Deep: the story of skiing and the future of snow

Author: Porter Fox
Published: December 1st, 2013
Publisher: Rink House Publications, Jackson Hole

Today marks seven years since the Tunnel Creek Avalanche, which claimed the lives of three world–class skiers and shook much of the ski community to its core.

On February 19th, 2012 a group of 16 skiers headed into the backcountry at Stevens Pass. The group was made up of ski industry professionals, including a professional athlete and the head judge of the Freeride World Tour. Most of these people lived on skis. A group this experienced and diverse should have been bombproof in the backcountry, but of course there is no such thing.

The narrative of the Tunnel Creek Avalanche is woven throughout Deep. The cautionary tale provides a backdrop for the chapters on climate science to play out against. Porter Fox’s findings: winters are becoming increasingly unstable and anthropogenic climate change is to blame.

Manic winters spell higher risk for backcountry skiers

Large fluctuations in temperature and a lack of overall seasonal consistency are putting backcountry skiers at higher risk. Bob Chabot, a full time forecaster for Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Centre, shared these words on the subject with Fox:

“Storms are acting what I call ‘more bipolar,’ too,” he said. “We get these crazy swings. We might get a big snowstorm that feels like winter, followed by unseasonably warm, sometimes record breaking temperatures. They just have this manic feeling to them. We just can’t settle into winter anymore.” (Fox Porter, Deep, p.152)

Just days before the slide, manic swings in temperature created two polar opposite weak layers in the snowpack at Tunnel Creek. A nearly unheard of February rain crust formed on the surface of the snowpack (due to uncharacteristically warm weather). The rain crust was then followed by a layer of surface hoar (due to very cold and clear conditions). These weak layers were then buried by a few feet of storm snow, loading the bipolar pair with a large slab. All you need now, is a slope angle greater than 30˚ and a skier to trigger the slide.

Taking a step back for a wider view: deep ecology

Historically, alpinism is the most literary of any sport. Mountain pursuits happen well outside the reaches of any reasonable observation. There are no spectators and no ticket sales for the main event. Harrowing stories are brought down from the icy peaks and published in journals and popular magazines to secure funding for future expeditions. Necessity is the mother of invention, and due to these practical beginnings, mountain literature fell into the genre of reportage: factual and journalistic.    

Most writing on mountain life, culture, and endeavour, is reportage. That is to say, written from the inside looking out. Mountain literature is about the expeditions, untracked turns in deep powder snow, and the wild nights that follow: living for the moment. Every now and then someone steps outside this eternal presence of mind and contributes a piece of literature that takes a wider scope. A perspective that takes into consideration the big picture and looks from the outside in.  

Dolores Lachapelle was the first to do this within ski literature. Deep Powder Snow, drew a connection between deep ecology and skiing.

“What we experience in powder is the original human self, which lies deep inside each of us, still undamaged in spite of what our present culture tries to do to us. Once experienced, this kind of living is recognized as the only way to live–fully aware of the earth, and the sky, and the gods, and you the mortal playing among them.” – Dolores LaChapelle, Deep Powder Snow    

LaChapelle was writing of the disconnection between our industrialized selves and the natural world we originally came from. She argued that skiing helped us reconnect with our pre industrialized selves: the “original human self.” Deep Powder Snow was a wake up call.

Porter Fox has picked up LaChapelle’s torch with Deep: the history of skiing and future of snow. Fox wasn’t satisfied with pure reportage, instead he uses a wide angle lens to fuse a powerful skiing story with an exploration of the history of skiing and how the snowpack has evolved historically. Deep is a herald to skiers that anthropogenic climate change is negatively affecting the snowpack and that it is time to do something about it before it is too late.

Deep Ecology is becoming embedded in ski culture

Since the publication of Deep (December 1st, 2013), skiing and climate change are often written about in tandem. Every time I pick up an issue of Powder Magazine or Backcountry Magazine, I find articles addressing ecological questions. This has become increasingly the case over the years and represents a paradigm shift in how we view our sport.

I’m not attributing the shift solely to Porter Fox. It has taken the efforts of a small army to get to where we are currently. The climate scientists, guides (on the front lines), organizations like POW (founded in 2007), editors of popular ski magazines, all heralded the call before this book was written.

When Deep was published, backcountry skiing was experiencing a resurgence. Whether it was the talk of climate change, the evidence of it, or deep call of the collective consciousness, people were seeking out a deeper connection to nature. Our community was becoming fed up with the prepackaged resort experience and were being drawn into the backcountry like never before. The simplest evidence of this is the sales and innovative growth we’ve seen in touring tech since 2013. I was one of those that heard the call and came running.

Deep came along at a time when we were ready, en masse, to hear the message. Our community was primed. We had started to re-bond with the natural world through the dynamic process that is backcountry skiing. Our sport started to be defined by those with a desire to preserve wild spaces rather than the purveyors of privilege. Fox distilled the shift in our thinking into a single volume we could all gather around as a community. Deep will forever be artifactual evidence of a paradigm shift in how people think about skiing.

The dream  

Deep isn’t all climate science, mind you. The title Deep is multifaceted. Certainly it’s a reference to the depth of the annual snowpack and by extension the depth of environmental crisis we are facing, but it also refers to the deep powder snow we all chase. Porter Fox is a skier with a writing habit, not the other way around. Take his words for it:

“In that moment I both remembered and realized the magic of skiing powder. It is the feeling of nothing. No resistance, gravity, distraction, or consequence. [. . .] this was pure flight and the most trancensent and vital sensation I have ever experienced. It is also why I wrote this book” (Porter Fox, Deep, p.25).  

This is the description of the moment a recurring dream from Fox’s childhood leapt from the powder laden mountains of his imagination onto the skis of his physical experience in Niseko Japan.

I read somewhere that love is the best teacher. Love makes us curious; love makes us pay attention; love makes us empathetic; love makes us act. Fox’s love for skiing the deep drove his curiosity for the environment. It brought climate change to his attention, which fueled his desire to preserve and protect the earth. Ultimately it lead to this book.

Preserve the dream

Most of us grew up with our noses in Powder Magazine and our eyes glued to screens playing the latest great ski film; many of us grew up on the east coast, far away from deep powder snow and big mountain skiing; a few of us even made it to those far out places with bottomless snow where our imagination longed to place us; we all dream of winter.

Skiing is a sport for dreamers. Our playground is a mountain side and the rules are only limited by our own imaginations and physical limitations. Long before sports psychologist popularized the idea of visualization in organized sports, skiers were using their imaginations to draw lines down the sides of mountains.

Our dreamscape is disappearing. The dream is at risk of coming to a halting stop. Imagine for a moment that the obstacle to skiing your dream line wasn’t an expensive plane ticket or limited vacation time, but rather lack of snow.

Bringing it all back home again

Tragic events like those of Tunnel Creek and the environmental crisis we are all staring down the barrel of currently, carry with them a tremendous power to unify. Deep is a rally call to all of us who love snow and care about our the preservation of our home planet. If we harness this power we may be able to turn the tide and preserve the dream of deep winters for the generations to follow: our kids.

Deep is about the future of snow, and how it will affect the ski industry. Certainly the environmental crisis has broader and more significant implications for the planet than the end of skiing. Fox is painfully aware of that, but it was his lifelong love of skiing that brought these bigger questions into focus. He’s hoping it will do the same for all of us, before it’s too late.   

About Porter Fox

Potter Fox has written for Powder Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, and The New York Times Magazine (among others). For those of you more impressed by descents than literary accolades, here is my favourite arrow in the quiver of his ski resume: “one of the highlights of my skiing career was smoking a joint with Doug Coombs while straddling a knife edge ridge col 12,000 feet up on Wyoming’s Middle Teton, then skiing down behind him” (Porter Fox, Deep, p.117). Pretty fucking legit. I hate that “goals” hashtag, but this anecdote almost coaxes one out of me. #Jedistatus attained Fox.

Porter Fox is the definition of a soul skier. After a lifetime of chasing powder, this book is the gospel he is handing down to his brethren of the Deep. If you are a skier, this is compulsory reading. This book won’t be taken off the syllabus anytime soon (Deep was published in 2013).  

Keep the fire burning, but turn the temperature down,


further reading:

Why Can’t Rich People Save Winter, by Porter Fox:

Snow Fall: The avalanche at Tunnel Creek, by John Branch

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