Towards a Definition of Backcountry Skiing

Recently while researching at the American Heritage Center, I discovered the papers of a living legend who, nearly fifty years ago, attempted to describe one of the more significant modern developments in outdoor recreation.

I am referring to William Morse “Bill” Briggs and backcountry skiing. Briggs is famous for his first ski descent of the Grand Teton on June 15, 1971, and for many years he served as Director of the ski school at Snow King Resort in Jackson, Wyoming.

In 1953 Briggs left Dartmouth College to become a professional skier and mountain guide. He led the first alpine group packing into the Bugaboo Range, British Columbia, was the director of the ski school at Sugarloaf, Maine (1956), and the director of the ski school at Suicide Six in Woodstock, Vermont (1958). He also made the first verified ski descent of Mount Rainier (1961).

In 1966 he bought Snow King for three thousand dollars and founded The Snow King Great American Ski School, where he required his ski instructors to study a ski instruction manual fashioned on the principles of Scientology.

Briggs’ papers include his “Orders of the Day” from several winters in the late seventies and early eighties, along with a two-part ski manual and a thorough dictionary of skiing.

Parsing through his often brilliant and occasionally rash theorizing on everything from teaching small children the snowplow to countering the pharmaceutical industry gave me plenty to consider. What most struck me was to see—unfolding over the days, the weeks and the years—Briggs’ efforts to understand competence in skiing and how “Alpine Touring” fit his conception of excellence.

Morton Lund was a prolific ski writer and was inducted into the US Ski Hall of Fame in 1997. He was one of Briggs’ great admirers and one of his most ardent critics. Lund penned this article in 1980 after participating in one of Briggs’ advanced ski instruction courses. Box 1, Bill Briggs papers, Collection No. 10794, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In American history, backcountry refers to a remote place, often undeveloped, wild or simply beyond the full control of the state. In Briggs’ prime, the term “backcountry skiing” was unknown, and it was rarely done.

However, from his experience as a pioneering ski mountaineer and ski instructor, Briggs developed a nuanced view of the possibilities and the challenges that backcountry offered individual skiers. According to him, skiing safely and skillfully outside of ski resort boundaries was ultimately not something that could be taught. Yet, he intentionally included “Alpine Tours” as an integral component of advanced ski instruction.

Seeing this, I crafted this working definition of backcountry skiing: “advanced skiing where there are few external controls and where there is maximum potential for individual skiers to experience something for themselves.”

I am researching the history of backcountry skiing in the United States as a means to understand the connections between recreation, commerce, and risk. Most backcountry skiers sought mild adventure, and risk mitigation systems have, to a great degree, supported the sport’s growth. Advanced avalanche awareness training, expertly-staffed regional avalanche centers, and sophisticated mountain search and rescue networks are all prime examples.

Nevertheless, as with other mountain sports in recent decades, a cadre of professional risk-takers has emerged, widely known as “extreme skiers.” The risks involved in this sport were recently highlighted by the death of ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson on September 26, 2022, as she attempted a ski descent from the summit of Nepal’s Mount Manaslu (8,163 meters (26,781 ft.). This tragic event lends credence to the idea that the lure of extreme skiing has only increased along with the massive growth of societal risk mitigation systems, which points to a cultural paradox: has mainstream society grown risk-averse, even as a subculture of backcountry skiers embraced extreme risk taking?

Post contributed by Matt Green, 2022 AHC Travel Grant awardee and a Doctoral Candidate in History at the University of Utah.


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