Ingrid Backstrom, the queen of big-mountain skiing cut her teeth on the slopes of Crystal Mountain before moving to Squaw Valley to become a ski bum, where she got spotted by Matchstick Productions and became a pro almost overnight. She talks to Will Robson about the ride
WR: Great to catch you mid-trip! So you’re driving from Tahoe to Steven’s Pass. How long’s the journey?
IB: We’re doing 10 hours today and it’ll be another three tomorrow…
WR: OK, we could drive the length of the UK and back. Good luck with that. Can you take us back to Crystal Mountain where it all began. How did skiing become such a passion of yours?
IB: I grew up in Seattle, where my parents were on the Crystal Mountain ski patrol, so my brothers and I were skiing young. I started (alpine) racing aged around 12, but I wasn’t ever really so good at it! I got into freeskiing at college, where I was racing on the university team – afterwards my friends and I would go freeskiing and I realised it was so much more fun. I decided that I’d try out as a ski bum for a year after college before getting a real job. So I packed my bags and headed for Squaw Valley, California.
WR: Did growing up with brothers mean you always skied hard or did they benefit from trying to keep up with their big sister?
IB: For a while I had an advantage, but then at a certain point they got bigger than me – so maybe I was ahead until they reached the age of about 12!
WR: So after college, did you pick Squaw Valley to move to so you’d get noticed as a potential pro freeskier?
IB: I didn’t even know there were freeskiing contests until I moved to Squaw! When I first arrived up there I found a little studio apartment and got a job making sandwiches and coffees and stuff. It was a good way to start meeting people. Once I was settled in it was like, “everyone here is so good!” and I started skiing with better skiers [than me]. I entered my first contest in Kirkwood in 2001. I came third, and from then on I was hooked on freeskiing competition.
WR: Which of the big names in the pro skiing world first noticed your ability on the mountain in Squaw?
IB: I guess that would be Scott Gaffney at Matchstick Productions. I didn’t really know it but apparently he was paying attention – so he says!
WR: When did you get that first call to be in a movie?
IB: The first call came in 2004 to go to Bella Coola in British Columbia, with Matchstick Productions.
WR: You’ve experienced real tragedy with the loss of your brother Arne, and friend Shane McConkey. Shane said: “there’s no adventure without risk”. Has their loss also made you re-consider what risks you’re prepared to take on the mountain?
IB: With time passing you know that these accidents can happen and I always try to be safe. I guess I’m a lot less willing to do stuff now that I would have done before – I don’t necessarily take the gnarliest line. Now I like to hike up more and be mellower in my skiing. But I also have to maintain the fine line between excitement and feeling like you have to prove yourself. You have to balance all that with experience, and with more experience you get much better at picking lines, for sure, but it takes time to get that eye.
WR: How is the Arne Backstrom Memorial Fund going?
IB: It’s going well. We are trying to do more events this year, but we’ve been raising money through a mountain biking competition. The aim is to get kids outdoors and we have programmes based in Crystal Mountain, Reno and Seattle.
WR: What’s the next chapter in your career?
IB: I’ve moved back to Washington State, to Stevens Pass, which is only a few hours from Crystal Mountain. There’s usually really good snow there – although we could use some more right now! I’m really enjoying coaching, so there’ll definitely be more of that in the future. I’m also doing the avalanche courses and encouraging more women to go freeskiing. Ski technology is so much better now that more skiers can go off-piste with confidence. Although, I always recommend that people don’t get more confident than their ability allows and they use a guide to help them stay safe!
Ingrid’s sponsors include The North Face, Volkl/Marker, Giro, Tecnica, Squaw Valley and Crystal Mountain