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THE OUTSIDER: Bell curves, break-ins and a new era of backcountry ineptitude

The ski-touring community on the South Coast has grown so large it now qualifies for its own bell curve. image by Jon Parris and Vince Shuley

I was a young teenager when a graphic representation known as a “bell curve” was explained to me by an academic mentor. “If you take exam results from a class, you’re going to get a few students performing well above average, a few performing well below average and the remainder around the middle, who received close to the average mark.” Years later when I was falling asleep in a statistics class, I learned that this bell curve is known as a “normal distribution.” Get enough data points and they will plot in the shape of a bell (kind of like how we wish the curves of our COVID-19 cases looked). 

The ski-touring community on the South Coast has grown so large in recent years that it now qualifies for its own bell curve. Such is the fate of rapidly growing niche groups.

In the “above average” performing section on the right of the graph are the heroes of the ski-touring community. These are the ones we like to hear about. They make informed decisions based on years of training and experience. They share their knowledge happily and lend help to the community when needed. Most of all, they have deep respect for the mountains and the other people that help make their ski-touring adventures possible. They’re the ones maintaining backcountry huts, bringing in firewood every summer and digging the new hole for the outhouse. 

In the “average” performing section is the majority of the ski-touring community. They might be new to the sport and are looking for mentorship and guidance from the heroes in order to enhance their own skills and knowledge. They might be grizzled veterans of the sport that tend to keep to their backcountry circles and are likely a bit touchy about all the people blowing up their favourite spot. In any case, members of the “average” performing section still know the difference between right and wrong. They know that you don’t drop into a line when you can see another group climbing the slope below you. They know that you pack out what you pack in and don’t leave empty beer cans and garbage in beautiful places. They use the backcountry huts like good citizens: burning firewood sparingly, keeping the noise down for other parties trying to sleep before an alpine start, and they don’t pee by the front door.

The “below average” section are the ones we like hearing about the least. They make questionable decisions regarding the safety of themselves and their party, putting ski objectives above all else and disregarding the complexity of their own potential rescue. They treat the backcountry as their own personal ski resort, leaving behind empty booze containers, abandoning wrecked snowmobiles, partying all hours of the night in the backcountry huts and burning all the firewood.

At the far edge of the “below average” section of the South Coast ski-touring community are the people that, on or around New Year’s Eve, broke into Keith’s Hut by severing the locks on the door, most likely with a powered cutting tool. 

Who the hell travels with an angle grinder in their pack in the backcountry? 

There was visible signage that the hut was closed for safety reasons due to COVID-19, both on the door of the hut and at the trailhead. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the crowded, close quarters of backcountry huts would make a super-spreader environment. That’s why the benefactors of Keith’s Hut, Scott and Erika Flavelle, decided to close and lock the hut in September 2020. 

“When we realized that the only other huts that were open were trying to do cleaning between visiting groups, that was the nail in the coffin. We’re not prepared to do that,” said Scott.

“As the public-health orders got more emphatic, we realized we’d need to close it to be compliant with the provincial law.”

“It’s a super popular hut,” added Erika. “As a family [to the late Keith Flavelle, the hut’s namesake] we always like to see it open to everyone, beginner to expert. We just can’t take the risk. We do not want anyone to get sick and we do not want to keep having to re-lock the hut, buying new locks and fixing doors and windows. We would rather go ski touring and enjoy the mountains.” 

For anyone claiming that Keith’s Hut needs to stay open as a backcountry shelter, that argument doesn’t hold water. The hut is at treeline less than 90 minutes’ travel from a highway, not some far-flung alpine refuge where shelter could mean the difference between life and death.

It’s frustrating for the two other sections of the bell curve to hear this kind of blatant disrespect for a public, ski-touring facility. But as our sport grows, so does creep at the edges of the bell curve. We will get more heroes, but not without more villains. It’s up to us all in this happy average section of the bell curve to move the needle of where acceptable backcountry etiquette lies. That means speaking up to strangers in the field when they are blatantly breaking the moral code or putting others at risk. I’m not talking about elitism here, nor am I talking about doxing people who just didn’t know any better. People that ski tour up to a backcountry hut with means to break into the facility are not beginners nor people who simply “didn’t see” the closed sign at the trailhead. They’re reasonably experienced, incredibly entitled and have little respect for the founders of our ski-touring community.

The rate of growth in backcountry use is not slowing down—mechanized, self-propelled, summer, winter, you name it. With that growth comes responsibility from the average backcountry user. The heroes are doing their part. It’s time for the rest of us to hold our community to a higher standard. 

Vince Shuley expects more from his backcountry community and will do his best to help move the bell curve in the right direction. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider, email [email protected] or Instagram @whis_vince.