Barbarian by Design: The Culture & Commerce of Risk in Backcountry Skiing
I am History PhD candidate. Currently I am writing my dissertation in consultation with my committee chair, Professor Greg Smoak. My dissertation is primarily an intervention in the historiography of cultural and environmental historians who have taken the mountains as their focus. In spring 2024, I will teach an undergraduate history class, “Mountain Recreation in American Culture & Society.”
I am writing a dissertation on the history of backcountry skiing in the United States as a means to understand the connections between recreation, commerce, and risk. Backcountry skiing is a major growth area within the outdoor recreation industry, which now generates billions of dollars and rivals the technology sector in people employed. Increasing numbers of Americans have participated by placing faith in advanced technology and drawing upon readily available maps and information. While backcountry skiing is an inherently risky activity, most backcountry skiers sought mild adventure. In fact, risk mitigation systems dramatically expanded to support the sport’s growth. Expertly staffed regional avalanche centers and mountain search and rescue networks are prime examples. Nevertheless, backcountry skiing fostered the emergence of a cadre of professional risk-takers known as “extreme skiers.” This points to a cultural paradox: has mainstream society grown risk-averse, even as a subculture of backcountry skiers embraced risk taking?
I am researching the history of backcountry skiing in the United States as a means to understand the connections between recreation, commerce, and risk. Most backcountry skiers sought mild adventure, and risk mitigation systems have supported the sport’s growth in recent decades. Expertly staffed regional avalanche centers and sophisticated mountain search and rescue networks are prime examples. Nevertheless, a cadre of “extreme skiers” has emerged. The risks involved in this sport were highlighted by the death of ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson on September 26, 2022, as she attempted a ski descent from the summit of Nepal’s Mount Manaslu (8,163 meters (26,781 ft). This tragic event lends credence to the idea that the lure of extreme skiing has only increased along with the massive growth of risk mitigation systems, which points to a cultural paradox: has mainstream society grown risk-averse, even as a su