My first thoughts after watching TGR’s , “Swift, Silent, Deep”, documentary on the Jackson Hole Airforce and the evolution of back country (aka ‘slack-country’) skiing from resorts in the United States…
Sometimes I think people south of the border are caught in a time warp. As a kid I remember driving south to Montana. Along the way to shop in Great Falls or ski Whitefish I watched the cars and houses and pick-up trucks with gun racks in the back windows parked at roadside gravel pits through the backseat window and imagined I was in a movie, like a scene from ‘Westworld’ (remember that one?), only a decade had past and those people forgot to notice.
Meanwhile north of 40, metric had arrived and we could drive 100 while our American cousins were still cruising 55 on I-whatever, everywhere that is but Montana where ‘a reasonable speed’ was the limit and a $5 bill paid any officer for his thinking reasonable was somewhere less than,well, you get the picture. America was as foreign and backward to my 10-year-old sensibilities as my fifth grade trip to Europe, kids in the bars in Spain and the girls with no tops on the beaches. Oh America, what you have been missing all these years. Dreams and old habits are hard to let go of…
Fast forward to 1991…after two too many deaths in the family (one far too young and one far too old) I dropped out of college, packed up my 15 or 16 years of skiing and moved to Fernie, BC, for the winter. I drove the old Land Cruiser past the turn in the road straight up through the snow to the day lodge and had a job as a liftie and a season’s pass within the hour. El Nino was on the radar, the K2 Extreme had arrived, the best kept secret in powder skiing had become my home and it didn’t take long to see my world, the ‘Cling-on’, and the concept of open access back country skiing were about to collide.
The first big pow day (which was in October in the ’91-’92 season) when the bombs stopped dropping, the patrol flipped the closed signs to open and the boot packs en route to Polar Peak were in up Snake Ridge and the chain the management bolted to the one rocky crux in the out-of-bounds escape was leading us on, inviting us to the goods…and as far as I could tell, or make out from my local hosts, there in that hidden corner of BC, it had always been there. Where had I been? Four years of Economics, Policy and Environment (POEN), and a major in English Lit. and I had learned nothing. Life was about to begin.
Meanwhile in Wyoming, Jackson Hole, self-proclaimed birthplace of backcountry lift access skiing…”Swift, Silent, Deep.” Somewhere south of 40 in the black hole of the American time warp a clip of Doug Coombs snuck it’s way into the archives. Cut to Coombs (RIP) in a video clip reading the back country access sign at Red Mountain, Rosland, just a hand full of hours and a couple passes west of Fernie. “Be prepared for self rescue…extreme terrain…etc.”, just like we had at pretty much every resort in BC outside the park system….oops! The TGR guys forgot to mention that part while claiming to invent backcountry access via Jackson Hole and the boys in the illustrious Airforce. Forgive my sarcasm…at least a little…because as pretentious as TGR flicks are, they still rock if you can get past the Americano Dude dialogue and the FM radio soundtracks. After all, they have Kye Peterson and Callum Petit on the bill.
Yes, Coombs and the Jackson Hole Airforce were core, and yes, that was a scene and an inspiration to many, but contrary to the humble passing of the torch of the original crew, “Swift, Silent, Deep”, shines a spotlight in a bubble where man and mountains had kept their peace for many years, in many places and even Sick Rick can tell you he skied the OB goods with Calgary’s R.A.P. (Real Action Pictures) in films for a decade before the gates opened the back country to the Hole in 1997.
Like I said…back to the bubble…driving through Montana and Idaho and Wyoming, just like watching this TGR flick, is a trip. A trip back in time to a place familiar, tight suits, skinny skis, rear entry boots, a trip home – for some of us – and maybe in some naive way a reminder that we are all just visiting and while a few egos and myths may be busted watching ‘Swift, Silent, Deep’ north of Wyoming, a decade, a generation or a nation apart, we are all searching for the same thing…one more untracked line.