June 9, 2017
By Martin Lentz
It could be perceived as a sly way to sneak skiing into an accredited curriculum, but the Sociology of Skiing course I took at Quest University last semester was a profoundly educational experience that had a lasting impact on me as a skier.
Quest University is a private, liberal arts school in Squamish, BC, Canada. This college is a haven for academic-minded, backcountry enthusiasts. With insane mountain biking just a short pedal behind campus, massive granite slabs for rock climbing a stone’s throw away and a short drive to world-class skiing at Whistler-Blackcomb or the pillow fields of Pemberton, adventure is literally in the backyard. Not only does Quest provide students access to outdoor experiences with its proximity, it also allows students to interact with their environment through unique course offerings. Field intensive classes designed to enhance the way students think and engage with the natural world run each semester. Last February, a course entitled The Sociology of Skiing was offered for the first time, and I had the awesome opportunity to be enrolled.
Quest University: small campus, big landscape.
I came to Quest in 2014 to continue my education while also pursuing a career in big-mountain freeride skiing. The LEAP program at Quest provides me with a scholarship and schedule flexibility to take time away from school to ski and attend freeride competitions. This season, I decided to compete less and focus on improving my backcountry skills. Taking the Sociology of Skiing course fit perfectly into this plan and also earned me a much-needed class credit.
There were multiple learning objectives for the Sociology of Skiing class. Students would learn the avalanche skills of an AST (Avalanche Skills Training) 1 and 2 course – such as companion rescue and terrain navigation–while also examining the sociological patterns of backcountry skiing, in a remote hut-setting. The class was run by J.F. Plouffe, who is an ACMG mountain guide and Quest’s athletic director, and John Reid-Hresko, all-around French Canadian badass backcountry skier and former big-mountain freeride competitor with a Ph.D. in sociology. Together, the two worked together to form an incredible duo that facilitated learning, growth and stoke.
Quest University course leaders John Reid-Hresko and J.F. Plouffe, giving us some tips on finding the goods.
The Sociology of Skiing class began with two days on snow in the Whistler-Backcomb backcountry, making sure everyone’s basic backcountry skills were dialed. Then all 12 students and 2 teachers loaded up the vans and drove across B.C. straight to Rogers Pass for a day of touring before heading to the Golden Alpine Holidays headquarters in Golden. The next day, we took a heli ride into Golden Alpine’s Vista Hut in the Esplanade Range north of Golden. Sitting right at treeline at about 2,000 meters, the Vista Hut had phenomenal access to astounding alpine terrain as well as tree skiing littered with pillow stacks. Good weather and all-time snow conditions were the perfect setup to explore the Schlicting drainage, practice our route finding and work on avalanche skills.
After a week in the Vista Hut bonding over blower POW turns, delicious meals and steamy sauna sessions, we returned back to Squamish and the classroom routine. With powder-induced laughter still echoing in our heads, we spent a week reading and discussing issues of gender, race and class in the skiing world.
When this is your classroom, it’s hard not to pay attention.
The Sociology of Skiing was a profound learning experience that will have a lasting impact on my skiing career. Learning to properly dig snow profiles and assess slope stability were valuable lessons, yet the most important instruction was not about typical avalanche training. The most profound learning experiences came in navigating group dynamics and interpersonal relationships to ensure smart decisions were being made while skiing in the backcountry. These are factors that are often overlooked, but can have a huge impact when the dynamics of a group cause people to ignore their training and fundamental skills. The importance of establishing open communication and trust between members of group was made clear, and as we practiced these types of skills, our days out skiing benefitted.
The Golden Alpine Holidays Vista Hut in all its glory.
Personally, the class allowed me to grow as a skier. In the first few days of the hut trip I was getting frustrated because there were so many sick lines just beckoning to be skied and we were lapping mellow treeline pow. With my frothing freeride mentality, I wanted to jump off everything, so I had to figure out how I could have fun and enjoy skiing without sending. Upon reflection, this new outlook took the form of appreciating the environment, getting stoked on other’s stoke and simply savoring the feeling of a good turn. This awareness, combined with readings from the classroom, lead me to a new way of defining what good skiing is. In the past, good skiing to me had always been related to charging as hard as possible no matter the conditions.
Ultimately, the Sociology of Skiing course challenged that understanding of skiing, and lead to me this new definition. A good skier pushes boundaries as they themselves define them, while managing risk for the given conditions, emotions and group dynamics. This is an exercise to practice, not an objective to achieve. It is a process I will strive for in the rest of my life as a skier.
BCA freeride athlete Martin Lentz is a Salt Lake City native enrolled at Quest University in Squamish, B.C. He was the 2014 IFSA North American Junior freeskiing champion and qualified in 2015 for the 2016 Freeride World Tour. He’s guiding raft trips on the Salmon River this summer out of Stanley, Idaho.