Men's Journal Interview
By Andrew McLean

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1.Tell me a little about yourself. How you got into skiing, where you are from, how old, what you do at Black Diamond.

I was born in Salt Lake City in 1961 (36 ski seasons ago), but have moved around quite a bit since then and would call Seattle my home. I grew up ski racing in the northwest which was an excellent education in skiing tricky snow conditions and steeper slopes. After graduating from high school, I took two years off to race full time, then spent the next four years at the Rhode Island School of Design where I received a degree in Industrial Design. After graduating, I did a variety of jobs from freelance work to naval architecture before deciding I really wanted to design and build mountain climbing equipment. I started out with the intent of creating my own company, which lasted about six months before turning into a job as a product designer for the then newly formed Black Diamond Equipment. Since joining Black Diamond, my main emphasis has been designing carabiners, rock climbing protection and the occasional ski product.

2.Do you think skiing has changed much in the last five years or so?

Maybe not the actual technique, but the variety and attitudes toward skiing and having fun in the mountains has come a long ways. Snowboarding and shaped skis have taken a lot of the frustration out of learning and given people new avenues to explore when they get tired of plain old skiing. Things that used to be considered kind of fringe activities, like telemarking and backcountry skiing, are gaining popularity and have merged into peoples repertoires of things to do once you have the basic of turning down.

I'm wondering about technology, new directions for the sport (extreme, backcountry, telemark, etc.). How? Why?

Technology has made what used to be considered extreme adventures much safer, and thus much more popular. Plastic telemark boots are warmer, drier and have more control then old leather boots, so people are willing to take them to higher peaks and trust them for longer, more committing outings. If you donít have to worry about your bindings tearing your boot soles off, you can start to consider doing things like circumnavigationís of Alaskan peaks on lightweight gear. In the realm of steep skiing, little improvements like sturdy self arrest ski poles and reliable bindings have given people the confidence to up the angle a few more degrees. For better or worse, new wave avalanche beacons, GPS units and cell phones have given skiers new confidence to travel further into terrain that was once considered remote and dangerous.

3.Where is skiing going? How should we think about its future?

Skiing as weíve known it for the last 20-50 years is going the way of the White American Male - a species that used to consider itself the majority but is now becoming just another player in a big melting pot of snow sliders. Pretty much any sliding activity has a loyal group of supporters and an industry to support them - such as telemark racing, boarder cross events, ski mountaineering and freeskiing.

As far as extreme skiing and ski mountaineering goes, the emphasis is still the same - big, steep and/or scary lines with serious consequences. As with any sport, what was once headline news, is now commonplace. The Golden Age of extreme skiing in the US quietly came and went about 10 years ago when all the classic alpine faces were skied by the early pioneers of the sport. With a few exceptions, todayís lines are the table scrap of that era - shorter, thinner, scrappier and often crossing over into the mountaineering side of extreme with rappels, down climbing and belayed skiing.

4.Is skiing's future greatly affected by the conglomeration of resorts?

Definitely. Whether itís a positive or negative affect depends on your point of view. The area I grew up skiing at (Alpental, an hour outside of Seattle) was merged into a large ski company. Since itís no longer competing with itís neighbors for business, itís closing earlier in the season and has started to lose some of itís local flavor as ďbig pictureĒ corporate decisions over ride established local traditions. On the other hand, the lifts and facilities have been upgraded, which might not have happened without some large investors. Another immediate and obvious impact is the rising cost of day tickets. Five years ago I bought a seasons pass at Park West for $150 and lost money on it because they lowered the day ticket to $16 during the season. This year, after being bought by Ski America (?) and renamed The Canyons, a seasons pass is around $650 and a day pass is in the mid $40ís - but the mountain hasnít changed that much. Although the quality of the experience is perhaps going up, the increased cost is making things like backcountry ski gear look like a good deal.

5.What's happening outside the resorts, in the backcountry?

Backcountry versus the resorts is a quality versus quantity experience. The best resort powder day of your life would only equate to an average backcountry powder experience. The steepest slope you can find at a ski area is just the beginning of the potential for steep and scary out of bounds skiing. For example, last year I went back and skied a run at Blackcomb that I had remembered as one of the best runs of my life. After 6 years of backcountry skiing, I was amazed at how small, short and mellow it now seemed. Statistically, Iíve read that backcountry skiing/boarding has doubled in popularity over the last five years, which seems likely based on the trailhead parking lots. The easy access areas are getting tracked out in a few days, but there is still a huge amount of acreage being shared by a relatively small amount of people. The days of having entire drainageís to yourself are gone unless you are willing to travel further and ski steeper lines then the crowds. 

There also seems to be a lot of variety in the backcountry now a days. Itís no longer just the skinny ski crowd - boarders are getting out on snowshoes and split boards, alpine skiers are using Alpine Trekkers, Alpine Touring gear is catching on and telemarking covers everything from ridge cruisers to extreme mountaineering descents.

Copyright - Andrew McLean Back to Writings Index