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NSAA Journal Editorial: There's No Such Thing as ‘Sidecountry’

Thanks to the team at the National Ski Areas Association for this editorial: The truth about “sidecountry” is that it doesn’t actually exist – at least as far as the ski industry’s leading avalanche and snow science experts, the U.S. Forest Service, ski area risk managers, patrollers, and other experts are concerned. While it’s difficult to discern its origin, the term sidecountry is likely a marketer’s brainchild. And there are similar terms, such as slackcountry, backcountry-lite and others that have been added to skiers’ and snowboarders’ lexicon in recent years.

The appeal of these terms is obvious: If you’re an intermediate to advanced skier or snowboarder who is curious about backcountry skiing then taking a run down an area perceived as sidecountry would be a logical first step. Meanwhile, consumer ski and snowboard magazines, websites and social media outlets implore their readers to “Ski the Sidecountry”—all while appearing to suggest that all that’s needed to do so is a pair of the latest powder skis or a new snowboard. Yet what‘s left unsaid is that this so-called sidecountry carries with it all the same inherent risks and dangers as the remote backcountry.

For the most part, all of these terms refer to out-of-bounds (or backcountry) terrain accessed from a chairlift. By definition this terrain—just like all other backcountry—is not controlled or maintained by ski area operators or area patrols. That is a key point, and one that should not be overlooked by skiers and snowboarders. Yet nothing within any of these terms conveys to the user that they really are on their own when skiing or snowboarding terrain just outside of a ski area’s boundary.

Rather, these terms seem to imply that some portions of backcountry are kinder and gentler than other areas. Yet those with their boots to the ground know that generally speaking, there are only two places for which to ski and/or snowboard: within a ski area’s operating boundary, and outside of the ski area’s operating boundary. And just because it’s terrain that lies adjacent to the ski area boundary and can be accessed via chairlift, does not mean that the forces of nature are any less severe. Indeed, avalanche risks are inherent to the sport both within, and beyond, a ski area’s boundary. Venture into such terrain fueled by adrenaline and ill-equipped with only an ounce of knowledge and the latest powder gear and the odds of returning from that trail-less-traveled begin to decrease, in some cases, significantly. Just like the person that drove to a trailhead and hiked for hours into the backcountry, if a situation arises, out-of-bounds skiers and snowboarders may find themselves completely alone and on their own.

Nationally, last season there were seven fatalities that occurred in backcountry terrain accessed from a ski area, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Three similar fatalities occurred during the 2010/11 season, and 49 such incidents have occurred since the 1999/98 season. The topic of backcountry and boundary management was highlighted at NSAA’s Western Winter Conference in 2012, was part of the NSAA’s 2012 Fall Education Seminars and will again be featured as part of NSAA’s annual Winter Conferences in 2013.

The risks inherent to skiing and snowboarding—no matter whether it’s within or outside of a ski area boundary—are ever present, and ski areas make tireless efforts to educate their guests and employees with timely safety information in an effort to convey and reduce those risks. Yet we still have some work to do on educating guests about the terms sidecountry, slackcountry and backcountry-lite. While it is clearly the responsibility of the individual to do their homework and make their own decisions, we all must focus on educating skiers and snowboarders that backcountry terrain accessed from a ski lift has the same risks as any other backcountry or out-of-bounds area. It is time for everyone to get on board with a unified message that reduces future use of this rather inaccurate terminology.

The more we understand a topic, the more clearly we’re able to define it, and there are countless examples that illustrate this point. For instance, what was once referenced as global warming is now known to most as climate change. More specific to the ski industry, parabolic skis became shaped skis, safety bars are more accurately defined as comfort bars or just plain “bars,” and “access gates” are actually exits.

Now it’s time for another change. Knowledge and sound decision-making are often cited as the two most important things to be equipped with when skiing or snowboarding out-of-bounds. The time has come to call backcountry what it is: backcountry. From NSAA’s view, it’s time to bring the ski and snowboard community, media, and equipment manufacturers together and collectively share the important truth about so-called sidecountry: It really doesn’t exist.

If you'd like to respond to this editorial, send your thoughts to Peter Kray at this link.