On sidecountry

There’s currently a move to eliminate the term “sidecountry” (currently used to identify lift-accessed backcountry terrain) from the backcountry lexicon. The argument for this is that using a term like sidecountry encourages recreationalists to consider that “some areas of the backcountry are kinder and gentler than other areas,”  which is patently not the case; you’re either in a controlled ski area, or you’re not. And it’s true that a lot of people – scores of them based on scenes I’ve personally seen at Whistler and Baker – don’t seem to be fully aware of this, or just how much their circumstances change when they duck below the rope.

Conversely, there’s a strong argument that terms like sidecountry are just labels. Uninformed users won’t change their behaviour because the industry and safety organizations adopt different terminology; only targeted education will make a difference. “We don’t reduce a health risk by agreeing not to mention it by name. We reduce it by clearly identifying it, studying it, and by getting in the heads of users, by understanding their demographics and channels of influence.” 

It’s an interesting argument, and there very good cases on both sides. If changing the terminology would genuinely make a difference, I’d be all for it. But I’m honestly not convinced that the problem is with the labels. I’m a newcomer to the backcountry, just two seasons old, and I made sure I took an AST-1 course before my first tour to scare some sense into myself. Even though one of my main takeaways from the course was just how much I didn’t know going into it, one thing I have always been very aware of is that the rules change beyond the boundary rope.

I do think of true backcountry and sidecountry/slackcountry as two very different things, and I find the distinction helpful. Sidecountry is, without doubt, an easier (and more expensive) option – but only because you’re using a lift to get there, not because it’s less safe. In fact, being pitched straight into an uncontrolled high alpine environment because you rode a lift past all those gladed slopes and rolling meadows that you could have accessed under your own steam is a bigger jump than starting out with gentle tours.

Of course, not everyone is going to feel the same way about this. Not everyone is going to use the sidecountry in the same way, either; the groups who head out past Lakeside bowl to build booters on untracked slopes well out of the way of avalanche paths aren’t dealing with the same level of risk as those who head straight up to Body Bag Bowl or Disease Ridge for fresh powder after a storm. Do all of them know the difference? That’s the million dollar question.

Ultimately, although I can see both sides of the argument, I end up feeling that the terminology debate addresses a symptom rather than the cause. Awareness and education are so important. If people truly understand what they’re getting into, and how they can make their experience safer, it doesn’t really matter what they call it.

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