Andrew Drummond was in Alaska visiting his brother when he had his epiphany.
Prior to 2012, the 37-year-old native of Conway, N.H., already had plenty of alpine experience as a member of the Attitash racing program, in nearby Bartlett, and the Eastern Slope Ski Club. He raced as a member of the ski teams at Kennett Middle School and Gould Academy, and he has done work as a ski patroller at both Attitash Mountain Resort and Sunday River.
But it was in Alaska where Drummond went backcountry skiing for the first time. He soon realized it was his calling.
“I knew that was for me,” Drummond said. “Ever since then, I just made it a point around my winters to focus on the skiing.”
In 2016, Drummond transferred that burgeoning passion into Ski the Whites, a Jackson shop dedicated to outfitting backcountry enthusiasts with the proper gear, as well as serving as a central source, of sorts, for both locals and visitors interested in winter touring, something that abounds in the area with routes available throughout the White Mountains including, obviously, Tuckerman Ravine.
“I had this idea to curate my own backcountry ski shop because there was nothing like that in the (Mount Washington) valley,” he said. “And it seemed like a void that needed to be filled because backcountry skiing in general was growing and was something I was passionate about.”
As Drummond puts it, he didn’t have a job at the time, so he created one, spending much of his first season pushing himself into the local backcountry to become an expert on terrain in the White Mountains, Green Mountains and Maine. He tested different equipment from Fischer and Dynafit as well as a few different skin manufacturers, and provided demos and rentals out of the back of his truck. He came away from the season with a lot more experience.
“Backcountry skiing was perfect because it combined endurance sports, which I was really getting into — I was really getting into running — and then it lets you ski anywhere,” he said.
That’s the message that Drummond hoped to convey to a certain degree with the advent of Friday Night Lights last year. The evening uphill series at Black Mountain — where Ski the Whites now has its own dedicated space — turned out to be a hit in its debut season, welcoming more than 200 skiers of all abilities, ages ranging from kids to senior citizens.
“If you can ski, you can alpine tour,” Drummond said. “Really it’s just hiking up a hill. Really simple.
“You go through a couple different transitions with the skis from uphill to downhill and downhill to uphill, and you’ve got it pretty well figured out.”
More than 30 lights are set up along the course for that particular week (Drummond has never used the same course more than once at Black), and results are kept for those competing in one- or two-lap options. Cost for the series runs $50 for six events throughout the winter, or just $10 to drop in on a Friday night. Ski the Whites doesn’t provide equipment (rentals are available for $25 with reservation), but recommends which headlamps and clear goggles to purchase for participation.
Now finishing up its second season on March 15, Friday Night Lights has turned out to be a backcountry staple in the Mount Washington Valley.
“When I made it, I selfishly made it for myself,” Drummond said. “I thought it might target more people in my demographic, 20 to 40 years old, more into the competition. What that turned out to be is maybe 20 percent of the people are there for that reason. They’re actually just out for a tour and have a good time.”
The interest was large enough that Drummond was able to expand his offerings over the course of the 2018-19 ski season, establishing a Thursday night uphill series at Shawnee Peak, and Wednesday nights at Cranmore Mountain Resort. His hope is that he’s able to tap into the Boston and Portland markets and spark an interest in the pleasures of backcountry skiing.
He also realizes the challenges. Case in point; during his first year with Ski the Whites, he set up a booth at that November’s Boston Ski Expo, where he played videos and had backcountry gear on display. He estimates about one out of every 100 people who strolled by stopped to chat.
“In my small fishbowl world, it’s the biggest thing happening,” he said. “But on the grand stage, it’s still a niche sport. To survive on just backcountry skiing if you’re a retailer is definitely a challenge. Think of how many people are coming to the valley to ski, and how many are coming to backcountry ski, and it’s a really small percentage.”
He hopes his uphill series can change that in the coming years.
“I just think it’s a matter of time that the word has to get out,” he said. “People need a mentor. They need someone to show them what’s possible. It’s really satisfying when you set someone up with the gear and they have this great experience.
“That feedback loop is just representative of the future of backcountry skiing because it’s combining all these elements that you just can’t get in any other discipline.”
Drummond’s personal passion for his backcountry endeavors is documented on the Ski the Whites website, where he writes summaries of recent hikes, shoots video and photography, and even offers the ability to track him via GPS on his next adventure.
So, while Alaska might have planted the backcountry bug, New England has only enhanced Drummond’s interest.
“While Alaska is amazing and has arguably the best terrain in the world, all that stuff has been skied,” he said. “There’s nothing really new. Look at the terrain we have. It’s not only relatable, but it’s something that anyone can access. It’s also something that hasn’t really been captured well through photography and video, and that was something that really intrigued me, going out and documenting all my tours and sharing that on a bigger stage so that people could get excited and motivated.”
It’s also a prime way for visitors to check out the family-run Black Mountain in quaint Jackson Village. Drummond said that mountain ownership was completely open to kicking off the backcountry series, which has probably led to some new skiers visiting the small area, unaware of some of Black’s gnarly terrain and comfortable vibe.
“I really wanted to showcase the terrain and get people excited and hopefully get a new crop of talented backcountry skiers out here,” he said.