“Sidecountry” is Dead

Why the word is dangerous

Backcountry, even though it's close to the resort. PHOTO: IAN FOHRMAN

A couple weeks ago, I stepped out of my skis, flipped my boots to walk mode, and hiked ten minutes to the top of Flower Point, near Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana. Between when my party got to the top and when we skied to the Canyon Creek drainage below, we saw about 15 skiers. All but a couple skied without backpacks, and thus, backcountry safety equipment.

This isn’t unique. Go to Rock Springs at Jackson Hole, Rocky Point near Alta, or any backcountry run you can see from the lifts, and you’ll see skiers venturing beyond the controlled area of the ski resort without proper safety equipment (a good indicator they lack proper education, too). About ten years ago, I did the exact same thing at Flower Point. Ignorantly, I even skied the area by myself. I was so close to the ski area. What could go wrong?

Whether you are prepared or not, we tend to downplay the danger of lift-accessed backcountry. You can see it from the lifts. If something does go wrong, help is so close. It feels safer. Perhaps the skier just intends to duck the rope for a couple of turns. Or maybe, like me a decade ago, they just don’t know any better.

Pay attention to the gates. PHOTO: JACKSON HOLE MOUNTAIN RESORT

But backcountry skiing close to the resort is just as dangerous as backcountry skiing anywhere else, which is why we need to kill the word sidecountry. The word perpetuates the myth that it’s not as dangerous as a place you had to skin to, and no, it won’t keep unprepared skiers from ducking ropes, but emphasizing the seriousness of that action might help. So strike it from your vocabulary. Call it lift-accessed backcountry. Call it backcountry. Add the fact that in the sidecountry, you’re more likely to have inexperienced skiers without proper gear skiing on top of you, like at Canyon Creek, and the lift-accessed backcountry is actually probably more dangerous.

Though ski patrol may be close, they are often ill-equipped for backcountry rescue, and not obligated to respond to an incident outside of their boundaries. Elyse Saugstad, who survived the Tunnel Creek avalanche near Stevens Pass last winter, said somebody within their party called 911 within minutes of the avalanche, and Stevens Pass Ski Patrol didn’t arrive until one hour later. While it ultimately did not make a difference, she says they were lucky to have help arrive that quickly.

Ski brands, ski areas, and ski magazines like POWDER, are culpable for promoting the sidecountry, and more specifically, the easy access to fresh white just beyond the rope boundaries. But it’s time to move on. The word sidecountry is dead. Instead of perpetuating the myth that because a zone is lift-accessed it’s safer, or any different, than the backcountry, we should change the language and messages we use in an effort to educate those seeking to travel beyond the ropes.

“As we as an industry keep promoting the untouched fluffy stuff, we need to try harder at making the point that there is a responsibility that comes with searching for the untracked goods,” says Saugstad. “We don’t want to be like a TV show, glamorizing the fact that we are indicating how easy it truly is to access backcountry terrain by glossing over the fact that it comes with the behind the scenes price of getting the proper education and gear if you really want to do it.”

Add a comment

  • Tom

    I always liked the term slackcountry. The connotation is a bit better, but maybe still not the best.

  • Mark

    ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet….’

    you think by saying ‘side country is dead’ peeps won’t go there unprepared??

    it’s not because the name, it’s because it’s easy!!

  • Chip

    I like the sidecountry term, makes sense, changing the name does not make it safer. Putting a shovel in a pack does not make you safer either.

  • Jeff

    I am indifferent on what we call it. The issue is that people without skill and.knowledge are out there not only putting themselves at risk, putting other responsible backcountry users at risk as well.

  • doug

    Forget the avi issue – I think the more prevalent issue is getting lost. People are going to go so we can’t stop that. I believe I read that at Killington alone 50 people get lost just over Christmas week. We need to educate them better. For starters, always wear a hydration pack so you have some fluids. In my pack is a handheld GPS, a SPOT locator, a survival kit, and energy bars. IMO anyone skiing off Piste should carry a SPOT b/c it will make life so much easier for Search and Rescue. If you are reading this I know I am preaching to the choir but you get my point. Maybe resorts need to have a form or signs around on this stuff so people read them????

  • Jason

    Pretty sure I read an article in Powder three or four years ago about how terrain just outside a ski area’s boundary should be referred to as “sidecountry”, and chastising people who call it backcountry because it’s not true bc if there is lift access. This is why I think most skiing mags are stupid.

    • DT

      I’d like more reference to which article you are talking about. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t three or four years ago. Maybe 11. I certainly don’t remember every article, but I don’t recall Powder publishing an article during my tenure calling sidecountry anything but backcountry.

  • Emilio Trampuz

    It’s fine to emphasize the need for more safety awareness when we ski the sidecountry, but that doesn’t mean the word is dead. It’s a great word. It’s very descriptive and self-explanatory, and it’s shorter than using 3 words such as “lift accessed backcountry”.

  • Mike

    Like Mark says, “a rose by any other name, would smell as sweet”. The problem with dropping the name sidecountry, is that all those comforts that led the author into the sidecountry 10 years ago–before the name had been uttered–will still be there if you change the name to something else. To my knowledge, nobody has ever said that sidecountry was safer. It’s the proximity to the lifts, the patrol, the fact that you can follow tracks and that your cell phone probably works that make people feel safer. Instead of spending energy changing the name to something else, which will have no net effect on safety, use that energy to educate people that sidecountry has all the hazards of remote backcountry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nyrhtakseyah Kathryn Hayes

    You need to understand those of us that grew up skiing “the canyon” never used avy gear there 10+ years ago as kids. I’m not saying this is the best idea but I agree with the comment below….more emphasis should be placed on people getting lost. That’s what typically happens in the “side country” of WMR. Yes there are avy related incidences that have occurred and will continue to, but all in all the canyon is a very safe spot to be introduced to “backcountry” skiing. Just changing the name is not going to keep uneducated people from going there. The backcountry/side country hype has hit hard thanks to magazines, such as yourself, and of course ski/snowboard movies. Instead of publishing an article about the annihilation of label, publish more articles about informing yourself as a rider of the risks of skiing out of bounds! Getting lost out of cell service (which there is very little of on the back side of WMR) is just as bad as getting stuck in a minor slide.
    (* I am only talking about the Flower Point wall of canyon, not the opposing one)

  • vasili

    Firstly, I ski with avi gear inbounds on days with over 12 inches of new. Regardless if you are inbounds, in sidecountry, lift access backcountry or backcountry, if there’s new snow you should be Skiing with a backpack and a partner. Communicating stop points and skiing in sight. To me, sidecountry is Avi controlled walking, (ie. Crystal southback or Alpine Meadows Beaver/Estelle or Back bowls), and chair access backcourtry or backcountry is simply not controlled at all. Either way, new snow or unskiied = ski with a partner, ski with gear, ski smart, ski safe; and have fun!

  • Tony Tenderoni

    its weird cause people can ski rocky point at alta for years without a major incident, but then places like the canyon’s sidecountry sees deaths every few years. poor article overall, but i think being able to see runs like squaretop and dutch’s at the can and not being able to see rocky point has some thing to do with the amount of deadly accidents. cause both of those areas see a fair amount of compaction and similar snowfall, then again they’re different slide paths with different geography.

    author has a point, but might be slightly off target, its not called sidecountry to downplay the dangerousness of the areas, its called sidecountry because its best accessed from the “side” ( i.e. riding a chairlift) of a ski area.

    • dt

      I disagree with you. “Sidecountry” has been promoted as a stepping stone to “true backcountry.” Powder may have been guilty of that in the past. I’m fine with keeping the word, but it’s connotation needs to change. Sidecountry is MORE dangerous than backcountry. You lack any of the information gathered during the climb, and your ability to turn back or change your plan if you find the snow conditions are not acceptable is limited. You should be an experienced backcountry skier before you ever venture into “sidecountry.”

  • Propaganda

    I personally think that keeping the name sidecountry is prudent, because there are differences. One the article touched on is that with easier access you will find more people which potentially raises the risk. What we need to do is educate the masses.

  • Stumpy

    I was always of the impression that sidecountry was simply backcountry that was able to be accessed from a lift. It doesnt really matter what you call it, there are always going to be people who play it safe and people who are simply too stupid to care. In this instance you could call it the Sahara desert…it simply wouldnt matter!

  • skierman

    “…which is why we need to kill the word sidecountry. The word perpetuates the myth that it’s not as dangerous as a place you had to skin to…”

    Huh, must have missed that memo. I always thought gapers went into the sidecountry because it was easy to access, not because of what people call it. How about slackcountry? You know, backcountry for slackers. Feel better now?

  • rob

    I
    think the Euros have it right (name wise) “piste” or packed snow &
    “hors piste” off-piste, un-groomed (and potentially more dangerous), but
    then many of the Euro resorts are larger than US ones, by an order of
    magnitude, and there is a stronger mountain culture. Not to say people
    don’t die off-piste every year, but in general I think more Euros have a
    greater awareness of the dangers, and more respect for the hazards (and
    not just avalanches – crevasses, rocks, exposed ice etc. all play a
    part). Sidecountry / slackcountry / lift access backcountry – who cares?
    It’s not the name that kills and injures people, sometimes it’s
    ignorance, other times bad luck. Education in mags like Powder and Ski
    etc. can help, especially if they encourage people to use a certified
    guide.

  • AirHare

    I found this article quite pointless. Who cares what you call it, the terrain will always be there. The people who discovered these ski areas and hiked to earn their turns before there were lifts weren’t obsessed with unnecessary safety precautions. They understood the risks, assessed the danger and carried on with their passion for skiing pow the pure way. It seems that the ski industry is exploiting peoples fear in order to make huge profits these days. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be properly equipped and educated before dropping in on obviously dangerous terrain; I just think it’s ridiculous that many people find it necessary to purchase a beacon, probe, shovel and avalung to go ski some mellow sidecountry, or even controlled in-bounds slopes. It’s also funny when these “educated experts” start ripping on someone just because they’re not wearing a pack. As an educated skier who has ridden sidecountry and backcountry from the Wasatch to the Chugach and many ranges in between, I don’t even think twice about skiing Flower Point without gear. I do own it. And I do use it when there is legitimate danger. Just because you spent a small fortune on safety gear doesn’t mean you’re going to survive an avalanche. In the case that you do find yourself in Canyon Creek with “skiers without proper gear skiing on top of you,” there’s a chance that they are more skilled, more intelligent and not a bunch of average, brainwashed pussies.

    • Danby

      Agreed

  • PC

    The Utah Avalanche Center also had a good couple of blogs on this issue. As a few comments here have also already noted, whether you call terrain adjacent to resorts lift-accessed backcountry, or sidecountry, the realities and social dynamics of a highly mixed user group are going to be there. The term sidecountry captures very well the physical setting and other realities of lift-accessed terrain beyond resort boundaries, but politically correct changes of phrase are things we see in all areas of life. Many sidecountry users already think they are getting a “true” backcountry experience, for that matter. So sidecountry as a phrase in my view is already a bit of an insider phrase, though a useful one. Let’s not lose sight of the true issue, which is reaching the highly mixed user group that uses sidecountry and, hopefully, making the sidecountry users of 5 years from now safer and more clueful on average than they are now. It’s great that Powder is bringing that issue up, whatever the terrain those users are on will be called in 5 years, and media of all sorts is one big way to reach those users.

  • Danby

    Fuck you and your ABS and probes and beacons propaganda, most people can’t afford all of that.

  • Jamie

    Powder, Your the silly people from sprawling America suburbia that all moved to the mountains and didn’t bother to ask people actually from the mountains what we call ducking the ropes! It was always known as going out of bounds.

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