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No Boundaries

Deep thoughts
posted: 04/29/2003

If you walk around Venice, Italy, the doors you see from the street are actually the back entrances to the houses. The front doors, the grand entrances, are on the water, on the canals, and thus, because Venetians can step right from their foyers into a boat and a boat can take them anywhere from China to Tierra del Fuego, they like to say that their front doors open onto the world. This way of seeing the globe might be an artifact of the days when seafaring was the only way to travel, but the concept is timeless. It's a bold, visionary, and completely unrestricted way of thinking. Exactly like backcountry skiing.

When you become proficient in the backcountry-and thus all terrain-it's like walking through a one-way door. Like taking the red pill in The Matrix. You see the world as it really is: big and white and filled with incredible pitches just waiting for you to ski them. You realize that ski-area borders are boundaries of the spirit, hemming you in and restricting both your vision and your experience, and that slipping through an access gate doesn't just lead to unfettered physical freedom, but to spiritual and psychological liberty, too.

Over the years, backcountry skiing has come to mean something separate and different from "normal" skiing, and if you only ski in resorts, it is. But when you embrace backcountry skiing, I mean really embrace it like some life-giving blast of oxygen, you come to see it not as something disparate but as part of a larger whole. It took me years-and a few trips to Europe, where ski-area boundaries don't exist-to stop thinking about inbounds and out-of-bounds as different places. And then I realized it's all just skiing.

That's not so easy to see from the hard side of a rope. Gates and boundaries protect us from countless dangers-ourselves included-and sometimes we need that, but the longer borders exist, the less we question them, the less we wonder what's on the other side. Soon enough we become content to ski only in ski areas or only on marked trails or only on the groomed. Then we become like cows who won't cross white lines painted on the road because they've been conditioned by cattle guards. Or dogs who've worn electric collars and won't leave their yards even though the zap has been turned off. It's bad enough to work in a cubicle. We shouldn't ski in one, too.

Fortunately the liberating aspects of backcountry skiing can break down walls and change your way of thinking. I certainly never went into the backcountry seeking transformation-I was simply chasing the goods. But as I skied in scores of new places, from the Chugach Mountains to a dingy roadside pullout in the peaks outside Los Angeles, I came to understand that once you've gained the chops and the vision to ski wherever you want, you're a part of something bigger; you've transcended merely noodling around on a piste.

I guess what I'm talking about really isn't so much about the backcountry itself as it is about how being a backcountry skier changes your take on skiing. I've found that you become a lot more tolerant of what the snow world throws at you. You're no longer shackled by a lack of imagination. On any given day, you might ski inbounds in the morning, OB in the afternoon, the pass at sunset. You might snowboard, tele, randonnée, or alpine. You might ascend via a chairlift, car shuttle, snowcat, or bootpacked trail. The snow could be blower or the worst breakable crust you've every skied in your life. Good or bad, you chalk it up to one more piece in a very big puzzle, and that whole hippie Zen thing about enjoying the journey and not just the destination comes true.

If more skiers ventured into the backcountry and became less reliant on chairlifts and grooming, the sport itself would be a lot more vital and pure. We've become so dependent on industrial skiing that we've lost the traditional and subtle rhythms of traveling through snow. But the rewards of the backcountrry are still there if you want them. If you spend time away from the infrastructure of skiing and open yourself to learning, you will grow attuned to the nuances of snow and mountains. You will awaken senses you didn't know you had. You'll start to feel at home, even joyful, in some pretty wild conditions. More important, you'll become like the Venetians and see the world of skiing as borderless, open, and free. And that's a pretty sweet deal, no matter where your front door is.

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