Hey Eric Hjorleifson, Get your Skin Track out of my Bootpack
Just kidding. Hoji’s not one to follow a track out into the backcountry. And if there’s a bootpack already in place, even one that’s skanking up an old skin track, Hoji would just cut a new path.
But there’s a new phenomenon occurring in the immediate backcountry outside Whistler Blackcomb. And if you felt like it, you could pin a bit of the blame on Eric.
It used to be that the circuit just outside the Blackcomb boundary was peppered with a series of well-established bootpacks to the goods between storms. This was due to a large population of both skiers and snowboarders who didn’t want to compromise their inbounds experience with a backcountry set-up.
But then Hoji helped develop a high performance touring boot (The Vulcan) that made traditional Dynafit pin bindings shred a lot harder than they used to. Backcountry frame bindings also came into the mix, as did an explosion in the popularity of splitboarding.
“The equipment has evolved and given us the ability to have as little compromise as possible on each end of the spectrum of the sport,” explains Hjorleifson.
Now, the age-old act of postholing through the pow seems to be going the way of 8-tracks, chivalry and rear-entry ski boots.
“I blame Eric,” said Jen Ashton, Hoji’s longtime girlfriend, when I told her about having to set a bootpack even though I was in the presence of 10 skiers within a few hundred metres of the ski hill boundary.
“I remember when I first showed up, skiing Blackcomb with Hugo and bootpacking everywhere,” Hoji recalls with a laugh. “But the radius around the resort that you can bootpack does have a limit and the radius that you can skin around the resort is probably ten times that far.”
“I don’t think he owns downhill bindings,” says Matty Richard. And he’s right. When Hoji hit the massive kicker on Blackcomb for Ruin and Rose, he was riding his Beast 14s with the toepiece locked.
“And last year filming in the helicopter at Selkirk Tangiers out of Revelstoke for ten days, I just used my Beast bindings,” adds Eric.
“The Beast 14, unlocked: perfect. Like no failures and I mean the proof is in the footage of the athlete edit.”
Of course Hoji’s at the forefront of a larger trend. Between August to March in 2016, roughly 27,000 pairs of alpine touring bindings were sold. It was closer to 35,000 the year before (all figures are from SIA).
And let’s not forget splitboarding. Roughly 4500 splitties were sold in the states in 2015-16. (I couldn’t find any Canadian figures, but I’m sure they’re relatively similar.)
So the mystery of the disappearing bootpack is an easy one to solve. People are opting for more efficient ways to move through the snow. (It’s also a function of the Blackcomb Freeride crew getting jobs and being able to afford nicer gear).
But I know I’m not the only one who prefers my more downhill-oriented set-up. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no better way than a splitboard for getting deep into the backcountry. But for lines that feed back into the resort, I’ll happily do some trudging so that I can ride a board that hasn’t been cut in half.
And I can’t speak for how backcountry set-ups ski inbounds, but I know there are a few heavyfooted skiers out there who prefer to lock into their downhill rigs, especially in the gnar.
Local skier Dave Gheriani has joked about starting a bootpacking club for skiers and snowboarders who want to ride the immediate backcountry on their downhill set-ups.
Sounds a bit gay, but the good thing about bootpacking is that you don’t have to make eye contact. And once you lock into your downhill gear at the top of your line, you might be more inclined to make 15 turns instead of 65.
“Nobody’s gonna argue that it’s not nicer to ski in your alpine boots,” says Gheriani. “And let’s be honest, stomping 30 footers in Dynafits is doable but it doesn’t lead to long-lasting Dynafits,” he adds.
But there’s definitely a growing number of skiers who shred everything on their pins with very little compromise, guys like Hoji, Matty Richard and Carter McMillan (The winner of Candide’s “One of your Days” competition). And you wouldn’t guess it by watching those guys ski, but Hoji maintains that there are still limitations to the set-up.
“If you’re using really lightweight Dynafit-style bindings and skiing a 120mm wide ski that’s long and stiff, and you’re skiing like you would on traditional alpine gear, then you’re really asking a lot of that equipment,” says Hoji.
“It’s like taking a nice Ferrari and pinning it down the Hurley.”
It’s not just the equipment that’s changed, it’s also people’s approach as they evolve as freeriders:
“I’m more focused on the backcountry,” explains Hoji. “It’s very rare that I go to ski resorts now and do a bell-to-bell skiing inbounds day unless I’m there on the perfect day. The older I get the more I want to ski powder; I would rather have two of three really good runs instead of 15-20 bangin-my-body kinda runs.”
There’s wisdom to those words. Powder’s the elixir that keeps us all young. But I suppose my undying love for the bootpack is a function of living in a place where the low-hanging fruit gets refreshed on such a regular basis.
It’s not without its limitations, but a hasty little bootpack to the goods is one of the best things in freeriding. “Hasty” is the operative word here. It takes a very specific set of circumstances for a circuit to be conducive to bootpacking, especially because of the handicap it creates in the case of a rescue.
But the age-old art of kicking steps in the snow still has its place out there and a well-used bootpack has a beauty all its own.
“Being able to bootpack is a very valid skill to have as well, regardless if you’re skinning or not,” says Hoji. “There’s actually a lot of terrain and snow conditions where knowing how to put in a good bootpack and having the strength to do it is very valuable.”
We’re also still in a relatively new stage for backcountry gear innovation that’s catered to more aggressive riding. Splitboards, pin bindings and aggressive touring boots have all come a long way. But they all get a little squirrelly in harder snow.
“Both disciplines [skiing and snowboarding] still have some compromise,” says Hoji. “It’s not perfect. But hopefully, it’s just gonna get better and better.”
Maybe that’s why some skiers, like Dominic Melanson, still have a set of Alpine Trekkers that they use to shuffle up the mountain.
Either way, it’s impossible to have this conversation without mentioning the conflicts that arise from people perforating skin trails with a dirty sets of footprints. Skinners reaming out bootpackers is an age-old backcountry tradition.
And while it’s true that skins don’t stick as well to a trail that’s pocked with holes, the real issue—the one worth talking about—is people blindly following trails into the great white yonder regardless of the gear they’re on.
But in the grand scheme of backcountry etiquette and issues, bootpacking over skin trails (or vice versa, which has actually been happening lately) is only worth talking about when people don’t have a clue what they’re doing and where they’re going out there.