Defeating the Mundane
This winter, SNC students seek thrills outside conventional resort skiing
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It’s Saturday morning in the Tahoe Basin and the western United States just got slammed with an atmospheric river from the Pacific Ocean. Lake level collected 2 feet overnight, while the overhead peaks reported 4.5 feet, adding to an already profound snowpack. With the contrasting white shore, the lake reflects the sky this morning – royal blue.
The storm has finally lifted from the basin, revealing its artistry. But it’s Saturday. Tourist traffic from the Bay Area will be high and to beat the deranged parking fiascos and boundless lift lines, some SNC students will look outside conventional resort skiing for their snow fun. They’ll head to Tahoe’s snowy urban environments, or venture beyond the groomers and away from the crowds to the backcountry. Aesthetically, urban and backcountry skiing are contrary winter sports (one requires an urban interface with stairs and handrails, while the other requires navigating high-risk avalanche terrain). Although different disciplines, in their avant-garde nature they both serve a similar purpose: To defeat the mundane resort mantra. Both are a dance with danger, an artistic interpretation of properly calculated risk matched with a synergy between the environment and skis or snowboard.
Learning the Language
The sun is out and the sky is blue. The fresh snowpack has graced the high country with a new layer of snow. The avalanche report explains low danger conditions on northeast to southeast aspects, with considerable danger above the treeline. A group of students make their plans via text message, and head for the backcountry.
“One lap in the backcountry is better than a full day at the resort because you’re more connected with nature and the experience,” SNC senior Chris Budicin said. “When you’re going down a run with no other tracks, it’s just bliss. With backcountry skiing, you can build your day to a more specific run. With a resort you are so limited to terrain.”
By removing the chairlift, ski patrol and snow safety maintenance, backcountry riding encourages a different set of senses and skills than the traditional resort riding. It pushes the riders to understand their environment, the snowpack beneath their feet and the variabilities of nature, such as wind direction, sunlight exposure and the aspect of their terrain–variables that aren’t part of the traditional resort experience.
“It’s a humbling experience just how dangerous the mountains can be. It’s also realizing how much you take for granted when you’re skiing inbounds,” senior Tim Lord said. “You lose that comfort when you’re alone in the woods.”
While the act of backcountry riding is often portrayed through glamorous powder turns and acute views, there is an art in navigating through the upper alpine reserves. When maintaining access and safety in the mountains while backcountry riding, those pursuing it are consistently gaining knowledge and perspectives of the mountains. Without developing that sense of environment, backcountry athletes can put themselves at risk. Navigating avalanche country requires learning the language of the mountains.
“It all goes back to being aware your actions and how you interact with everything. The mountain, every time you’re out there, is talking to you,” said Junior Isaac Laredo. He is currently an intern with Sierra Avalanche Center. “There are always so many little signs the mountain is giving off. You truly do have to respect the mountain and listen.”
Some days end early when skiers decide the terrain and avalanche conditions are dangerous. Some days end in glorious powder. Although for those who love backcountry riding, much of the enjoyment comes from being in the silence of the mountains with friends, putting in the work skinning up, to gain the reward of the run down.
“It’s just part of the game,” Laredo said. “Enjoying the time with the people you’re with… Every day you go out is a learning experience.”
Getting the Shot
For the first time in a number of years, Tahoe’s lake level has received enough snow for skiers and snowboarders to hit the streets in search of “urban spots,” a unique combination of streetstyle skateboarding and terrain park skiing that comprises urban skiing.
Just as backcountry riders seek an interaction with their environment, there lies a similar language in urban skiing. This language requires skiers and riders to tune their senses and creativity outward into an urban environment to seek the same satisfaction as the terrain park. While the fulfillment of an urban skiing mission is high, just as in the backcountry, it can end in disappointment, too.
For the SNC Freestyle ski team, many athletes have been expressing creativity outside the resort terrain parks, turning common urban environments into their playground. “There is a really, cool raw, real aspect to urban skiing,” said Senior Ben Merrill. “A lot of the time when I am skiing these manmade parks, I think, ‘This is all made by a resort that has a lot of money behind them, a big liability code and lasers to accurately measure the jumps.’ “You feel like you’re in a bubble when you’re skiing these really nice terrain parks sometimes. It’s cool to get out of that with urban skiing.”
Urban skiing also gives terrain park skiers a chance to “earn their turns” and build their own features without the help of a resort. The act of building an urban spot often includes a lot of sweat equity and creativity. This means building the correct inrun and outrun to a feature, while using bungees and cars as tow-ins for speed. “It’s a lot of work,” junior Connor Clayton said. “We can’t push our way into the rail, we have to build everything, a lot of the time you’re digging for hours to build the run into the jump. It’s a cool chance to get away from the crowds and build your own features.”
With only a rope and rail, the risk level is high, and the odds are often stacked against the urban enthusiasts. “It’s when you get to test your skills with rail skiing,” freshman Vilde Johansen said. With the help of the internet, urban skiing has created its own community, a platform where skiers can showcase their successful urban missions. Although the greatest allure behind urban skiing is not the lull of silence of the mountains, a curated and aesthetically pleasing photo of a successful urban rail, is a large motivation.
“Urban is so much time and commitment, that I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t being filmed. You’re doing it for the shot, the memory,” Merrill said.
“Sometimes it’s more than one day to get a clip…sometimes it takes weeks, and you get that one clip and you feel accomplished.”
Yet at the end of the day, taking a photograph that documents a successful urban mission comes with a successful team. “We’re all working together to get the shot. When you leave a spot with two or three people getting something they’re excited about, that’s a really good day,” Merrill said.