Is the Term “Sidecountry” Dead?
Last year, “sidecountry”—a term used to describe lift-accessed backcountry terrain—was the outdoor industry’s hot new buzzword. And the hype bled into the media, too. Search for the word on this website, and you’ll get 207 results from 2013.
This year, the term has all but disappeared from manufacturers’ vocabularies. That’s not to say skiers and riders don’t still use it, or that it doesn’t belong in snow-sports vernacular. It just has to be clearly defined.
But when it comes to marketing, last year’s most referenced industry buzzword is dead. Which is a good thing.
Just last month, Tony Siebert—the grandson of Vail founder Pete Siebert—died in an avalanche while skiing the East Vail Chutes, a popular destination accessible via a short hike from one of Vail’s T-bars. The route could technically be defined as sidecountry, but the term doesn’t make the Chutes any less deadly, and it masks the risks involved.
The trail to find exactly where the buzzword died is a circuitous one, but there’s a black-and-white motive behind its demise. Backcountry skiing is binary—you are either in or out of bounds. When it comes to safety, there’s no gray area.
The term has pretty innocuous beginnings. “‘Sidecountry’ became the word that we as an industry started in order to typify something that was sexier than in-bounds skiing,” says Scarpa CEO Kim Miller. “We wanted to give people the feeling there is more adventure out there—especially through the access of a resort.”
According to Miller, companies never meant to imply that sidecountry was less dangerous than the backcountry. They thought it was clear that once you slipped past a resort area boundary, you were in the backcountry—and out of the resort’s safety net.
There aren’t typically large physical barriers between in-bounds and out-of-bounds runs—all you’ll usually see is a gate, a rope, or a sign—so companies began to worry that the term would confuse first-time backcountry skiers. Novices might wonder if they needed true backcountry equipment if they were only skiing the sidecountry. (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is a resounding yes.)
“One of the issues was the mixed messages that sidecountry sends,” says Backcountry Access founder Bruce Edgerly. “It’s a great term to describe equipment and uses,” he continues, “but it can imply that skiing near a resort is safer. We have seen it’s not.”
Though the retirement of sidecountry likely started last winter with a backcountry task force, it was the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) that most actively lobbied for its obsolescence.
“While it is clearly the responsibility of individuals 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,” wrote Dave Byrd, NSAA’s director of Risk and Regulatory Affairs, in the organization’s January journal.
The problem with the term “sidecountry” lies in how it can falsely characterize the riskiness of terrain, Byrd says. But while the NSAA strongly opposed the word, it couldn’t very well police the industry’s marketing copy. Instead, the outdoor industry decided to police itself.
With more people dying every year in lift-accessed backcountry terrain, manufacturers have become much more aware of the words they’ve been using. “Skiing has reinvented itself so many times, depending on what people want, and we have to carry a different kind of ethos and mentality into that,” Miller says. “We have to be really thoughtful when we deal with things that are risky. I have dug a lot of people out from under avalanche slides, and have been dug out myself. I don’t want any more of that than we have already seen.”