Sundog hates nothing more than descending the skin track.
Sundog hates nothing more than descending the skin track. (Photo: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Who Has the Right of Way on the Skin Track?

Outside’s ethics guru on whether we should prioritize uphill or downhill traffic in the backcountry

Sundog hates nothing more than descending the skin track.

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Dear Sundog: At my local backcountry ski spot, there’s a steep, narrow section of tight trees where the only way down is the skin track. Sometimes downhill skiers come careening toward uphill skinners in the track. Who has the right of way? —Ups and Downs

Dear Ups: Sundog hates nothing more than descending the skin track. First of all, in Sundog’s book, every foot of elevation gained through huffing and puffing deserves a reward of buttery turns, if not outright cold-smoke face shots. Second, it hurts his damn knees, which, let’s face it, are not what they were 25 years ago, when he clamped his first pair of three-pin leather boots onto straight skinnies. Hurtling downhill with skis locked parallel in a deep, slick groove is like the Olympic luge where the only medal is getting to the car without busting your lip on a branch.

It’s not only confounding but also dangerous, as Uphill Skinner is often hyperventilating, unaware, unable to quickly exit the track if he tried. Meanwhile, even the skilled Downhill Skier has only a marginal chance of snowplowing to a halt, much less doing something graceful like jumpturning into the snowbank. In mountain biking, the downhill rider yields to the uphill climber. On in-bound slopes, the skier below you always has the right of way for the simple reason that she can’t see you, but you can see her. But the skin track dilemma is unique: Downhill Skier doesn’t have brakes like a biker, and it’s a whole lot easier for Uphill Skinner to stop, especially if, like Sundog, his fastest pace is just one tick above a dead standstill.

To unravel this knot, I consulted a recent forum on Mountain Project (a climbing site, sure, but aren’t most of us who take the Freedom of the Hills a bit agnsotic about our means of transport?), only to discover that, as in the realms of presidential politics and NFL fandom, the discourse jumped from civil to throat-slitting in a matter of minutes. To the suggestion that uphill skiers have the right of way, a certain 64-year-old man—let’s call him Captain Back-in-the-Day—burst on the scene loaded for bear, employing all caps, bold font, and even an F-bomb:

Absolutely fucking wrong. DOWNHILL TRAFFIC has right of way.

The Captain decreed that correct courteous behavior for Downhill Skier, during the two seconds required to avert collision, is to shout “TRACK!” which Uphill Skinner will interpret to mean she must stand still so that he can avoid her. He dismisses the doubters as “ignorant newbies” and orders that “you should not be commenting on this thread, because like the others who have wrongly commented, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

It turns out the Captain is too clever by half. In cross-country skiing etiquette, the downhill skier does, in fact, have the right of way, as well as the right to holler “Track!” (or, in Canada, “Track, please!”) which tells the climber to get out of the track. This makes sense because skinny skis are uniquely difficult to turn or stop on the downhill yet light and agile enough to hop out of the track on the uphill.

But do XC rules apply to the BC? Well, maybe. Most backcountry skiers ride fat skis with stiff plastic boots locked at the heel; they should be able to turn or stop, while that same setup makes it harder for the uphill skinner to leap out of the track. But even if this is the rule, how many people aside from XC racers actually know what the command “Track!” means? What’s the point of yelling a command that requires a split-second response when no one knows what you’re talking about? Moreover, the Captain appears to be flat wrong on one count, because when he yells “Track!” he wants you to stay put instead of step aside.

When others suggested that Captain Back-in-the-Day was unduly hostile, with a chip on his shoulder, he unfurled his résumé of “thousands of ski-days” in the most spectacular fashion:

Back in ’78 they decided to pave the road and keep Cameron Pass open year-round. Did a lot of exploring and first descents with my friends. We named most of the runs that I hear people talk about today. I even named a first descent up in BC a few years ago. So yeah, I actually know something about skiing and if I have a chip on my shoulder, I’ve earned it.

For anybody not already genuflecting, he added:

I’ve been quoted in a ski history book.

OMG, thought Sundoggy, where can I find an autographed copy?

Ups, this forum left me with a cold, sad feeling, and it occurred to me that this question addressed more than etiquette or ethics—it addressed existence. The short answer to your question is that common sense prevails: if you’re the skier racing down a luge track toward someone who doesn’t see you, it doesn’t matter who has the right of way; you’re the only person who can avoid a collision, and stopping or turning will work better than yelling. Insisting on possessing a right of way that one can’t possibly exercise is just intellectual masturbation. It’s like arguing for the right to run over a child playing in a residential street.

The deeper question for Sundog is why a person who nominally loves the freedom of the hills devotes his hours debating their “rights” in situations that are rare approaching hypothetical. It reminds me of the medieval theologians who clashed over the number of angels who could dance upon the head of a pin, arguments the likes of which sparked centuries of warfare in the name of the Lord. Unlike the Captain, Sundog has logged merely hundreds of BC ski days. However, he has spent thousands of days contemplating the sorrow and folly of the human condition, leading him to believe that Desire is the mother of Idea, which is to say: people generally do what they want and then come up with ideologies to justify it. Upon which Ol’ Sundog reflected: a man who spends his hours yelling at you in chat rooms about his right to yell at you in the backcountry, he ain’t in it for the skiing. He’s in it for the yelling.

Sundog knows this species of fellow well. He was raised in Los Angeles County among boys who yelled at each other over middling two-foot beach breaks and grew into men who yelled at each other over middling two-foot beach breaks. Avoiding dudeus assholius is what led the Sundog to spend his adult decades in Utah and Montana and New Mexico instead of, say, Southern Cal or the Front Range of Colorado, which to nobody’s surprise is home to Captain Back-in-the-Day. Just a few seconds on the receiving end of a harangue from such a fellow, whether at a surf break or the crag or the skin track, is enough to ruin an otherwise lovely day.

My sincere advice, Ups: don’t worry about it. Getting in someone’s way on the skin track is a misdemeanor, while aggressively browbeating a fellow powder pilgrim in the wilderness is a straight-up felony. If your local spot is overrun with such vainglorious bullies, you may simply have to travel farther to emptier pastures or even consider foregoing turns altogether and strapping on skinny skis and tromping out to some untracked piece of paradise. They are still plentiful. And you don’t even have to pack a beacon and shovel.

I suppose what made me tremble most about Captain Back-in-the-Day was catching in him a glimpse of my own pride, my aging desperate insistence that someone give a shit about what I’ve accomplished, the terror of being lowered into my grave wondering why nobody showed up at the funeral, my soul incanting as the dirt is flung my own peculiar rosary:

I’ve been quoted in a ski history book
I’ve been quoted in a ski history book
I’ve been quoted in a ski history book

Remember, Ups, while the wilds might be a place to shred your fave athletic endeavor, they call to us more deeply than the gym or the ball field. At Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Dog took SunPup to the far-north homestead to visit grandparents. Our first baby son died at birth, and now his tiny body is buried out back in the woods. On one of those long dark solsticey nights, while the three of us were snuggled under comforters, I awakened to a baby’s cries. But it wasn’t Baby Sundog, who was curled happily against his mother. The howls came from outside, from the woods. I froze. Our other baby was moaning from the grave. I roused Mrs. Sundog, who, without opening her eyes, murmured, “It’s just coyotes.”

I lay there listening. The yipping morphed from crying into something more like laughing. A sense of joy washed over me as for a moment I knew that our boy—both our boys—were happy and safe. The mountains have something to tell us, but to hear it we must sometimes shut our mouths and open our hearts.