Mountain Mumbles

Cy Whitling comes off the top of a shed during one of his backyard skiing sessions.

I first clipped into skis at the top of a gradual, rolling hill in my parents’ backyard. The skis had been free. After a yard sale, a neighbor was giving everything away that she could so she’d have less to take to the thrift store.

The boots cost $8 at the same thrift store. I didn’t understand the European ski boots sizing methodology so I slipped my size 6 child feet into the pair of size 13 adult ski boots easily, without having to open any buckles. My parents’ only piece of ski guidance was “Please don’t run into the house.”

I didn’t hit the house on my first run, but I did on my second. Eventually I figured out a loop, skiing down the backyard, shuffling over to the driveway and sidestepping back up and around. If I was lucky my dad would be out shoveling and would push me back up the driveway.

For the next few years I skied avidly, but exclusively in the backyard. I never learned how to pizza or carve a turn, but I built jumps over the split rail fence, another over the picnic table, and finally, if I made it to the bottom, a cliff drop-to-flat off the side porch. I didn’t have poles, but I picked up a broomstick to make shuffling back up easier.

Since then I’ve learned to pizza, I own nicer skis and I can almost link carved turns. A lot has changed. I stick bigger feet into smaller ski boots. I’ve taken my skis on planes, I use tech bindings and skins to shuffle back to the top of the hill. But at its core, my skiing still has a lot of backyard influence.

In college I lived in a small apartment with no yard, so I built jumps on campus, behind the arboretum. When I lived in a trailer park we built a booter over the pile of junk in the woods behind the park. Come up short and you got tetanus.

Later, in Teton Valley, Idaho, we built a big step down off the shed that linked to an even bigger step up over a barbed wire fence. No one ever cleared the last jump. I killed hours riding PVC rails at friends’ backyard setups, and I can’t help assessing everyone’s property value by whether they have enough of a slope to build a jump at the bottom.

Now that I’m settled more permanently, though, my definition of backyard skiing is expanding a little to a promising zone in a nearby canyon. Sure, it’s not really the backyard if you have to get in the car and drive, but some of that magic is still there. There’s no crowds, and it’s a lot closer than any other skiing.

Our first trip to this zone two years ago was interesting. The snow was awful, crusty and grabby, but the terrain showed a lot of promise, at least up top. There were plenty of pillows and downed trees to jump off. Lower down that promise died in a mess of log jams and unnavigable undergrowth. We classified that option as “adventure skiing only” and resolved to find something better.

Our second expedition led us to a mellower slope in perfect snow. The trees were too tightly spaced to really link turns, and most of the lap was spent dodging bushes. But the snow was all-time, and we felt like we were almost scratching the potential of backyard skiing.

On our next lap we decided to try skiing back down with our skin track, no more exploratory bushwhacking. The cliffs we’d seen on the way up were bigger than we’d thought, and the slope between them was nearly flat. Lots of skating, followed by an icy luge run of death. Another strike. But the dog was tired and slept in the sun for the rest of the day instead of trying to destroy the couch like she usually does, so we called it a win.

A little bit of time spent on Google Maps revealed a few more promising aspects, a little steeper, with fewer trees. They all end in drainages that are probably full of downed trees, but there’s really only one way to find out how bad they are, so soon enough we’ll head out to try to extend our backyard skiing just a little more.

For now, though, the neighbors’ driveway has a huge plow pile at the end of it, and I have some PVC and scrap lumber in the garage. Maybe it’s time to set up the backyard rail park instead.

Cy Whitling writes every other week on living and playing in the mountains. Contact him via

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