Last night, HBO’s look at backcountry skiing on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel lived up to our predicted expectations by grossly sensationalizing backcountry skiers as reckless, Red Bull-fueled adrenaline freaks with a death wish.
In the segment’s intro, Bryant Gumbel called backcountry skiing a sport “way, way outside the mainstream” whose participants look for the “most rugged, isolated, and insanely dangerous” places to ski on earth. That pretty much set the tone for the segment.
Behind footage of Alaskan spine-skiing and ski-mountaineering borrowed from snowsports film companies, Jon Frankel (the segment’s reporter and commentator) interviewed Tanner Hall, Elyse Saugstad, and Chris Davenport.
To his credit, Frankel did allude to the fact that the guys doing the craziest stuff are sponsored skiers filming with movie companies, who have huge support teams and loads of experience. He attempted to point out that these professionals realize the risk and do everything in their power to mitigate that risk.
But when Frankel’s questioning led the audience to believe that every “backcountry skier” aspires to be Tanner Hall and is going out hucking himself in a desperate effort to become a sponsored skier, the message got muddled.
Frankel mentioned the growing population of backcountry skiers, which has inevitably led to an increase in people beyond the area boundaries that are in over their heads. But nowhere did he mention the countless more professionals, like avalanche forecasters and guides, who are teaching proper backcountry protocols—the foremost of which are terrain- and snow safety.
Each of the interviewees had some insightful commentary on the issue—especially Davenport and Saugstad. But the HBO editing painted a portrait of two million backcountry psychopaths roving the mountains mining adrenaline, when the vast majority of backcountry skiers are more likely out for fitness, scenery, solitude, and on-ski adventure. HBO used the fringe to define the majority.
Yes there are risks. There will always be risks to backcountry skiing. This season was a scary and painful reminder of that—especially to those of us with close connections to this season's many victims. But any serious skier knows that backcountry skiing is much more than searching out the “steepest, most daunting mountains on earth,” or the next life-or-death scenario in the mountains. HBO failed to deliver that memo to last night's audience.
It’s very clear what sells with the mainstream audience. It’s certainly not a few friends searching for some low angle powder and a little solitude away from the lifts. It’s shock. It’s insanity. [Cue Tanner Hall’s incoherent lead-in rant about a future bright with backflips on Mars].