Thursday, January 24, 2013

Backcountry Skiing Abroad With Donny Roth

World-renowned skier and Conservationist, Donny Roth sits down with the Colorado Mountain Club to discuss the ins and outs of skiing abroad; his experiences in Chile, how to get started, and what makes all the travel worth it. To learn more about Donny Roth and hear his first-hand account of backcountry skiing in the foreign lands of Chile, come join us for his exclusive talk on January 30th: Exploring the Cordillera of Chile.

You're part professional skier, part guide, and part conservationist.  That’s pretty impressive at such a young age.  Tell us a little about your journey getting started.

Ha!  I haven't been called "young" in a while.  I am actually thirty-seven.  This is my twentieth year working in the ski industry.  I was an avid ski racer all through high school, so when I graduated I naturally picked up ski instructing while attending University.  I’ve moved through a lot of positions in my time, and worked in bigger and bigger mountain environments. All of this eventually led to me becoming a heli-ski guide in South America. With traveling all over the world, this is now my nineteenth consecutive winter without a proper summer!  Working as an athlete, guide, writer, and blogger means I am constantly learning and being challenged, and this makes it easier for me to keep going season after season.

You ski all over the globe.  What attracted you most to skiing abroad?  And more specifically, why Chile?

I don't think I was actually attracted to skiing abroad as much as I was attracted to simply exploring foreign places.  Skiing just turned out to be the best way to do this.  I wasn't able to rub two nickels together for most of my life, so working in different countries was the best way to get there.  I don't know why I had such a strong curiosity about Chile.  I think it's a logical place to find adventure – it has everything from the mountains to the ocean, from the driest desert in the world to the craziest weather known to man. It only has one main road, and there are wild places in every direction from this road. They speak a different language and have a much different culture, but it wasn't so different that it was impossible to grasp either.

What was the most memorable part of your trip to Chile?

I would have to say, the sunsets or Tyler's (writer for Backcountry Magazine) smile.  It seemed like every night we had different light come sunset, and each one of them was magical.  Each evening the three of us were allowed to just be quiet while we watched the sky turn crazy colors.  The thoughts that ran through my mind were thoughts of being content, which is something I am not very often.  As for Tyler, he had never done anything like this before, and I know that he surprised himself every day.  He killed it, and he never stopped grinning because of this.  To get to witness that was a privilege. 

While you’ll be discussing your trip to Chile during your talk next week, we know that you also ski all over the world, including Asia and different areas of South America. For someone that has wanted to ski abroad but has yet to take the leap, how would you suggest they get started?

Keep the trip as logistically simple as possible.  Don't try to cram too much in.  If you try to visit too many locations in too short of a time you will feel like you're constantly traveling and you will only see the tourist attractions.  Spend time in a place – get to know it and its people.  Pick a spot and give yourself time to explore its nooks and crannies.

What are 3 things to keep in mind when looking to ski abroad?

More than anything, I would say that (1) you have to be flexible.  Often most things don't go like clockwork.  Building time into your plan to accommodate for unforeseen changes really relieves a lot of stress.  (2) Travel lightly, but bring your own skis and boots.  Rental gear can be really difficult, especially in developing countries.  Get a ski bag with wheels.  Be able to move 100% of your gear all at the same time, for at least a couple hundred yards, and up a flight of stairs.  (3) Leave all your stereotypes and preconceived notions at home.  The best food might be from a street vendor, the most knowledgeable man in the village might not have any teeth, buses might be better than planes.  I see so many people get frustrated because they think the system doesn't work.  It does work, it just works differently.  The key is to not look for what you're used to, but to see what's actually there.

What is the most difficult thing about skiing abroad?

Without a doubt, it's getting information about the mountains and the conditions.  Most of the time the information you’ll need isn't even being collected, much less shared.  If it's South America or Asia, there is no real standard protocol to follow, so any information you gather may basically be hearsay.  Maps are outdated, fuzzy, and scaled too large.  Guidebooks are also non-existent, so asking around town can definitely lead you on a wild goose chase. However, it’s all a part of the adventure, the good and the bad.

What is the most rewarding thing about skiing abroad?

The people you meet when you're off the beaten path.  It's the guy that picks you up while hitch-hiking and invites you into his home for the night, or it's the husband and wife that own a restaurant and sit down with you for dinner. It's the young people that bring you to a real asado.  It's the conversations in two broken languages, where when words fail you, paying attention to the other person's entire being is the only way to understand their meaning. 

What are 3 things to keep in mind when looking for a guide in the backcountry, whether in the States or abroad?

Experience, certification, and professionalism – in any order.  The term "guide" is over used.  As a client, you want to ski with someone that has seen a lot and can handle change gracefully.  You want someone that is trained to be level-headed and operates with the appropriate margin of safety.  You want someone that is part of, or is, a reputable business.  Cutting corners by using dodgy travel, or food, or lodging generally just ends up in mild discomfort and really funny stories. But going with a guide that was the cheaper alternative can also have grave consequences, so be smart!

We know you see the direct connection between being an outdoor recreationist and the importance of conservation, but that’s not always the case for others.  Why do you think that is?

There are as many reasons as there are people – everyone is different.  I do think that most of us have cluttered our lives to the point where we can't see the forest through the trees.  We can't see the problems around us because of all the junk in front of us.  The hectic pace of our daily lives consumes us and saving the wilderness doesn't register as important.  In the U.S. we are really good at hiding the extraction of natural resources – clear cuts aren't visible from highways, mines are often behind mountains, and oil and gas derricks are often pretty small on the landscape.  And if we are honest about it, we have to admit that we are spoiled.  We like the conveniences of modern life, and we want to bring them with us into the mountains.  This is a mistake on our part. 

Keeping conservation and outdoor ethics in mind, what are some things that skiers should think about when skiing aboard, particularly in a developing country like Chile?

I try my best to encourage people to use small, local businesses.  Avoid the big, cookie-cutter resorts that pander to masses.  Backcountry skiing is a great way to do this.  Giving your money to large corporations only increases social stratification and spreads non-environmentally friendly development.  Go to national parks and reserves – and pay the fees.  Use small, local hotels and take an interest in their conservation efforts.  The governments of developing countries are not blind to the problems we have created for ourselves, but they need revenue for their social systems also.  Tourism is one way that they can justify preserving wild places. 

For next week’s presentation, if you could leave one take away with your audience what would it be?

I don't want to give away my punch line, but I can tell you that there is one.  This story I tell won’t be one about an epic journey of athletic prowess.  It's about the value of space, and it's told through a few characters. I think it will be a while before the story really, truly ends.