It’s no secret that the demand for backcountry education has risen just as much as backcountry usership this year. For those who have been recreating in the backcountry regularly in seasons past, this means there are not only newcomers to share their powder stashes with, but their knowledge as well. The Tetons are a particularly special place when it comes to backcountry recreation with the sheer amount of access in our backyard. Most days, the parking lot at the top of Teton Pass is full by seven in the morning with people getting in a Glory lap before work. Running into your pals at the top of Whimpy’s in Grand Teton isn’t a surprise for locals either. As local artist Cy Whitling observed these changes and the sometimes massive consequences of backcountry skiing grew closer to home, he started to channel the ideas in the front of his mind into a series of paintings with messages raising avalanche awareness. Most recently, Whitling created a map of Teton Pass showing avalanche statistics in popular areas from the last five years. We got to chat with Cy about the piece and his experience with backcountry skiing (and snowblade mountaineering) in the Tetons this winter.
Is this the first season you’ve made avalanche awareness themed pieces?
Cy Whitling: I’ve kind of always had some small avalanche awareness aspect to what I’ve done, but this year I’ve gone a lot harder on that front and created a lot of content around that. Just trying to spread the message.
Is that because of the increase in backcountry usership this year?
CW: I think that’s part of it. But also I think a lot of it is the longer you backcountry ski, the less degrees of separation exist between you and avalanche accidents and fatalities. Every year, it feels a little bit closer to home, whatever that means-- people you know getting caught, or you triggering something or whatever. Just as I’ve been backcountry skiing longer it’s become more and more front of mind and then combined with the new influx. I think the danger is less the new skiers and more the effect the competition has on the existing skiers and the decisions we make because of that.
What kind of response have you gotten from the backcountry ski community here?
CW: People have generally been pretty stoked on it. I’ve made the files of everything available to go get printed for free and it’s been awesome to see people have done that. People have made stickers of the posters and I’ve seen stickers of my art that I didn’t make and I didn’t stick out in the wild, which has been really awesome. The response has been pretty good. There’s a few around the village, a few up in Jackson and a bunch over at Grand Targhee.
Did you have specific motivation for the Teton Pass piece?
CW: I first tried to do a map of the pass like three years ago and it was fine, but it’s a pretty complicated area to map, and I’m still not a great map maker, but with this I was kind of starting that project over. And then something I’ve run into is that people don’t seem to be as aware of high consequence areas on the pass as you’d think they’d be. So, I wanted to highlight that. I think it was two winter ago, we had a slide that went over the road and shut down the road for commuters, and the gentleman that triggered it-- I forget if it was Twin Slides or Shovel-- but he was like “I didn’t know that ever went to the road!” I was like “Dude, that goes to the road weekly in some winters. Like, what do you mean you didn’t know it goes to the road?” That was kind of a trigger for me, I don’t want others or myself to have that excuse like “I didn’t know that slides a lot.”
How did you want this piece to benefit skiers?
CW: Just to think through all the variables that are going into your ski day, and not just think about what you want to ski, or what you’ve skied a lot, but more to think about historic avalanche activity on it is. Something that came up for me is that the BTAC [Bridger Teton Avalanche Center] site has this event map and that’s something I’m really working on looking at before I go skiing, whether it’s in the park, or on the pass, or wherever, is looking at the last five years of events and seeing how many slides have been reported in the area I’m going into. You can go down that rabbit hole of looking at what was the weather like before that, what kind of slide was it, what aspect did it happen on? I think those can be really good clues. It can be tempting to want to be self-reliant on our decision making in the field but the more important that decision is before you leave the house, the better off we are.
Do you hope the piece helps to positively influence people’s decision making?
CW: I definitely hope so. Honestly, if you hang this on your wall, I want this to remind you to go check the BTAC site and check their map. Cause this isn’t the hardest, most scientific data, it’s not the most accurate map of the pass-- I misspelled plenty of things and people are like “well this is my secret run and it’s called something else.” This is a piece of art to go on your wall and remind you to go look at the hard data.
I was also tipped off to ask you about snowblade mountaineering…
CW: Yeah, snowblade mountaineering is the future.
Where would one get snowblades?
CW: Ahh this is the eternal frustration. I made Sego a bunch of art for a one-off pair and people have been messaging me on Instagram like “dude, where did you get those??” and I’m like well, Sego made them for me, but they’re not making anymore until maybe next year. And then Moment made theirs, but they sold out in like 10 hours. Full Send Ski Company will have a production of a backcountry specific blade this summer, that I’ve been designing with them. They’re not available yet, but they’ll cost $420 and shipping will be 69 cents. Snowblade mountaineering is not a gimmick- it’s actually a performance enhancing experience. Blades are like skimo setups but better.
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