Pushing The Boundaries or Punching the Gorbs – Justin Lamoureux Interview
In part 3 of Whistler Blackcomb’s Bigger Picture documentary series, they drop in on a trending topic that’s becoming more relevant every winter. Backcountry skiing is finally booming in North America, and ski resorts like Whistler Blackcomb happen to have some of the best damn access to it. But unlike 20 years ago when you could spend days staring at tasty untracked lines in the Whistler ‘slack country’, these days you can’t even cross the boundary gate on a sunny day without jockeying with 100+ other people for the first lap of the day. Odds are some of those people will be on their first backcountry outing, and even the experienced folks might not be used to the unspoken etiquette that needs to kick in when that many people are sharing the same backcountry space.
We linked up with Olympic park rat turned backcountry fiend Justin Lamoureux to get some more dirt on the issue…
Doglotion: Justin, what’s the deal, why is backcountry skiing and riding so damn popular now? Is it cause you told all your knuckle dragging pipe buddies about all the pow? Or is it the sweet new gear? Or are North Americans just finally willing to try what the Euros have been doing for centuries?
Justin: The euros have definitely been doing it for a while! The popularity of backcountry shredding seems to be a culmination of really good gear, industry focus and well it’s awesome. The industry has been pushing the powder dream for a long time. Every snowboard/ski film has always had backcountry riding in it, but they were typically sled or heli access. Now the really good touring gear has made it more accessible to everyone.
Doglotion: You’ve watched the Whistler Blackcomb ‘slack country’ crowd evolve over the last decade from a handful of keeners to a non-stop open-bar party of first timers and pros. Is it good, bad, ugly? Or who cares and if you want uncrowded slopes you should just go somewhere else?
Justin: It’s rad. WB has amazing backcountry access, with awesome terrain and it’s super easy to get to. Not sure how many people realise that they’re about to walk into a mine field of crevasses 20 minutes from the blackcomb boundary though. The resort accessed backcountry is an easy gateway to getting out there, so there’s obviously a lot of people. But there’s so many mountains around where we live that finding an empty line shouldn’t be a problem. The ugly is that a lot of people are highly unprepared and are just following tracks.
Doglotion: There’s a lot of gorbs out there in the backcountry around Whistler Blackcomb, sure. But there’s also a lot of people who know what they’re doing in terms of snow assessment etc, but they don’t necessarily know how to safely deal with the human factors and crowds out there. Do you think some of the unwritten codes of etiquette need to be actually written down or taught more? Or should the gorbs just get out of the way and make way for Chuff-mc-sluff to fire by?
Justin: Gorbs like the guy post holing solo with alpine gear in the worst spot possible on a whiteout day kind of gorb? There’s a lot of those people. But that’s their choice. Which is the best thing about being in the backcountry, you make your choices. Good or bad. Having said that, I’ll advocate that everyone should be trained in avalanche rescue and first aid prior to going into the backcountry and making those choices. If you want to learn how to hit big park jumps, you’re obviously going to start small and work your way up. You don’t just point it at Shack Jump and hope for the best. Backcountry access is basically just walking so it’s really easy to put yourself in a bad spot making bad choices. So learning and working your way up to making critical decisions is really important. Once you pass that boundary you’re on your own.
Doglotion: Are you the kinda guy who calls out the kooks and tells them what they’re doing wrong? Or just let natural selection do its thing? Or maybe something nicer in the middle?
Justin: Depends on my mood I guess! haha. I may be a bit of a smartass sometimes… If someone is going to do something really dumb I’ll probably say something. But the thing in the backcountry those people will think I’m just some dude who’s trying to spoil their fun, not a pro rider and guide with 2 decades of experience who’s trying to help them. There’s definitely people I’d love to talk to simply to ask “what made you think that was a good decision?”. The tricky portion is people usually get away with bad decision making, until they don’t in which case the outcome is probably bad.
Doglotion: The flick talks a lot about responsibility. Seems like WB has it pretty dialled in terms of education and signage where they can, but ultimately leaving the choice up to skiers and riders re whether or not it’s safe to head out. Anything else you think resorts should or shouldn’t be doing? Anything to learn from that you’ve seen elsewhere on the globe?
Justin: The ski areas are going above and beyond in my mind. Ropes, signage, avalanche bulletins, avalanche clinics, gates and beacon checking machines are as much as I expect them to do. It’s pretty hard to leave the WB boundary and not realise it. They definitely shouldn’t be closing access to the backcountry. It’s tough to get into the alpine on a stormy day but you can and that’s awesome.
At the end of the day the rider (or group) is 100% responsible for making the decision to go in the backcountry.
Doglotion: What’s the first Blackcomb backcountry line you’re going to shred this winter? And why haven’t you and I gone and hit it yet?
Justin: How much did it snow while I was gone? Maybe this week? I try and keep the early season pretty mellow. Lots of rocks and stumps down low and the glaciers are full of holes up high.
Doglotion: Any wise words of advice for anyone in the Whistler Blackcomb wolf pack of frothing backcountry shredders (be the new, old, ho’s or pros)?
Justin: Get your friends together and practice avalanche rescue. Take a first aid course, crevasse rescue course, learn some navigation skills. You’re never too good. Someone’s life may depend on your skills and/or decision making so be prepared.