Early in 2004, after a classic Lake Tahoe storm cycle, Matchstick Productions director Scott Gaffney invited Ingrid Backstrom to do some shooting around Squaw Valley with him and Shane McConkey. Backstrom, who moved to Squaw in 2001, had an impressive record of Top 3 finishes on the big-mountain circuit and a reputation as a ripping local. MSP had a rather gaping hole in its roster, and Gaffney figured he’d see if Backstrom lived up to the limited hype. Less than two months later, she had enough footage for a segment that earned her Female Skier of the Year at the Powder Video Awards.
Nearly four years later, the 29-year-old Backstrom’s annual MSP segments are a tribute to the legacy of Wendy Fisher and a benchmark in women’s big-mountain skiing. A child of the Pacific Northwest raised in the shadow of Mount Rainier, Backstrom’s phenomenal ascent has been nothing short of destiny. And the descent?
“Ingrid has so much style,” says MSP cinematographer Dustin Lindgren. “Maybe there’s a girl who will jump a bigger cliff or throw a better trick, but I don’t know anyone—not even many guys—who go faster through gnarly shit.”
So, let’s try to keep up….
From 2001 to 2003, you finished Top 3 in 12 of the 14 big-mountain contests in which you competed. What struck you most about the women’s scene at that time?
At first I was a little intimidated because everyone else doing them knew each other. But after that first contest, I was totally impressed. Jen Ashton, Jamie Burge… there were a lot of really good girls, and it was a fun scene. It became more like a bunch of friends getting together, encouraging each other, bringing everyone up. We traded ideas, helped each other out, and brought everyone to a better level.
Something you hear about in women’s sports is that they’re less cutthroat than men’s sports, but that seems a little dishonest. Women’s ski racing is notoriously cutthroat. You raced in college. Did you find it to be that way?
I was never a very good racer. I never got to the point where it was big stakes. Plus, college racing is a team sport, so you race as a team. So I never really encountered that because I never got to a high enough level. For me, racing was about the social aspect. My parents went to the mountain every weekend, and I had to go. I started racing at 12 because all the kids were doing it; it was either that or ski with my parents. At the big-mountain comps, some people were really competitive—like, wouldn’t tell you where they were going to ski, or would tell you one thing and then do another. But for the most part everyone was there to have fun. It wasn’t the U.S. ski team, it was a bunch of ski bums.
Which results are you the most proud of?
There was one at Whistler where I wasn’t doing that great and I had a really bad first day. I tried the same line twice and crashed both times, in the exact same spot. I managed to stay in, and on the final day I skied a line that only one other girl skied. It came together really well, and I ended up winning. I was in a really low place and just didn’t care and went out and skied for fun. That’s when I ski best—when I don’t feel any pressure and am just stoked to ski.
Did you see the competition circuit as a means to an end, like a ski career? Or were you just going along for the ride?
It was my first year out of college, and I was just a ski bum in Lake Tahoe. I’m very goal-oriented, and I felt like I was drifting aimlessly. I had been competing my whole life, in school and in sports, and I missed competition. In high school, you’re trying to get into college. In college, you’re working hard on tests and stuff. And with sports, you always have the cycle of training hard, competing, and then the sport ends and you go on to the next one. You sort of get used to working toward something and challenging yourself mentally and physically. But with ski bumming, you’re just skiing and working in a restaurant.
So, ski bumming gave you an early mid-life crisis?
I think everyone gets a little bit of “What am I doing with my life? I should be using my brain more.” In small ski towns, I’m seeing it a lot right now, because it’s reevaluation time. It happens every fall and spring. Like, the season is over, now what?
Now that you’re a sponsored pro, does that go away a little?
I’ve been traveling so much, I’m just stoked to be home. But it does creep in sometimes, that question of what I’m going to do next. I try not to think about it much; it’s just the cycle of the ski bum. And now I bum with a purpose.
Your first segment was in MSP’s Yearbook, but you didn’t even know those guys when 2004 began. How did the relationship develop?
It was just being in the right place at the right time. I was skiing Squaw every day and really enjoying it. Because of the contests, I was at a point where I was getting better and wanted to push myself just for fun. Apparently, [MSP director Scott] Gaffney had seen me, and I got an e-mail from [MSP director] Steve Winter asking if I’d be interested in filming. I thought it was a joke, and when I didn’t hear back, I figured I’d blown it or had the wrong sponsors or something. Then Gaffney called, and I got to go out with him and Shane [McConkey]. If Gaffney wants to film with someone, he takes them out at Squaw, and then all the MSP guys look at the footage and decide if the person’s good enough. Thank goodness I didn’t know at the time, or I would have blown it.
You went from an audition on your home turf to a full-blown superhero trip in Bella Coola within a month. What was it like to suddenly find yourself with skiers like Mark Abma and Hugo Harrisson?
It was awesome, except that we sat for two straight weeks at the beginning. We made one run in two weeks, just to check things out. It was the chance of a lifetime, because I’d never really been heli-skiing before. So this was my big shot, and I was stuck in Groundhog Day, jogging down the highway every day, going totally crazy. When it broke, we were setting off avalanches everywhere, and I was pretty intimidated. But the conditions changed, and we got two days that, to this day, are some of the best skiing I’ve ever had. It was super stable—a foot of perfect snow stuck to everything. It wasn’t even sloughing. You could ski anything you wanted.
How different was the skiing from what you’d gotten used to in the contests and at Squaw?
We were looking at the Harrisson Motel [a famous zone in Bella Coola], and the guys were picking out their lines, with all these airs and cliffs. Gaffney was like, “This is your first big run. Why don’t you just ski down the open part?” I didn’t want to take the girl line and was kind of being a brat about it, like, “Why can’t I go over here?” He promised me it was bigger than it looked, and on top I was like, “Whoa. It’s a good thing I’m on this line.” I was thinking it was going to be really easy. I dropped in, going for it, and got going so fast I scared the crap out of myself. I could have gotten myself in trouble skiing like that. Once you see how the boys ski, it’s intimidating all over again. They’re so good at picking lines. Hugo’s the fastest ever. He doesn’t even look. He’ll spot it from a half-mile away. Meanwhile, I need to park at the bottom, check everything, scrutinize it.
That segment won awards, and the most impressive thing about it is how natural you look in every shot. Was it that easy for you, or did that season of filming open your eyes?
When you don’t know what you’re doing, you have no clue about what could go wrong. You have nothing to lose. I wasn’t very educated about big-mountain scenarios and what can go wrong. Now I’ve had more experience: I’ve seen people get hurt, I’ve seen avalanches, I know so much more about it. That first year, I wasn’t thinking or analyzing. And the amazing conditions really helped. When conditions are mediocre, there’s a lot more to think and worry about.
Despite that increased experience, you never suffered a devastating crash until this past winter up in Terrace, BC. What happened?
We didn’t even get in a day before it started dumping and dumping. I was looking at this pillow line, and there was what looked like a tiny bent-over tree branch at the bottom that I didn’t want to hit. But I don’t have that much experience skiing pillows and didn’t realize that you really can’t change your angle; you go fall line and that’s it. I dropped in and couldn’t see. When I went off the last one, I headed straight for that tree branch. I tried to take it to my side, and it turned out to be a big, gnarly, buried tree stump. I had the hugest hematoma—one butt cheek was swollen, and it was the worst thing ever, black and blue from my back down to my knee. Of course, the next two days were awesome bluebird, and those guys killed it. It was a major bummer. My butt cheek is still deformed, which is sad. One cheek is… well, I’m not going to describe it, but it’s not the same.
Was that the worst injury you’ve had?
This summer I crashed on a big jump on the Horstman Glacier in Whistler. I compressed vertebrae and knocked myself out.
You’re a big-mountain skier. What were you doing hitting jumps on the glacier?
I just wanted to be more comfortable in the park and learn the basics, like how to pop off a jump. I’ve never had fun in the park because I was so bad at it, and I want to be able to enjoy it. It was really embarrassing at first, but that’s why I wanted to go up there, to let go of that. I don’t have to care just because people may know who I am and now they know I suck in the park, because I suck in the park. It was good to let that go and just enjoy sucking. Every little improvement gives you a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. With big-mountain skiing, those moments are fewer and further between. It takes a long time to move up a level when you’re already at a high level. Now I can land a 360. Most of the time.
Sarah Burke claims that you did your first Backflip off a cliff this year. True?
I’ve done Backflips before, but this was my first off a cliff. I crashed on a lot of them. I was filming with Sarah, which was awesome because it was a totally relaxed, positive atmosphere. It was the end of the season, and we were looking for stuff that would just be fun. That’s what she does, and it’s really inspiring and motivating. It was good to bounce ideas off her and have a session like that. I don’t know if we picked the best cliff, because we were both eating shit, but it was super fun.
She said she almost couldn’t watch.
I’ve done them on trampolines, but not for a while because I kept shooting backwards. I kept crashing into the gym wall, so I was scared of that. I do this pike thing; they’re terrible and have no style. I think I just hucked my head back really hard, and my butt was sticking out. The pictures look atrocious. But it was enough of a feeling that it was fun. I think I could correct a couple of those mistakes and try again. It wasn’t a total stomp, but I landed it and kept skiing.
You say that being the only girl on trips doesn’t bother you, but there must have been one time when you thought that traveling with a few girls wouldn’t be so bad.
We got shut out in Tulsequah once, and there was nowhere to go. We couldn’t leave. There’s a tin bunkhouse and a main cabin, and that’s it. There’s a big, long, flat airstrip, and I would run back and forth on that. That was my release each day. Everybody had such cabin fever, and then we ran out of beer, and everyone was really grumpy. I wasn’t drinking much, so I didn’t care. But just being in such tight quarters with moody, gloomy guys had an angst to it. Girls, we get frustrated and talk about it, and then we go relax and read or write about it. Get it out. Guys just get all withdrawn and play video games for days on end. They have an angry angst when they can’t ski.
There was one epic stretch of weather in Valdez in 1999 where McConkey and the other guys were measuring their poop to see who’s was biggest. Ever seen anything like that?
No. They’ve been very well behaved for the most part. Although, that would have been pretty funny.