Backstrom’s passion and gift for the sport have attracted a slew of sponsors who help bankroll the movies and other expeditions to ski meccas and remote corners of the earth.
INGRID BACKSTROM is standing on a cliff’s edge, the tips of her skis sticking out into rarefied air as she prepares to dance with gravity.
She waits for a signal from the nearby helicopter that will capture her on film as she descends one of the tallest mountains in British Columbia, a place so cold and wild it claims the world’s largest concentration of grizzly and polar bears.
The pilot signals Backstrom with a wave of the chopper’s tail. She drops off the edge onto a slope that is a few degrees shy of a straight-out free fall. Within seconds, she’s a 50-miles-an-hour streak: One swoosh. Two, three, four. In less time than it takes to buckle a pair of ski boots, Backstrom is at the bottom of the run. The wispy trail on the mountain’s powdery face is the only trace she was there.
The run, filmed in 2004 for the ski movie hit “Steep,” put Backstrom on the map as one of the best “big mountain” or freeskiers in the country, and the top woman freeskier in the world.
She’s since appeared in 12 other ski films, turning out runs that have made her a perennial favorite among the mostly male skiers who flock to the films, cheer with gusto and line up for her autograph.
Powder magazine describes her as “the most popular, well-known, successful, and awarded female big-mountain skier ever.”
It’s a description the Normandy Park native, now 36, still seems to have a hard time reconciling. For years, she told people she was a waitress — the summer and day job that, for years, helped fund her early forays into competitive skiing. She cops to being a professional skier now, if only because that’s how she spends nine months of the year.
Backstrom’s is a life of deep powder and endless winter. Her preferred state is present in the moment on a mountain that would just as soon take her life as infuse it with the singular pleasure of knowing what it feels like to fly off cliffs and through strands of trees, land on pillows of snow, and survive punishing assaults from nature, only to come back for more.
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“It’s that flow state, where you’re not thinking anymore,’’ she says of her attraction to the extreme sport. “There are times when you’ll be so focused you almost don’t even remember. But that’s what we’re all trying to achieve . . . That total synchronicity, where you’re one with your environment.”
Backstrom’s passion and gift for the sport have attracted a slew of sponsors who help bankroll the movies and other expeditions to ski meccas and remote corners of the earth: Antarctica. The Arctic. Bella Coola and Baffin Island, Canada. Denali, Alaska, where she summited the 20,320-foot peak — the highest in North America — then skied down it.
If there’s deep powder and steep slopes, there’s a good chance it’s on Backstrom’s radar if not on her passport.
Catching up with her on flat land is not easy. She has just returned from teaching a 10-day women’s ski clinic in Chile when we finally meet up on a warm July day at the farmhouse she shares with Jim Delzer, a fellow freeskier, mountain guide and helicopter pilot she met while skiing in Alaska and married in September.
The modest house sits next to a river on 10 acres in Leavenworth, near mountain trails that Backstrom runs or bikes for training and pleasure. She hasn’t seen much of the place in the year since she moved here. There have been ski trips, speaking tours, backcountry coaching at Crystal Mountain, teaching clinics and writing on blogs that are remarkably free of selfies.
We walk past a large fenced garden and across a field to the river. Parties on inner tubes float by in the summer, she says, pleased by the idea of people having fun. She notes that, in the past, the river flooded the farmhouse basement. She wonders whether it’ll flood this year, but doesn’t seem too concerned.
Backstrom knows firsthand that nothing is permanent, that when you live with nature the way she does, you get your body — and sometimes your heart — broken.
THE FIRST thing that strikes you when you immerse yourself in the world of free-ski movies — “ski porn” to fans — and YouTube clips is the astonishing beauty of the surroundings. Vast, jagged spaces in some of the harshest climates and most spectacular vistas on earth become the settings for perilous games of Shoots and Ladders where small figures on skis tear down steep mountains at highway speeds.
While cameras roll, the skiers fly through deep white powder, their vision often obscured by snow that climbs up over their goggles as they somersault off cliffs, zip down thin mountain spines and rip through couloirs — crevasses so deep and narrow they offer only slightly more shoulder room than a sold-out show at the Crocodile.
The films leave you breathless and make stars out of the expert skiers who are willing to take risks in a sport that seems to up the ante every day. The jump off the cliff becomes the leap that lands you on the still-rolling edge of the avalanche you just triggered.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the second thing you notice about freeskiing is the number of people in the films who are no longer among the living.
Freeskiing, in the words of Outside magazine, is “a shockingly dangerous pursuit.” Over two short weeks this fall, five skiers — including Liz Daley, 29, of Tacoma — joined more than a dozen other free-ski luminaries killed in recent years while pursuing their passion. The list includes Backstrom’s younger brother, Arne Backstrom, 29, who was killed in a 1,300-foot fall from a mountaintop in Peru in 2010, and Backstrom’s close friend and mentor, Shane McConkey, 39, a daring innovator who died in 2009 doing a flying stunt off a cliff in Italy.
“It’s hard to reconcile,’’ Backstrom says of those losses and others. “I mean, obviously, I would stop skiing if I knew it would bring my brother back . . . But there’s a disconnect where I’m not going to stop skiing just because. I’m going to try to do it safer, and I want to try to educate people and move it forward so that it can be fun . . . Yeah, there’s the responsibility and the risk, but emphasizing the joyful part, and how do you figure out how to help make it safer for young kids.”
Backstrom’s been trying to do that in a concerted way since last year, when she signed on with Crystal Mountain to help grow its freeskiing program. She chose her own title: Freestyle Coach and Chief of Stoke.
Skiing, she says, “is such an important part of who I am.’’
Her youngest brother, Ralph, 30, is a professional snowboarder who has appeared in ski films. Brother Arne, before his death, also was a professional skier with sponsors and film appearances.
Backstrom says they all got their love of skiing from their parents, Steve and Betsy Backstrom, who still live in Normandy Park. The elder Backstroms volunteered for ski patrol every weekend so they and the kids could ski at Crystal Mountain.
In a post he wrote for Patagonia shortly before he died, Arne Backstrom described the family’s ritual of driving to the mountains in a “rusty brown 1954 GMC bookmobile” that had been converted into a makeshift RV.
“It was a grotesque machine in both looks and mechanics,’’ he wrote, “but every Friday night from December to April, that neurotic old vehicle delivered our family of five to Crystal Mountain . . . It was an eye sore, scary to drive, cold, and smelled funny, but when it snowed two feet, we laughed and said it was paradise. It wasn’t luxury living, but it brought the family together, and we skied hard.”
So hard, in fact, that when asked for photos of a young Ingrid skiing, Steve Backstrom could dig up only two. He sent them with an explanation: “For the most part, we were too busy skiing to take pictures.”
LOOKING BACK, Ingrid Backstrom says her life of adventure might never have happened had it not been for her parents’ insistence that she ski with the family. She was about 14, she says, and mortified at the unorthodox vehicle and resentful at having to miss a dance or event that other kids were going to.
Her parents’ consistent answer: This is what we do as a family. So Backstrom found her posse on the mountain and began to enter races.
She was terrible, she says, but she stuck with it and became hooked on the adrenaline and the camaraderie. She went to Whitman College, majored in geology and, after graduating, went to work at a company in Fremont.
She quit after a year, certain she wasn’t ready for a desk job.
“When I was working there, they had doughnut Fridays, and everybody would get so excited because somebody would bring in doughnuts. It was like, you know, “They’re on their way. The doughnuts are entering the building.” And people would be monitoring where they were so they could go and have their first pick of the doughnuts.”
She was 21, she says, and didn’t want that to be her excitement for the week.
She decided to move to Lake Tahoe and be a ski bum for a year. Unencumbered by college debt (her parents paid her way), she picked up odd shifts at a restaurant and cafe so she could ski all day.
“I didn’t have an end goal,’’ she says. “I figured I’d do it for a year or two. I knew I wanted to be involved in the ski industry. I just didn’t know how.”
She landed there just as skiing was becoming cool again. For the better part of two decades, skiing had taken a back seat to snowboarding, whose practitioners were the embodiment of cool. They captured the public’s imagination — and sponsor dollars — by doing tricks that no one had ever seen or imagined.
But a pack of wild skiers at Squaw Valley were bringing sexy back to the sport, inventing their own eye-catching tricks and busting outside the boundaries of the ski area.
Within two years of moving, Backstrom was skiing off cliffs.
She eventually took a job at a small ski magazine, then got an internship fact-checking, copy editing and writing mostly online copy for Powder magazine. When the internship was ending, Matchstick Productions, which had produced several ski films, asked her to appear in a film.
They wanted to know: Who are your sponsors? She had none, so they helped line one up with The North Face, a $3,000 deal that helped pay expenses.
Backstrom continued to wait tables, earning $15,000 to $20,000 a year, enough to pay entrance fees to competitions.
“All I wanted to do was ski,’’ she says.
Then, one of those pivotal moments happened, where everything lines up to give your dreams a push: A planned trip to Chamonix, France, was waylaid when she lost her passport the night before she was to fly out on a nonrefundable ticket.
But the airlines allowed her to rebook the flight while she waited for a new passport.
In the interim, she learned about a freestyle contest in Colorado and borrowed money to enter. She hitched a ride from a fellow skier and slept on a friend’s couch. The next day, Backstrom won the contest and the $6,000 purse.
“It brought me a whole ’nother year of this lifestyle,’’ she says, smiling.
More first places at more competitions followed, and sponsors took notice. Soon, she was wearing their gear and traveling on their dime, all while growing a following.
“It took me a long time before I could say, ‘I’m a pro skier,’ ” she says. “I didn’t want to jinx it. It’s a unicorn thing.”
NOW, BACKSTROM SAYS, she’s ready for a new chapter, one that expands on the work she’s done.
She still plans to travel and work with her sponsors. But she wants to find ways to help others fall in love with the sport, too. More women are around to ski with in the backcountry, and she’s teaching them and some of her younger charges how to tackle the mountains safely.
“I see skiing as an incredibly powerful tool for kids growing up to learn there’s a reward that comes from challenging yourself,’’ she says. “Hopefully, this can be their passion, this can be their outlet, a lifelong journey that’s going to teach them a lot of stuff. It doesn’t have to be this thing that’s super dangerous, where you risk death. It can be a really fun passion.”
And she’s finding a deeper pleasure beyond adrenaline.
“As you get older, the proportion of the hiking for it and the challenge part become just as important as the adrenal,’’ she says. “Before, I was chasing that every day. And now it’s kind of like I get almost as much satisfaction in climbing a mountain as skiing down that gnarly line somewhere.”
Even doughnuts don’t seem so bad now. Doughnuts, she says, are absolutely worth getting excited about.
As is the future.
Backstrom is moving forward with the same gut instincts that have taken her safely down thousands of runs.
There will be new mountains and new adventures, for sure, but also the risks and rewards of living a life closer to home. She doesn’t know what the next chapter will look like, but the flow state will let her know when she’s arrived.