In the oyster light of a Cascade Mountain autumn afternoon, two Technicolor figures zigzag down a slope dotted with second-growth Douglas firs. “Goggles on!” Lowell Skoog yells to his brother Carl, who pulls ’em down just before a maple shoot whips his face. There’s hardly sufficient snow to keep their metal edges from sparking off the rocks, but it’s enough for the Skoog brothers to satisfy an early season backcountry jones. Farther downslope, where the snow melts into rotting leaves and mud, the brothers lash their 180s to their packs and lug the tools of their trade to Lowell’s Subaru wagon, which waits alone by the highway in the gathering darkness.
“Not much competition for those turns,” says Carl, 41, the steep-and-deep junkie who laid first tracks down Mount Rainier’s sheer Mowich Face and who seeks out lines of treacherous descent that send a chill through most mortals.
“Can’t imagine why,” replies Lowell, 43, who ascribes to the “flow state” theory of backcountry travel, preferring long traverses that connect several established tours into a single epic ski marathon.
Whether they’re defining a new “haute route” in the Cascades or simply out satisfying a preseason yearning on scant November snowpack, the Skoogs are in a class by themselves when it comes to expanding the known universe of backcountry skiing. “They’re amazing at finding things that haven’t been done,” says Andrew McLean, the steep-skiing maestro of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. “They’ll come up with something and you’ll just say ‘Wow! How’d you know about that?'”
Increasingly, however, the Skoogs are discovering that they are no longer alone out there. “Backcountry” has become one of the hottest buzzwords in the alpine industry, and terrain that was once the domain of powder-porn studs and wealthy heli-skiers has come within reach of the weekend black-diamond dog. The small but growing backcountry ski market, previously dominated by niche companies like Tua and Karhu, has recently attracted major players like K2 and Völkl, while innovations like Black Diamond’s Avalung, a vest that enables avalanche victims to breathe under the snow, has ostensibly made the territory more accessible and safer. In southern British Columbia, which boasts some of the continent’s prime off-piste turf, backcountry shelters are so popular they are now available only through lottery. Even resorts are scrambling to provide high-adventure allure by opening previously off-limits areas; in the last two years, Jackson Hole, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Jay Peak have all added backcountry acreage. “This is something we’ve waited 20 years for,” says Lou Dawson, 48, an off-piste pioneer from Carbondale, Colorado, and author of the backcountry guide Wild Snow. “There’s terrain around Snowmass that would blow you away, but nobody knows about it because it’s never been open.”
Old-schoolers like the Skoogs will tell you, though, that “backcountry area” doesn’t necessarily mean backcountry skiing. Their idea of what Dawson calls “whole mountain skiing” only begins with ungroomed, unpatrolled, unpaid-for terrain, and includes everything from weeklong ridgeline traverses to laying lines down steep, icy chutes. The aim, says Lowell, is not to huff up the hill for three hours in order to enjoy a ten-minute run to the parking lot. According to the Skoogian weltanschauung, the ethos of backcountry is closer to classic mountaineering than to resort alpinism: You are alone with your route-finding chops, your survival savvy, and the knowledge that the ski patrol won’t save your freezing ass on its 4:30 sweep. You may find some fine powder, but the greater rewards will likely arrive a few miles in, when you crest a ridge and glide into the vast white hush.
For such a tiny segment of the alpine population, backcountry skiers’ ranks include a startling array of factions. The Skoogs are loyal to the randonnée clique, which is distinguished by its lightweight equipment and bindings that allow for free-heel climbing and fixed-heel descents. This equipment (see story at right) provides surgical control in spots where falling is not only unacceptable, but potentially lethal. In comparison, free-heeling telemarkers, with their flex-toed boots and thigh-torching turns, trade in a modicum of control for less weight and more comfort. Then there are the backcountry snowboarders, who snowshoe uphill. And within these different groups of gear devotees is a further schism between two opposing schools: the steep junkies who, says Dawson, “just get better and better at jumping off cliffs,” and the long-haul alpine tourists. This division is most clearly embodied by the Skoogs themselves.
Carl, a mountain photographer, craves sharp faces like the Wasatch’s 55-degree Pfiefferhorn. After he, McLean, Armond DuBuque, and Doug Ingersoll scaled the Mowich Face in July of 1997 using crampons and ice axes, they had to wait three hours for the sun to soften the snow before attempting the treacherous descent. “We joked about needing exploding helmets,” Carl recalls, “because if you fell, a normal helmet wouldn’t do much good; you wanted one that blew up at terminal velocity to save you the trouble of impact.”
Lowell, on the other hand, may be the country’s foremost long-and-far thinker, creating punishing single-day sojourns across some of the continent’s most rugged terrain. Adapting psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow, a state of optimal experience, Lowell invented his own “flow day” by linking separate routes into a single marathon. The Skoogs’ first flow day became a legend: Twelve years ago they compressed the Ptarmigan Traverse, a classic multiday summer mountaineering route in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, into a single 21-hour randonnée siege. “On a whirlwind traverse like that,” says Carl, “the mountains don’t get smaller, they get more connected. You feel how the range flows together and get this sense of a whole that’s missing when you do multiple camps.”
The Skoog brothers may one day agree on which is better, steep or far—a debate that may already have glimpsed its resolution on a mountain far from the trailhead. “There’s a spot we found in the North Cascades National Park back in 1982—it doesn’t even have a name,” says Lowell. “We started calling it Dream Peak. It’s completely dominated by other peaks, but it’s a perfect ski run: It gets gradually steeper and steeper as it tapers toward the top, where you get tremendous views of the ragged ridge all around you. On the third day of the traverse we found it, and just dropped our packs and did these smooth turns. As far as we know, it’s been skied only three times. And it’s been us every time.”