Timeless Education: The Best Backcountry Skiing Books for Summer

Timeless Education: The Best Backcountry Skiing Books for Summer

Hey, people, summer is here. Which means it’s time to turn off the morbid news about global pandemics, murder wasps, and aggressive rats and head out to the hammock with a good book about skiing. Here are a few recommendations, all of which pair well with an ice-cold pilsner.  

Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches” by Jill Fredston
Having spent decades trying to keep avalanches and people apart, Fredston brings them together unforgettably in Snowstruck. From a rare store of personal experience, she conveys a panorama of perspectives: a skier making what may prove his final decision, a victim buried so tightly that he can’t move a finger, rescuers racing both time and weather, forecasters treading the line between reasonable risk and danger. Seamlessly interweaving these accounts, Fredston brings to life the awesome forces of nature that can turn the mountains deadly-and the equally inexorable forces of human nature that lure us time and again into treacherous terrain. 

In the Path of an Avalanche” by Vivian Bowers
On a clear, cold morning in January 1998, in the Selkirk Mountains of southeastern British Columbia, a massive avalanche buried six experienced back-country skiers. They didn’t have a chance. Thus began the worst day for avalanche deaths in Canadian history and one of the most tragic in North America. This book is the biography of that deadly avalanche, detailing how a combination of factors—steep, open terrain, an unstable winter snowpack primed to slide, aggravating weather conditions, and a trigger provided by a handful of backcountry skiers—resulted in human tragedy. It is the story of a particular avalanche, but it illustrates a natural phenomenon that has threatened human endeavors throughout the world since people first ventured within the reach of steep snow slopes.

Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis” by John Baldwin
This is your guide to deep powder, endless glacier runs, alpine descents, cozy huts, couloirs, and traverses. This book covers an area that stretches from the edges of the North Cascades in Washington State to the grand icefields of northern B.C. and the Alaska panhandle. 

Wild Snow” by Lou Dawson
“Wild Snow” is Lou Dawson’s fastidiously researched book on the evolution of North American backcountry skiing and snowboarding. With more than 220 historic and contemporary photographs, as well as 10 maps, the book doubles as a guide to 54 classic mountain ski and snowboard descents, from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington to Alaska’s Denali. Along the way, Dawson profiles such luminaries of wild snow as Bill Briggs, first to leave tracks down the Grand Teton, Jackrabbit Johannsen, who gracefully skied into his eleventh decade, and Chris Landry, the man who coined the definition of extreme skiing: “If you fall, you die.”

Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America” by Chris Davenport, Art Burrows, and Penn Newhard
Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America is a large-format compilation of iconic and aesthetic ski descents from Alaska to Mount Washington. Created by ski mountaineers Chris Davenport, Art Burrows, and Penn Newhard, “50 Classic Ski Descents” taps into the local knowledge of contributors such as Andrew McLean, Glen Plake, Lowell Skoog, Chic Scott, and Ptor Spricenieks, with first-person descriptions of their favorite ski descents and insightful perspectives on ski mountaineering past, present, and future. The book features 208 pages of gorgeous action and mountain images from many of North America’s top photographers. Whether you are planning an expedition to Baffin Island’s Polar Star Couloir or heading out for dawn patrol on Mount Superior, 50 Classic Ski Descents is a visual and inspirational feast of ski mountaineering in North America.

Tracking the Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs” by Robert Cocuzzo
Arguably the greatest extreme skier to ever live, Doug Coombs pioneered hundreds of first descents down the biggest, steepest, most dangerous mountains in the world―from Grand Teton’s “Otter Body” in Jackson Hole, Wyo., to Mount Vinson, the highest point in Antarctica, to far-flung drops such as Wyatt Peak in Kyrgyzstan. He graced magazine covers, wowed moviegoers, became the face of top ski companies, and ascended as the king of big mountain extreme skiing. His place at the top was confirmed in 1991 when he won the very first World Extreme Ski Competition in Valdez, Alaska. From the slopes of his childhood in New England; to the steep chutes of his early career in Montana and Wyoming; to the deep, avalanche-prone powder of his guiding years in Alaska; and, ultimately, to the terrifying terrain of the French Alps, Coombs’s greatness was in how he skied.

Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment” by Hal Clifford
This is why we backcountry ski. In this impassioned expose, lifelong skier Hal Clifford reveals how publicly traded corporations gained control of America’s most popular winter sport during the 1990s, and how their greed is gutting ski towns, the natural environment, and skiing itself. Chronicling the collision between Wall Street’s demand for unceasing revenue growth and the fragile natural and social environments of small mountain communities, Clifford shows how the modern ski industry promotes its product as environmentally friendly, while at the same time creating urban-style problems for mountain villages. He suggests an alternative to this bleak picture in the return-to-the-roots movement that is now beginning to find its voice in many American ski towns, and he relates stories of creative business people who are shifting control of the ski business back to the communities that host it. Hard-hitting and carefully researched, “Downhill Slide” is indispensable reading for anyone who lives in, visits, or cares about what is happening to America’s alpine communities.

Skiing into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History” by Andrew Denning
This is the story of how skiing moved from Europe’s Scandinavian periphery to the mountains of central Europe, where it came to define the modern Alps and set the standard for skiing across the world. Denning offers a fresh, sophisticated, and engaging cultural and environmental history of skiing that alters our understanding of the sport and reveals how leisure practices evolve in unison with our changing relationship to nature. Denning probes the modernist self-definition of alpine skiers and the sport’s historical appeal for individuals who sought to escape city structures while achieving mastery of mountain environments through technology and speed—two central features distinguishing early twentieth-century cultures. This is a history of skiing that explores intersections between work, tourism, leisure, development, environmental destruction, urbanism, and more.

Bugaboo Dreams: A Story of Skiers, Helicopters, and Mountains” by Topher Donahue
Hans Gmoser was a pioneering mountaineer and skier who pushed the limits of skiing and climbing in the Canadian Rockies and beyond. He also happens to have started the world’s first heli-skiing operation in the 1960s. “Bugaboo Dreams” captures Gmoser’s spirit of adventure and passion for skiing that gave way to the heli-ski biz.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose in the Avalanche Patch” by Bruce Kay
Drawing from the experiences of his peers and his own 35 years as a climber, skier, and avalanche professional, Kay explains why avalanche country demands a unique mindset of managing risk by consideration of the unknown as much as the known. He explores related topics, including the siren song of culture, intuition and bias, optimism and luck, the expert illusion, and strategic mindest. Using the work of Ian McCammon, Gary Klein, and the Nobel Prize winning Daniel Kahnemen, Kay shows how the avalanche problem is nearly perfectly designed to produce errors in judgement, yet still provide opportunity for solution. This is brought to life using case studies and adrenaline-pumping stories from fellow professionals and recreationists. 

Avalanche Accidents in Canada” (vol. 4) by Bruce Jamieson
This book contains a first-person account of an avalanche, a chapter on trends and patterns, and enough analysis on each event to make for compelling reading. Each part reads like a standalone piece, making it easy to pick up and read an incident or two and revisit later.

The Avalanche Hunters,” by Montgomery Atwater
The author is considered a pioneer and the founder of the field of avalanche research, forecasting, and mitigation in North America. Atwater is a colorful personality with a diverse resume that includes writer, cattle rancher, forest ranger, and trapper. Atwater’s book is a gem that should be on everyone’s shelf, but it’s out of print and not available in e-book, so good luck finding a copy. Be prepared to pay a steep price or offer up your first born to borrow a copy from a friend.

Teton Skiing: A History and Guide” by Thomas Turiano
Turiano covers every aspect of backcountry skiing in the Tetons for the past century. This fantastic book includes a detailed history, as well as descriptions for all the ski routes in the range—from mellow walks through the forest to descents of wild couloirs. This book is out of print, so borrow one from a friend and never give it back. But an update is coming, hopefully in the next couple years, with the title: “Teton Skiing: Select Peaks and Routes.” 

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