all, in this age where there’s an app for everything, we could all use a little more adventure.