Route Finder: Why backcountry guidebooks won’t kill skiing’s soul |

Route Finder: Why backcountry guidebooks won’t kill skiing’s soul

Neck-deep turns on a sunny powder day earlier this season at an undisclosed backcountry location. But are lines like this worth it if you find them in a guidebook?
Fritz Sperry / Special to the Daily |

The other day I was going through my emails and came across a post to my website/blog, I rarely have time to go through comments — most are spam for $10 Ray Bans and weight-loss deals, or occasionally $15 Nike Airs. (Yeah, I totally believe that.)

For some reason though, I clicked on this email and was pretty bummed out by what I found:

“What an (expletive)! The last thing we needed here on this over-populated Front Range is another guidebook! Why? So you can make a buck at the expense of the people who have been quietly exploring and skiing these mountains their whole lives and doing it the right way? Or is it strictly ego driven? Either way it’s really lame! Go ski and go home. Between social media and guidebooks, backcountry skiing is quickly being ruined, and anyone who disagrees doesn’t get it. Please take your ego and lame books back to the East Coast.” Signed, Keeping it Real.

It seems like this person is missing the point of the backcountry. (It’s easy to dismiss the criticism — this person’s Facebook page is filled with negativity.) But still, the post has been eating at me over the last few days so I thought I’d share my philosophy about the backcountry.

For the money?

As far as making money goes, writing guidebooks is not the most lucrative venture in the history of mankind. When I was finishing the most recent book this past spring, I lived in my truck and barely had enough to eat. A few of the routes were done without food, and I wouldn’t have eaten those days if it weren’t for the ability to fish. Now, I make enough money to keep skiing, and that’s enough for me.

For friends?

For five years now, since I’ve been at this guidebook thing, I’ve had some negative feedback. In that time I’ve received exactly five negative emails, and I’ve had an additional three negative conversations. In an effort to appease these people, I omitted some routes from the most recent book.

But I find myself walking a tightrope. I want to be complete in my endeavors, but I don’t want to piss too many people off. Generally speaking, 98 percent of the people I meet are stoked about the work I’ve done on the guidebooks. Occasionally, I even get bear hugs from people that need to reach out and connect to say “thank you.” They feel, as I, that the more choices people have in the backcountry, the better. Having options is better for risk management and avalanche safety, and hopefully more choices will reduce user density at the more popular destinations, such as Berthoud Pass and Loveland Pass. There have been recent reports of negative interactions between groups at Berthoud and Loveland passes, and I fear they might become violent or even fatal.

Over the years I’ve lost way too many friends to the mountains. The year my first book came out I lost seven friends, most taken by avalanches. It was a really rough year for me and helped shape the mission behind the guidebooks. I feel that if an author is going to give people a tool to kill themselves — the ability to ski potentially dangerous backcountry lines — then exposing the risks should to be shared with the book’s users. Nearly four million people live on the Front Range, and that means a crowded backcountry there and in Summit County is almost inevitable. The goal of the books is to spread people out.


In support of the books, I do my best to reach out to backcountry users, new and old. At recent book signings, where I showed a film about writing the guides, there were gear raffles to benefit Friends of CAIC. We’ve given away five Avalanche Level I courses, two snowboards and a ton of other great gear, and I stress the need for users to get the education before venturing into the backcountry. (The film is free online at

For the public?

One of my biggest issues with Keeping it Real (and others) is the notion that the mountain is theirs. They are correct and incorrect at the same time — the mountains are for all of us. We all own them. This level of entitlement kind of blows me away. You are fighting the inevitable in a mountain range that’s so accessible for so many. (An outside benefit: I hear that the standardization of names and trailheads has helped search and rescue volunteers work more quickly and save lives. This alone makes the books worth it to me.)

For me, the backcountry is an escape from the masses, and a crowded backcountry isn’t what anyone wants. But there is plenty of room in the hills, just around the next gully or chute or drainage or peak. The latest book covers 109 routes and over 1 million acres, but it isn’t by any means complete, meaning there are plenty of lines I left out. And it’s kind of hard to believe that I’ve ruined the backcountry when I’m breaking trail on a weekend in Summit County, at noon, on a route from the book.

For my ego?

As far as ego goes, everyone wants to shine in life, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far. I’m proud of what I’ve contributed to the backcountry community in Colorado. I won’t stop with my mission to help educate backcountry users. I love these mountains with all my heart and want to make them better for everyone, and I feel that sharing adventures, joys, routes, observations and mistakes is the best way of doing that.

Since I got the email from Keeping it Real, I’ve received 10 notes and posts from appreciative backcountry users. Hopefully I’m on the right track.

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