Speaking Truth at the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy

It’s 2 p.m. on a cold, overcast Saturday afternoon. We’re in the Blackcomb, BC backcountry, and we’re talking about mental health.

“It’s important to be ok with your shortcomings,” Julia Niles says. “To love ourselves for our imperfections.”

She’s our guide today. She’ll star in the movie premiering tonight, “Shaped By Wild,” dedicated to these Coast Mountains in which we’re spending the day. It’s all part of the 2023 Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy in Whistler, BC, an event designed to call people into the mountains and encourage safety, inclusivity, and progressive growth in the outdoor community. And it’s working.

Julia Niles leads an avalanche briefing before heading into the Blackcomb, BC backcountry. Building knowledge and camaraderie starts at the trailhead. Or in this case, the bottom of the chairlift. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Most of our group met the day before. There’s Julia, a lifelong mountain person and one of the first female IFMGA certified guides, now entering the final stages of her Master’s Degree; Natalie Krewin, from RYGR agency in Colorado; Eric Woo De Paoli, a media specialist for Arc’teryx; Norwegian ski athlete and Chamonix resident Stian Hagen; and Joey Vosburgh, an athlete and splitboard guide, from Revelstoke, who we happened to bump into on the skin track during our first ascent of the day. We’ve already ridden a steep line into glaciated terrain beyond the ropes, where we encountered another group from the Academy comprised of intermediate backcountry travelers looking to improve their route finding and terrain evaluation skills.

Joey Vosburgh, transitioning in the wind. It was a treat getting to tour with such a legendary splitboard guide. Photo: Colin Wiseman

The ratio of guides to participants is intentionally low, designed to keep crowds minimal and experience maximal throughout the weekend. The clinics have been running since Thursday, along with tiered engagement designed to allow casual passersby to find connection in art and media, to ask questions, to further investigate what it means to play responsibly in these mountains. It’s also a homecoming of sorts for Arc’teryx, who have been running these academies for nearly two decades from Jackson Hole to Chamonix. Now, we’re in their Coast Mountain backyard. And the event is running at full capacity.

It began at the ultra-local level, with free clinics for Squamish youth through the Indigenous Life Sports Academy. Then it moved to paid clinics targeted at beginners, intermediates and advanced users alike, from photo skill development to basic backcountry touring skills, all the way up to advanced route finding and terrain evaluation. There were also BIPOC and female specific clinics, designed to create a safe space for folks who are underrepresented in the broader backcountry community. This, of course, was intentional.

Joey Vosburgh, backside hack on our first run of the day. Photo: Colin Wiseman

“Equitable access is very important to us,” Jurgen Watts, Senior Director of Brand Management at Arc’teryx, would later tell me. “A big maturity point for Arc’teryx was saying, ‘We love these places where we get to recreate, we love these activities, and we know that we need to stand for the change that we want to see as a company.’ We have to focus on truth and reconciliation as a Canadian company, then go beyond that and foster equitable access to people who are new to the sport—create a super welcoming space. If we’re going to do these academies, they can’t just be a bunch of skills clinics—we need to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons and not just perpetuating the exact same outdoor industry that has existed for decades.”

Fostering equity means creating entry points that allow people to feel comfortable. Having clinics and experiences where participants can engage with folks with whom they identify is an important step in that direction. And beyond the equity-focused programing at Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy were the open clinics, which sold out in a matter of minutes. Those clinics were led by local guides as well athletes like Robin Van Gyn, who took a crew out snow camping.

Movie night Q and A with Elena Hight and Michelle Parker. Community engagement was at the forefront of the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy. Photo: Alex Guiry

“It’s not really about technical skills,” Robin said. “We can teach so much stuff—how to camp, how to do it properly, how to stay comfortable, what to put in your kit. We can teach all the technicalities but at the end of the day it’s more about the people you meet and the times you have in the mountains together. At the end of our night out, we had a new group of friends. These people got to spend time out in the mountains with no cell phones, together. You can’t teach those connections. We just need to help people get out there and come of their shells a bit and experience the mountains in a way that fosters community. The fact that Arc’teryx fostering community and culture over progression and ability is gonna be their legacy.”

Legacy indeed. The Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy had depth beyond what you see in a typical mountain festival, ranging from Whistler-Village-based film nights to full-on backcountry excursions. And they were kind enough to invite us along.

Joey Vosburgh finding the light. Photo clinics were among the offerings at the 2023 Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy. Photo: Jeremy Allen

Standing atop a windy ridge with glaciated terrain all around, Julia continued to speak, an open book. She talked about her own mental health struggles and those of the people in her life, something to which I personally can relate. In a single afternoon, we’d broken down social barriers that typically take weeks or even months to breach, reaching a depth that is often reserved for close friends in your day-to-day existence. But out there in the backcountry, you must trust those you’re traveling with, and with that trust comes a rapid depth of connection and camaraderie that we, as mountain folks, have come to know and love. It’s a big part of why I am drawn to the mountains, and those who travel within wild spaces. Hopefully, events like the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy can bring new folks into the fold, to experience this honesty for themselves, and to build stronger connections with more diversity—a mountain community more representative of modern North American society, and a community in which we aren’t afraid to be ourselves and speak our own truths.

Then, of course, there was the untracked powder which lay below us—a simple pleasure that can serve as a starting point for so much more.

Skiers and boarders can indeed shred together in 2023. Thanks for the day, crew. From left to right: Stian Hagen, Kade Krichko, guide Julia Niles, Eric Woo De Paoli and Natalie Krewin. Photo: Colin Wiseman


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