P: Colin Wiseman


Coming Home: The Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy Connects with its Roots

As wind poured over the ridgeline of the Spearhead-Blackcomb Col, Julia Niles calmly stuffed skins into her backpack and admired the endless chain of peaks rising from the clouds. The longtime Whistler, BC guide unleashed an ear-splitting smiled while we breathlessly caught up, choking down whipped snow over the last few feet of sastrugi.

“It’s so nice to be back,” she said nonchalantly. “I can’t remember the last time I stood up here.”

For the casual skier, that statement might make all the sense in the world, but for an IFMGA guide that has called the Whistler area home for over 20 years, the confession seemed a little strange. After all, this section of the Spearhead Traverse has become a superhighway for backcountry travelers in recent years, and as someone who had not only skied most of these lines in the winter, but also climbed many of the nearby peaks in the summer, it seemed impossible that she hadn’t reached this saddle in a few months, much less a few days.

ABOVE Guide Julia Niles leads an early morning avalanche briefing ahead of a day in the Blackcomb backcountry. Photo: Colin Wiseman

But life had moved in different directions for her in recent years. Maybe not away from the mountains, though she is pursuing a Master’s in counseling and raising two young children down in Squamish, BC, but certainly toward alternate peaks. A gig with Whistler Heli-Skiing had pushed her deeper into the high-flying, client-based ski experience and a little further from her normal skintracks. Then of course there was the divorce, and the cancer diagnosis that ultimately led to losing half of her left lung. In between there were summits of Denali and Aconcagua.

Now life had led back to a familiar ridgeline. After operating for three years in Jackson Hole, WY followed by a COVID-mandated year of digital programming, the Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy had set up shop in its own British Columbian backyard. From February 9-12 this year, this celebration of backcountry recreation offered on-hill clinics, movie screenings, art shows and thumping nightlife out of Whistler, bringing together participants alongside professional athletes, photographers, artists and guides like Niles to create a comprehensive gathering of the ski and snowboard community.

For Niles, though, it was a chance to show people her backyard and a chance to connect the dots on a ski life that has led around the world and back again.

ABOVE Navigating wind and flat light, Niles leads our group towards the Spearhead Col. Photo: Colin Wiseman

“It’s not often you can get so many mountain athletes in one place,” she said before pointing her skis down towards Circle Lake and the shadow of Decker Mountain. “And we get to do it all at home.”

Arc’teryx’s first Academy, the Arc’teryx Climbing Academy, kicked off nearly two decades ago, bringing climbers from around the world to the granite faces of the Stawamus Chief in Squamish, BC. Over the years, the brand added like-minded events in Chamonix, France, St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria and Jackson, WY. The Jackson iteration was born in 2018 to celebrate a boom in backcountry skiing and snowboarding, operating a series of clinics in the expansive Grand Teton National Park. But when COVID derailed in-person participation, Arc’teryx circled its wagons, taking a hard look at its process and where its new initiative could go in the future. The answer was closer than they could have imagined.

ABOVE Arc-teryx athlete and IFMGA guide Stian Hagen spreads it on buttery smooth on a surprisingly good snow day. Photo: Colin Wiseman.

“During the pandemic…we started reaffirming our roots as a brand that was founded in the Coast Mountains of [British Columbia],” says Arc’teryx Senior Director of Brand Marketing Jurgen Watts. “We’ve got this backyard and we aren’t bringing people to it. We live here. We started to explore the idea of how to bring the Academy back to where we are.”

The Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy made its official Whistler debut this February, featuring three full days of clinics (which sold out in a matter of minutes), programs and get-togethers. In addition to long days on hill, over 250 registered participants from across North America and several hundred more community members attended a tiered program of movie premieres, art shows and social activations. But the new venue provided more than just a homecoming. Watts says the familiar environment allowed Arc’teryx to intentionally reach a broader audience of backcountry user. While Academies past had offered straight-forward skills clinics, the 2023 edition expanded its portfolio, serving up more traditional classes like intro to terrain evaluation alongside more avant garde courses like on developing your personal ski style or overcoming mental blocks in the backcountry.

ABOVE Backcountry mission, but make it cheese plate. A little alpine charcuterie offsets tired legs somewhere along the Spearhead Traverse. Photo: Colin Wiseman

“This year, Arc’teryx started with grassroots organizations, bringing them into the fold, supporting them monetarily and then inviting them into this event,” explains pro skier and longtime Arc’teryx athlete Michelle Parker. “These are groups of individuals that have historically not been included, so we’re approaching this from wanting to work with them, but asking, ‘How can we help?’”

Starting with free clinics for Squamish youth through the Indigenous Life Sports Academy, the 2023 Arc’teryx Backcountry Academy has worked collaboratively to answer that question. This year’s edition also featured BIPOC and female specific clinics, intended to create safe and inviting spaces to grow and learn. Parker led one of these clinics, a beginner backcountry course for participants identifying as women. She was also part of a media roundtable exploring the direction of apparel design, brand direction and gender—taking a look at the brand from not only the bottom up, but also the top down.

“The purpose of [the Academy] is to build community within these mountain lifestyles and bring people together…Make it an open and approachable place,” says Parker.

ABOVE When the lifts stopped spinning, community events like athlete-inspired art shows and movie premieres brought participants and public together at the Whistler Commuynity Centre. Photo: Alex Guiry

In many ways, Parker pointed out, women not only took center stage at this year’s event–they stole the show. Niles, fresh off of leading our cohort of media and industry types through the Blackcomb backcountry, barely had time to slide off her boots before helping premiere “Shaped By Wild,” a film dedicated to the Coast Mountains in which she starred. Before the show kicked off in the Whistler Conference Center, a group of Lil’wat and Squamish musicians offered a land acknowledgement on stage, and as the lights dimmed, Niles settled in alongside her Squamish community, the Arc’teryx team and a roomful of newfound friends.

It was hard to believe the same easy-smiling, laidback skier from earlier that afternoon was the woman cranking out harrowing multi-pitches on the silver screen, but it spoke to the organic ease of the entire weekend—a place where skiers and snowboarders learned essential backcountry skills directly from professional athletes, artists and guides, and then shared their collective successes sitting next to one another in a crowded theater.

Group shot

ABOVE A good day with a great crew. Thanks for making it a special one. From left to right: Stian Hagen, the author, guide Julia Niles, Eric Woo Da Paoli and Natalie Krewin. Photo: Colin Wiseman

“Mentorship is how we all eventually end up where we are at, and so opening up that door is pretty crucial for people who want to learn,” says Parker. She sees the Academy as a unique learning tool for backcountry recreationists of all levels, but adds that, as a skier, the event’s real magic might not be in getting people out, but rather making them feel at home. “Snowboarding has so many events like banked slaloms where everyone comes together, but skiing doesn’t have as much of that going on,” she says. “I’m psyched to get these moments in time where we get to really gather and celebrate who we are.”


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