Backcountry Together: Diversifying the Uphill Experience, Building an Inclusive Community
By Caitlin Yong, Founder of Backcountry Together
Photo by Cheshire (@tongkatt) in Loveland, Colorado (Unceded Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lands)
This write-up was originally featured in our Fall 2022 Trail Break issue.
Thrashing down the natural curves of the San Dimas mountains on downhill skateboards is where I started. My passion was hiking up closed mountain roads and then skating down, squeezed into hairpins on a powerful downhill longboard. It was human-powered liberating fun, but not the safest. After retiring early from professional downhill longboard racing, I started looking into backcountry splitboarding.
The freedom of the backcountry and expressive flows of touring and riding looked like the sport/lifestyle for me. But for years the price of splitboards was cost-prohibitive. I contemplated cutting one of my snowboards in half to convert into a splitboard and kept dreaming of the day I would be able to tour the backcountry.
Piece by piece, I built my first splitboard setup, waiting patiently for sales. It didn’t have all the bells and whistles. My bindings often iced up, leaving me unable to transition. But it was a splitboard! When I found a killer deal on a beacon, shovel and probe, I was ready! It was my time to shine!
I signed up for an avalanche safety course: AIARE 1 at Rocky Mountain National Park. It was my second time using my splitboard, and it was a disaster. Trying to focus on learning while also catching my breath on the uphill, and transitioning my dang splitboarding bindings felt like total mayhem. I would not recommend the experience. On top of that, one of the instructors was making fun of all the splitboarders, saying: “And this is why you should switch to skiing.”
I’m glad I took my AIARE 1 to learn how to do companion rescue, spot terrain traps and safely navigate avalanche terrain, but I wished there had been a community to help walk me through realistic steps to confidently get into backcountry riding. My journey into the backcountry was a bumpy ride full of unwelcoming barriers at every twist and turn. I was the only BIPOC rider in that course and on most backcountry tours for my first year. More experienced backcountry riders did not seem excited to have me learning alongside them. I was excluded from group photos for some reason (it might have been that I did not fit the “image”). My feelings of being treated differently were constantly gaslighted, and people would speak for me on my own skill level without my permission.
There is already a large barrier to entry into backcountry skiing and splitboarding when it comes to skills, knowledge, and gear, and we do not need another barrier to our community. It’s time to diversify the backcountry and provide welcoming and safe spaces for everyone. From feeling unheard, unseen, and outcast, my first year splitboarding made me want to give up on this sport and community entirely. I never want anyone to endure those feelings in the backcountry, and that is what sparked the momentum to create Backcountry Together.
Backcountry Together is a community and organization that aims to lower the barrier to entry into backcountry splitboarding and skiing for BIPOC and ally riders. It’s the community I wished I’d had when I was first starting out. We meet resort riders who are interested in transitioning to backcountry riding where they are familiar and comfortable, putting aside preconceived notions and diving into the experience with enthusiasm and warm inclusivity.
Arapahoe Basin Ski Area partners with us for our in-bounds uphill meetups, waiving fees for our community members. Deuter/ Ortovox lends us beacons, shovels, probes, and backpacks, and Weston lets us borrow demo backcountry setups. For our meetups in town, Patagonia Denver and Arc’teryx Colorado have hosted community gatherings to help educate about the opportunities to try a backcountry setup and the steps to safely get into backcountry riding.
In February of last year, we met up at A-Basin at the crack of dawn. Before long we were uphilling at a conversational pace up to Black Mountain Lodge. We all knew this was the start of something special.