In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the December 2004 issue (Volume 33, Issue 4).
THE FIRST TIME YOU HEAR IT, it catches you off guard. Faint and authentic, high pitched, very kitten-like. You look around the room—under tables, at windowsills. You wonder if maybe you just imagined it. Then you hear it again.
If you press her on it, Ingrid Backstrom will shrug it off. "Sometimes everything just builds up inside," she'll say, never breaking her gaze from the task at hand—maybe washing dishes or baking muffins or fixing a flat on her mountain bike—"and you just need to meow."
There's Ingrid at a glance: a bit eclectic, somewhat enigmatic, always distinctly herself. This puma has emerged as the world's most promising female big mountain skier since Wendy Fisher, but you'll never hear it from her. Modest to a fault, if she's winning a contest, it's next to impossible to get her to say what place she's in. Instead, she'll just smile enthusiastically, answering your query with a "pretty good." And while competition is still a focal point of her skiing, titles and accolades are secondary. She's finished on the podium in 11 of 12 career contests, but has never completed the three-event Freeskiing World Tour, and thus finished second the past three years. She has an aggressive, hard-charging approach to competition that's practically unbeatable right now, if she can—and this is where the cat analogy lapses—only manage to stay on her feet.
"I think attitude is everything," says Ingrid, 26. "If you go into the contests like, 'This is awesome, this is fun, I'm just skiing with my friends and challenging myself,' then it doesn't matter how you finish, and I think you end up skiing a lot better. I didn't get into this with a goal of winning the World Tour. What was foremost in my mind was just doing well in the contests that I went to."
Born and raised in Seattle with two younger brothers, Ingrid spent most weekends of her childhood skiing at Crystal Mountain, where her parents, Betsy and Steve, were volunteer ski patrollers. "We were up there every weekend, since I was tiny, little," she says. "I wasn't super into skiing until I started making friends with some of the kids who skied up there. I started racing when I was 11, more as a social thing because I was tired of skiing by myself or with my parents." Fifteen years later, however, skiing is much more than just a way to make friends, much more than just something to do on the weekends.
THE CAT IS BACK. It's early season, the type of day where you know, regardless of how much it snowed last night, that not much will open. Everyone is sleeping, sprawled out on various couches, beds, and in corners, trying to hold on to a few moments of sleep through the first round of avalanche control. The door is pushed open, and Ingrid scurries in, her eyes full of electricity, anxiousness spread across her face.
"Don't you hear that!" she says. "They're bombing. We need to go! Right now!" Then she bounds out, lunging, shuffling, and pirouetting into her ski gear. The clock reads 7:00, and the mountain is only a few miles away.
There might be eight inches on some intermediate runs, and maybe a few skiable shots through the trees. And yet one by one the crew—perhaps still a little groggy from too many Red Bull cocktails the night before—battles itself awake, following the lead of the bouncing black ponytail. Downstairs, Ingrid isn't walking around the kitchen; she sashays. And no one thinks anything of it. It's November and it's snowing, and a few powdery lines through low-angle trees is more than she's gotten all summer. It's time to go skiing, and if you're Ingrid, this is what you do—you get excited.
The young Miss Backstrom didn't start to realize her potential as a skier until after she left Seattle for Washington's Whitman College in 1996. Skiing only on weekends through high school, she lacked the strength and coordination to excel at racing. "I just didn't grasp the concept of it," she says. Once in college, however, she started training every day and lifting weights. As she got stronger, so did her skiing.
After college and a summer in Germany, Ingrid moved to Squaw Valley for the winter of 2000-01. There, her style and technique gelled. "Everybody at Squaw was such a good skier, and so nice. It got me really excited about freeskiing," she says. "I loved it, just loved being on the hill every day. Everybody is just going for it all the time. At Squaw, there will be a Palisade session with everybody up there watching. It's an encouraging atmosphere. You do it a little and you're hooked."
The addiction has paid off. Over the past three years, she has become one of Völkl's most promoted freeskiers, and has signed with The North Face, Scott, Clif Bar, Marker, and Giro. Squaw Valley now gives her a pass. In addition to getting play in most ski magazines, mainstream titles such as Outside and Shape have been calling for interviews. This past winter she filmed extensively with Matchstick Productions and Warren Miller, including trips to Bella Coola, B.C., and Alaska.
"Not only is Ingrid an outstanding, insanely good skier—one of the best in the world," says Rick Armstrong, team manager for The North Face. "She absolutely has the best attitude. She's not in it for the fame and glory, she just likes to make turns."
There are few things as much fun to watch as a kitten at play, and this particular one finds her thrills in three feet of snow. That's exactly what she has here, in Snowbird's North Baldy, the venue for the finals of the 2004 U.S. Freeskiing Nationals. The contest is going off like it hasn't in years. The men are tossing themselves off the 50- to 70-footers dead center and skier's right of the crowd; most of the girls are dropping 20- to 25-footers in an area the announcers have dubbed "the shoe closet." Then there's Ingrid. She cuts to the right before the closet, traverses above a 40-footer, stops, points, and drops. She's tight in the air, stomps it unbelievably clean, and cruises through the finish.
If you happen to approach her immediately after such a moment, she'll be smiling and breathing hard, trying to catch her wind. You might tell her how sick that drop was, and she'll say thanks in her normal manner—like it's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to her. She'll keep smiling, keep puffing, and keep her eyes focused up on her line. Ingrid's not about claiming; she's about skiing, and she's already daydreaming of her next run.
While filming is her first priority this season, the big mountain competitions are where she made a name. At the end of her first season at Squaw, some friends talked her into competing at the North American Extremes in Kirkwood. "Part of me was missing competition," she figures. She finished third, so a few weeks later she road-tripped to Crested Butte for the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships, the biggest purse on the circuit. There, competing as a newcomer with only one contest under her belt, she opened eyes.
Sitting in second by the narrowest margin going into her final run, Ingrid skied fluidly and aggressively from the top of Spellbound bowl to the cliff at the end of Dead End Chute. Jen Ashton, the leader at that point and eventual champion, had kick-turned around the final 50-foot drop. All Ingrid needed was a smooth line through the final section, maybe catch some air off one of the smaller drops to skier's right of the cliff, and she had first place in the bag. Instead, she defined her style then and there. Ingrid eyeballed a dicey line that only a few of the top men had hit, and started making hop turns through the thin and boney conditions right for it. Just before making the drop, she caught an edge, got pushed backward, and tumbled down the rock band. She was unhurt, and ended up second.
That cash-or-crash style has become her trademark. She consistently puts together runs that could place her at the top of the field, and either sticks them or blows up trying—always walking way with a smile. At the 2004 Canadian Freeskiing Championships, she lost a ski in the first round and was sitting in fifth going into the finals.
Ingrid's not about claiming; she's about skiing, and she's already daydreaming of her next run.
Then, relaxed and thinking she was out of the running, she put together the run of the contest and catapulted herself to the top of the podium. It's in these moments, when a run comes together for her, that she shines the brightest—as graceful as she is daring and aggressive.
Since their inception, freeskiing competitions have been the minor leagues to filming. In the movies, the stakes are higher, the audience greater, and the criteria more subjective and less forgiving. There's no such thing as winning ugly on film. Ingrid's attitude and style have transferred perfectly. Since the mid '90s era of Fisher, Alison Gannett, and Kristen Ulmer, only one other woman—Jamie Burge—has been able to make that jump on a level that doesn't appear token or gratuitous.
"Ingrid has a really cool, angulated style," says MSP cinematographer Scott Gaffney. "As far as filming goes, style is really important. Yeah, she's won a lot of contests, and, yeah, she rips, but if she doesn't have good style, it's not going to work that well on film.
"In Bella Coola, she had the runs of her life—big faces and she was hauling ass down them. She had one run off [1,500-foot, 50-degree] Harrison Hotel, right after Hugo's crash… We hadn't skied anything big yet after sitting there for a month, and she wanted to do something more technical. We said, 'Just rip this face, and that will be good enough.' She pointed it over these two airs off the top, then just hauled ass, four turns down the entire Harrison Hotel face."
Her ovaries-out mentality, however, almost caught up to her. "We had been looking at these two straightlines," she recalls. "Somebody's idea was that I would ski one and Shane [McConkey] would ski the other. So we waited all day for them to get into the light. We kept skiing other runs and coming back, and one was in the sun, but the other was still in the shade."
When it came time to ski, the conditions in Ingrid's line had changed. The wall next to it had sloughed, filling the chute with runnels and bumps. Ingrid dropped in anyway.
"She started chattering at the bottom, through the crap, and fell to her side. Then she just started to Carly Patterson," says Gaffney. "It was on the run-out, as opposed to a whole-mountain crash. But as far as full extension, she gets a 9.8."
This time around, the lioness was lucky to land on her feet, figuratively if not physically. Ingrid's not afraid to take a tumble, but a yard sale coming off the Palisades is a far cry from going end-over-end in Bella Coola. She didn't ski in front of the camera the rest of the trip. A few weeks later, she went to Alaska to film for Warren Miller with Völkl teammates Charlotte Moats and Jen Berg. It was a tamer trip, with a mellower crew; this time Ingrid was the experienced one. "I've worked with a lot of film crews in the past and have done some pretty rowdy stuff, and I have to go really easy with the girls," says Virgil Hughes, lead guide for Chugach Powder Guides. "Those three girls were on it, Ingrid in particular. She was the most courteous of the bunch, and also the most qualified for the heavy-duty lines they pointed out. They worked their way up to it, they communicated well, and they were able to get to some of those bigger lines."
It's not the first time Ingrid has exceeded expectations. "It might be weird saying this, considering how good Wendy is, but Ingrid's the best yet," says Gaffney of the women MSP has worked with. And it's not likely to be the last time, either. "I think a lot of people who see her skiing at Squaw think she's a guy," Gaffney adds. "Then they see the ponytail."
Or maybe they just hear it—faint and high-pitched, piercing the contrails that follow her like a whipping tail, almost inaudible like a figment of the imagination.