By Merideth Jeffries
Off-Piste is a hybrid English-French word that means to deviate from what is conventional or expected. If you’re a skier, it most certainly means seeking out your own untracked lines. The word conjures up intrigue, adventure, and the beauty of skiing away from groomed slopes. Dave Waag, editor of the Hood River, Oregon-based magazine and website by the same name, has been covering the sport for the last 20 years since “Off-Piste Magazine’s” beginnings in 1999.
The magazine has gone through many changes over the years. Off-Piste is no longer available in the classic and often collected black and white newsprint version, but during its run was issued four times a year. Yet the essential elements of the magazine remain on the website at Offpistemag.com, which hosts gear reviews, beta on where to ski, soulful narratives about winter backcountry travel, trailers for independent ski films, and avalanche safety resources.
Though the website is a paired down version from the print issues of old, it remains an outlet, Waag says, for the “true user”— a skier who explores the backcountry for the pure love of being out in the winter wilds with little interest in the entanglements of industry-sponsored ski culture and marketing.
Interest in and popularity of backcountry skiing have increased substantially since 1999. In the magazine’s early days, however, Waag says backcountry skiing wasn’t something many people did, and there weren’t many publications speaking into that world. “Most ski magazines weren’t representing the more adventurous spirit of ski touring,” he says. In Off-Piste, the style of skiing was much more backcountry exploration and free-heel oriented. “It was largely a telemark based crowd, especially here in the Northwest,” he says.
When it comes to extremes in the sport, Waag says, “Off-Piste never strove to represent that. I left that to the glossy magazines and the big movies. I’ve always had a little bit of disdain for the representation that you can just clip on your skis and go jump off a cliff or climb the highest thing you can find and ski whatever line you’d like.” It was important to him to make sure that safety and the authentic spirit of backcountry winter travel were well represented—especially since it wasn’t well represented anywhere else.
Notably, the magazine featured articles on avalanche safety when there were relatively few backcountry resources available. Today, a Google search for “backcountry skier” reveals a glut of images of skiers dangling off steep, exposed slopes in remote landscapes. While pushing boundaries is part of backcountry skiing and splitboarding for many riders, knowledge and experience are required to do it safely. “Off-Piste” continues to publish content that prioritizes backcountry safety and avalanche awareness as critical knowledge skiers need before venturing into the wilds.
A few highlights of “Off-Piste” include their annual gear review issues, international ski trip reports, personal and often humorous narratives about winter backcountry touring, and a film called “Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan.” The film, a project of Waag and Nils Larsen, a Northeast Washington skier and creator of ski/snowshoe hybrid backcountry gear company Altai Skis, it features a skiing culture from Central Asia that has depended on skis for mobility and hunting for a thousand years.
One similarity between the print and online magazine is the popularity of gear reviews, and there’s a really good reason for this overlap. Waag explains, “In my estimation, gear innovation has opened the door to skiing untracked snow for all skiing levels. It used to be that to ski powdered snow, you had to have some pretty definitive skills, because we were skiing these fairly narrow skis with questionable bindings….as soon as skis got wider, the ability to float and turn and use your speed all came together for anybody from modest, intermediate and beyond.”
What brings many skiers to the mountains continues to speak to Dave Waag and the direction of Off-Piste. “Untracked turns in the mountains,” he says, “that is the number one thing.” //
Originally published as “Off-Piste Magazine” in the December 2019 issue.