If you’ve looked on social media, read online articles or have been involved with an outdoor community of any kind over the past few years, the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing shouldn’t be a new concept. In fact, it’s not just the backcountry — but skiing uphill, or “skinning,” that’s gaining traction.
Before the first tow rope was introduced to the United States in Woodstock, Vt., 86 years ago, those who wanted to participate in alpine skiing were forced to trudge uphill on heavy skis before making a few turns. Today, as mechanical lifts whisk skiers to the summits of mountains around the world in minutes, allowing maximum turns with minimal effort, some still choose to “earn their turns.” And each spring, Black Mountain in Jackson, N.H., celebrates this return to skiing’s roots by shutting off its lifts and hosting a human-powered ski festival — Wild Corn.
“I don’t know of any other mountain that’s been shut down and used solely as a human-powered zone for a day,” said Tyler Ray, founder of Granite Backcountry Alliance and the Wild Corn event. “It’s totally unique. The initial goal was to celebrate backcountry skiing and corn snow, but it’s also a good opportunity for newer backcountry skiers to operate in a controlled environment.”
While some gain an interest in backcountry skiing and skinning as a response to rapidly increasing lift-ticket prices, others become involved due to the appeal of getting into the mountains or from a fitness standpoint. Regardless of the motivating factor, there is a lot that goes into getting started with skinning and backcountry skiing.
“It’s not like you just go off into the woods and rip some lines,” said Ray. “There’s a lot that goes into it. There is a lot of preparation and know-how that needs to be understood before going on these adventures.”
But in addition to competence in backcountry travel, newcomers must purchase an entirely new set of gear — a touring-specific set-up — and learn how to use it. At Wild Corn, a number of vendors demo touring gear, allowing those interested in learning about the sport to try it out before committing to up to a $3,000 investment. There also are basic introductory clinics, like Splitboard 101, avalanche awareness classes and injury prevention, which give first-timers an idea of how to use the gear and what they’ll need to learn before fully immersing themselves in the backcountry skiing movement.
While there is no shortage of ski resorts around the Mount Washington Valley, the choice to hold the event at Black Mountain was a no-brainer. In addition to its location just minutes from the famed backcountry ski zone Tuckerman Ravine, the resort also has had a backcountry buzz around it thanks in part to the weekly ski-mo (ski mountaineering) meet-up, Friday Night Lights.
“During the 2017-2018 season, which was our first season doing this, we would consider 50 people to be a good night,” said Andrew Drummond, who hosts Friday Night Lights and runs the Ski the Whites ski shop in Black Mountain’s base lodge. “Now we’re averaging 150 people per night. And it’s not just my demographic, but families, skiers in their 60s, kids and everyone in between. All ages, abilities and backgrounds are coming in for this one unifying cause, which is just to get out and kick-start the weekend with something unique.“
Black Mountain isn’t the only resort growing with the trend. Bolton Valley and Pico both host an annual splitboard festival in January and February; the Mount Washington Valley hosts a valley-wide backcountry festival, complete with AIARE courses, guided tours and other skills courses in March; and The Mountaineer in Keene Valley hosts a backcountry festival. But none of them, aside from Wild Corn, revolve around an entire resort takeover.
Trying new gear and learning new skills isn’t the only thing Wild Corn is about. At its roots, the event is about celebrating the spring skiing season and corn snow, growing a community and sharing an overall love for the sport and the outdoors.
“It’s a pretty raucous, fun event,” said Ray. “We have music playing, people cheering for skiers on big jumps and we’ve even expanded into doing an event at Tuckerman Brewing on Friday night.”
Friday’s event, which has been dubbed “Wild Pow” — a play on the Protect Our Winters organization and powder snow — features professional athletes giving presentations, a discussion about the environment and how we, as skiers, can have a positive impact on the planet.
Overall, the event is a great place to meet new people, become involved in a welcoming community and have an all-around good time.
“It’s just a big party that’s supposed to showcase the best elements of what the backcountry has to offer,” said Ray. “I see a bright future for Wild Corn.”
This year, the celebrations will be held on April 3 and 4.