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Life Lessons in Ski Touring: A Day with “Bucky”

March 17, 2016

LIFE LESSONS IN SKI TOURING:
A DAY WITH “BUCKY”

By Nathan Jones

When you have an opportunity to join mountain man Jim Buckingham in the outdoors (or anywhere), you take it. Writer Nathan Jones spends a day on skis with the Banff legend, and comes away with some great turns – and wisdom to go with them. Turns out, the only way to have the good days is to get out every day…

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Photo by Nathan Jones.

Photo by Nathan Jones.

Backcountry skiing, like most intensive outdoor pursuits, is an activity that forges relationships. Try to wax poetic about the cathartic and meditative natures of skinning to most people and you’ll be met with blank stares and questions of your sanity. Yet, to a fellow enthusiast, delve into the beauty of earning your turns and even the soft-spoken will come alive with a fervent passion.

Jim Buckingham and I first met in November of 2014 over a steaming cup of coffee. It was a frigid day, dipping well into the minus thirties, and the ski camp that I, along with fellow coach Dwight Bergstrom, had been coaching at in Banff was cancelled due to threat of frostbite. An ardent interest in ski touring had prompted Dwight to introduce me to Jim, or “Bucky”, as his friends call him. As we sat in Jim’s cozy Banff kitchen chatting about mountains and skiing, he fluttered in and out of the room, the conversation prompting him to present another photo or book exploring the history of the area. As I left, we exchanged contact information and spoke of exploring the backcountry together if the chance arose.

Winter came and went, and in April the opportunity came to get out together. I emailed Jim and we set up a time and date. Then the rain came – only a drizzle, but I questioned whether or not we should head out. When I arrived at Jim’s place I voiced my concerns as he loaded his gear: a pair of old CMH-edition Atomics with frame touring bindings, red Dynafit boots and a pair of poles with various modifications. His response to the rain would be the first of the many allegorical quips I received throughout the day:

“The only way to get out on the good days is to go out every day,” he said. Easy to say for a guy who put in over 100 days in the backcountry the previous season.

Photo by Nathan Jones.

Photo by Nathan Jones.

Jim is the definition of a mountain man. With a Master’s degree in Geology, Jim decided that life was too short to sit behind a desk, and since the 60s, has been living and playing in and around Banff with his wife Mary. He ended up managing operations at various ski resorts and putting his educational background to work consulting ski resorts on layout. His knowledge of ski hills and their inner workings has led him across Canada, and just the year before we met he had worked with my home hill in Saskatchewan. Now Jim, age 75, has achieved what most ski bums and weekend warriors only dream of: creating a sustainable life through his passions. When the snow turns to water, you will find Jim, with a paddle in his hand, teaching others to navigate rivers and streams.

We smiled as we pulled over on the Icefields Parkway and prepared to set off for Crowfoot Glades. The rain had turned to snow. With enough metal in his body to make a small fortune at the scrapyard, touring with Jim was a lesson in tenacity and resilience. Apologizing as he took his time jamming his fused ankle into his ski boot, Jim recounted the struggle to find a pair of adequate boots. My own memories of having sore feet and aching arches now seemed insignificant.

Our skins attached and beacons on, we set off and Jim stated his three speeds: “slow, really slow, and I can’t believe he is even moving.” There was a hint of melancholy in his voice, the recognition that his body was no longer as responsive or powerful as it once was. But this was overshadowed by a stronger and more self-aware tone that stated ‘to hell with pace’ – the landscape does not care how quickly I make it up or down, merely that I do.   

Charging on ahead, I set the track while Jim spouted advice from the rear, cloaked in riddles and jokes. After four or five switchbacks I leaned on my poles, exhausted, and proudly examined my mark on the virgin landscape. Plodding along at a steady pace, Jim caught up and, with a smirk, asked if I had heard the tale of the young bull and the old bull. Shaking my head, he continued, “Two bulls are on a hill looking down at a pasture full of beautiful cows. The young bull says to the old bull, ‘let’s run down to that pasture and pick ourselves up one of those good looking cows.’ The old bull scans the scene and says ‘no, let us saunter down and pick up all of the cows.’” His tacit knowledge of the mountains filtered out with a humorous and cerebral twist. One-part joke. One-part life lesson.

Photo by Nathan Jones.

Photo by Nathan Jones.

Continuing our climb, Jim stopped and raised a ski pole to the landscape like a professor might point to a chalkboard. As he identified peaks, he reminisced on past expeditions or expanded on the history of the area. Jim’s “good days” mantra ended up ringing true. The rain had changed to snow and then receded, leaving us with an untouched canvas of white powder. It was a good day, and we hooted and hollered as we made turns below the watchful eye of Crowfoot Mountain.

Heading back to Banff, Jim recounted his early days touring, long before companies spent millions on R&D and professional skiers trotted the globe. His inspiration came not from the latest POV edit or magazine, but an insatiable curiosity and drive to experience the unknown.

In a time where big mountain footage clogs our social media feeds with the latest freeskier risking life and limb for the shot, it is important to step back and examine our sport from the ground up. Touring with Jim touched on so many of the aspects of what makes skiing so great: its ability to eclipse age and background; its timelessness. Reward for diligence and deliberate effort.

Since this tour with Bucky, I have encountered many people who spoke of Jim as a legend of backcountry skiing. His influence spreads like a spider web from his quaint home in Banff, inspiring people to get outside by living by his own philosophy. 

“The only way to have the good days is to get out every day.” 

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Perpetually stoked on getting outside and the purveyor of hollers and high-fives, Nathan Jones enjoys shooting photos, sleeping in tents and eating dehydrated meals.

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