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the search for healing in the beauty of the backcountry

By: Curtis Cunningham + Save to a List


I began downhill skiing when I was young, but growing up in Alberta made the opportunities to do so few and far between. After graduating from High School in 1987 until I moved with my wife and son to Smithers, BC in 2007, I am certain I only skied a handful of times. 

After living in Smithers for five years, I was finally able to afford a new pair of skis. This started me on the path to regular skiing for the first time in my life (where over the next couple of seasons I was up on the mountain a total of 111 days).

My first exposure to ski touring was in March of 2014 on Hudson Bay Mountain. The Extreme Everest Challenge is a 24-hour event where people skin up one particular run hill over and over with the goal of doing the equivalent vertical of Mt. Everest. I was there to do some photography, and watching people make their way up a mountain without sliding down made a real impression on me. I knew then I wanted to try it for myself.

During the summer of 2014, I ended up purchasing a new set of bindings that would allow me to tour. One of my first touring experiences was with someone I met through a local backcountry Facebook group. We arranged a time and met at the trail head, and one of the first things she said to me was, “you’re really going to want to get some proper touring boots”. Little did I know at the time what a difference the right gear would make.

In addition to the joy of being introduced to ski touring and acquiring some new gear, some health problems I had been dealing with for several years became more challenging in 2014. This is where ski touring began to have a more direct influence on my overall health.


There were two times in 2006 I had stomach cramps so bad I thought I was going to die. The pain was that intense. I had a gastroscopy done and was diagnosed with Chronic Gastritis. I went to a Naturopath who started me on a new diet to try and help settle my stomach. I was told that it would take about 3 months for my body to adjust to the new way of eating and that I would experience fatigue in the interim.

Well to make a very long story very short, that fatigue I experienced at the beginning of 2007 never left. I still struggle with this fatigue and it has cast its shadow on every aspect of my life. 
Back to the summer of 2014 where it was really hard to do anything, it got to the point that I had trouble getting off the sofa in my living room. My emotions were shot, nothing I did made a difference to my poor energy level and it was very hard to do anything but feel sorry for myself.

An opportunity arose to go to a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. So I spent almost the whole month of August there receiving a variety of treatments. Free from the responsibilities and pressures I had in Smithers, I was abe to focus solely on myself. After my daily treatments, I ended up spending quite a lot of time walking the streets of Tijuana. I was motivated to try and lose some of the weight I had gained in the past few years as I developed bad habits of trying to eat my way out of the continual fatigue. 

Since my exposure to ski touring earlier in the year, I knew I wanted to be healthier in order to be more efficient at the activity. Ski touring was a giant carrot on a stick in front of me, beckoning me onward and upward. It was enough of a motivation to keep walking almost every day I was in Tijuana. Doing it as often as I did south of the border turned out to be habit forming and I was glad to be able to keep doing it once I got home.

It was a huge challenge to take things one day at a time. Without the dreamt of ability to ski tour farther, faster and more efficiently, I’m pretty sure I would have not had the motivation to continue. So the next few months I kept to a regular schedule of walking and hiking as often as I could to help pass the time until the next snow fell.


By the time November 1, 2014 rolled around, I was happy to start the new season with a tour up Hudson Bay Mountain with a friend. The excitement of that day carried me through the next three seasons which were filled with many highlights and lessons learned:

  • One of the many benefits of ski touring has been how much I’ve learned to embrace the inherent challenges it presents. Things like hiking for hours to get a few turns in the early season months, and waking up in the dark to skin up the mountain to watch the sunrise from the alpine are two of the grandest experiences I enjoy. I’ve also learned a certain measure of persistence in setting goals, and achieving things never done before. I’ve come to really enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. 
  • I have enjoyed the natural camaraderie that exists among fellow ski tourers. The joy that comes from a shared experience is really encouraging.
  • Not everyone is fortunate to call Smithers home. I have enjoyed sharing the beauty of the places I go with those who don’t live in and around Smithers. 
  • There is respite from the normal pressures of life and familial obligations in the sanctuary of the alpine. The peace and contentment found by being alone on the snow is a treasured experience.
  • I’ve ski toured 29 out of the last 31 months only missing July and August in 2014. It’s a challenge to do whatever I have to in order to find snow to make some turns on, especially in the summer months.
  • Getting to places not everyone can get to in order to photograph the high and wild is something I’ve come to treasure very deeply.
  • In 2013, a friend from Sechelt came to visit for a few weeks. Through the things we did in all sorts of weather, I learned to have a more optimistic view of life and adventure. Our adventures deepened my love of nature and the simple things in life.


Earlier I mentioned that that the tiredness and I started to experience in 2007 never left. So while I was enjoying all these fantastic experiences on my skis, when the skis got put away and the endorphin rush subsided, the exhaustion crept back into my life. There are several ways this tiredness manifested itself in my life:

  • Frustration at not being able to eat what I wanted.
  • Pressure to provide for my family when my photography business was slow and I didn’t have the energy to work.
  • Difficulty sleeping. I would wake up not feeling refreshed no matter what amount of sleep I got during the night. I would consistently feel this burden of not having the energy to do things.
  • I can remember only parts of very few days in the last 10 years where I didn’t feel some degree of exhaustion. Some days in general are better than others, but for the most part the best way to describe how I feel is that I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in 10 years.
  • Frustration with gaining a bunch of weight because I eventually tried to eat my way out of exhaustion.
  • The time spent in Mexico helped for a while but ultimately did not provide a lasting solution for my struggles.

My only saving grace was ski touring. For some reason I didn’t feel the typical tiredness and exhaustion when I was climbing mountains. Being super motivated and doing something I truly loved really helped. Like I consistently tell people, being in the mountains is my happy place. I love the snow and everything about it. I love the slow pace of touring, the majesty of the landscapes before me, the tiny details in the snow and the feelings of accomplishment when I meet goals and objectives. My wife often tells me she’s amazed I have the energy to do everything I do in the alpine when I talk about being tired so often. It’s a mystery not easily explained.


I started working full time for a local construction company at the end of August, 2016. I was grateful for the extra income and opportunity to learn new skills. This forced me to have a new attitude towards skiing. Only being able to ski on weekends and the occasional day off, I was forced to be grateful for  the opportunity to be able to ski at all. Each day seemed to take on a greater sense of value and importance simply due to scarcity. I didn’t have very many days of rest for several months, but it was a price I was willing to pay in order to keep my streak of skiing at least once a month going. I didn’t want to let a silly thing like tiredness get in the way of alpine fun.

Then a couple of things happened that I allowed to get me off track. We travelled to visit family over Christmas where I didn’t eat very well, and I was laid off from work in January. The depression that slowly developed over the last 10 years came back as I wasn’t able to provide for my family as I had been doing.

I’ve slowly begun to consciously try and get back to a healthier lifestyle. I’m working on a book of photos and stories from my ski touring adventures, I’m trying to eat healthier and am looking forward to more quality time in the mountains. I was reminded recently, that although my physical and mental goals may still be momentarily unfulfilled, ski touring has given me the ability to keep striving towards them.

That’s enough about me. Let’s get to heroes of this tale where I share a selection of my favourite photographs  and stories from the past three seasons of ski touring.

You’ll see everything from the grandest of alpine panoramic vistas to the tiniest of details in the snow and a variety of things in between. My goal is to give you the sensation that you were right there experiencing things with me.

The natural beauty of the snow, and all it falls on, consistently stops me in my tracks. My passion for being outdoors and combining my two loves of skiing and photography has brought me a great deal of healing. I am pleased each time I have an opportunity to share them.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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