Montana State University

Spring 2015

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Mountains and Minds

The mountain can turn without warning May 12, 2015 by Sepp Jannotta • Published 05/12/15

John Stifter
John Stifter

John Stifter was just 29 when his bosses at Powder told him he would be the next editor of the renowned ski magazine. The avalanche that would change his life was still several weeks in the future.

His ascension to the magazine’s top post was a brass-ring moment for a kid who’d grown up drooling over photo spreads of the world’s best skiers exploding through deep and untracked snow in legendary mountain ranges, flying down impossible-looking steeps, living the skier’s dream.

“When I got the job, it was a moment where I was sort of pinching myself, because Powder was my dream,” said Stifter, who graduated from Montana State University in 2006. “It was exciting because, journalistically, I was really interested in growing the magazine’s presence online, diving into more multimedia and taking advantage of my generation’s comfort with the Web environment and sharing information via social media.”

Perhaps his fast-track career as a ski lifestyle journalist began when he swapped Syracuse University (Labrador Mountain) for MSU (Bridger Bowl). Or, maybe it was when his eye caught a want ad for editorial interns as he flipped through the back pages of an issue of Powder. Stifter’s destiny might have been born on the slopes of Schweitzer Mountain during his eastern Washington childhood.

 When and where Stifter began chasing that dream is up for debate. 

But Stifter can point precisely to the moment he nearly walked away from it. It was in February 2012, shortly after being told about his upcoming promotion.

Stifter and a group of expert skiers at Stevens Pass, a ski area near Seattle, had ventured into an out-of-bounds area known as Tunnel Creek. A recent storm had covered the slopes with two feet of fresh snow. As Stifter and others in the group watched helplessly from above, four skiers were caught in an avalanche that tore 3,000 feet down the mountain, ripping down trees as it went. Three were killed.

“I was at Stevens Pass for what was supposed to be a light-hearted story about night skiers, about the hardcore people who drive up from Seattle after work, a fun, accessible non-industry piece,” Stifter said. “And then this happened. Outside of my dad passing away in a plane crash, it was easily the worst thing to happen in my life.”

In the preface for a recent Powder online series on snow safety and decision-making in avalanche terrain, Stifter shared what he went through that day: “I sat on cement-like snow next to two dead bodies. A space blanket covering one of them flapped in the wind. A coat covered the other—my friend who I drank beers with less than 24 hours earlier. The avalanche debris, chunks the size of massive boulders, fanned out below my ski boots. I looked across the valley to the snow-covered trees veiled in rolling fog. The sweat on my back—from shoveling heavy snow to retrieve my friend, buried six feet deep, and trying to revive him with CPR for 30 minutes—was freezing up. I felt alive but dead. Angry, baffled, numb, scared, sad. ‘What just happened?’ I asked myself. ‘How did I get here?’ Over and over, I said I was never skiing again. ‘I’m done with this stupid sport.’ My identity, largely formed by skiing, vanished.”

Stifter hung up his skis for the remainder of the 2011–12 season, took some time away from the magazine, where, fortunately, the seasonal lull offered a respite. Stifter said there were days when he was seriously considering not returning to Powder.

The tragedy at Tunnel Creek, which involved a number of high-profile ski industry personalities, received a lot of national attention, including, months later, a multi-chapter online feature in the New York Times. That story has been viewed by more than 3.5 million readers and won many awards for its reporting and multimedia coverage, including a Pulitzer Prize.

Stifter recalled that for some time he dwelled in an emotionally toxic place, where grief mixed with guilt. He couldn’t help but hear rumblings about the role played by a glossy magazine famous for depicting hard-charging, risk-taking professional skiers venturing into avalanche-prone backcountry terrain. What if Powder hadn’t sent Stifter and a photographer to Stevens Pass?

“It was an incredibly challenging time,” he said. “In my career, I was nine-tenths of the way to the top of the mountain…. I realized that the Tunnel Creek experience was going to affect me in a lot of ways, but I came back (to Powder) because I wanted that experience to ultimately affect me and the magazine, and the skiing community as a whole, in a positive way.”

A refocused Stifter returned to the publication that calls itself “The Skier’s Magazine” with the goal of injecting Powder’s voice more emphatically into the discussion about avalanche safety. The magazine soon launched “The Safe Zone,” a microsite on the Powder website dedicated to avalanche education and safety for backcountry skiers.

“I didn’t feel we’d been walking the walk enough,” Stifter said.

In the December 2012 issue of Powder, in response to Tunnel Creek and a rash of deaths among high-profile skiers, Powder ran an introspective piece on the evolution of ski culture in the age of a go-bigger-or-go-home approach to skiing. It ran under the headline: “Nature’s Feedback: Why are so many of the best skiers dying?”

The multifaceted article hits on one puzzling question at the heart of incidents like the one at Stevens Pass—why are experienced backcountry skiers who are knowledgeable about skiing in avalanche terrain typically the ones getting killed? It was the question that drove Stifter and his team at Powder to produce a multi-part online series, called “The Human Factor,” focusing on the psychological side of snow safety and how skiers make decisions in the backcountry, how things go wrong for those who have the right information about snow science and the mechanics that lead to avalanches.

“This is ground-breaking work, unlike anything we’ve done before,” Stifter said of the series Powder launched in November. “The idea of looking at how we make decisions and evaluate risk is an important discussion that is going on now in the avalanche safety community, and we felt it was important, heck a responsibility, for Powder to be involved in that discussion.”

Jordy Hendrikx, an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences whose work as director of the MSU Snow and Avalanche Lab is often focused on understanding human factors in avalanches, agreed that Powder’s voice could help people understand avalanche safety in new ways.

“It absolutely helps to have a magazine of Powder’s stature talking about the ways people are approaching the terrain they ski,” Hendrikx said. “For a long time, most of the attention has been put into looking at snow crystals and the physics of snow and what conditions can lead to snowpack failure. Almost no attention was being paid to the human behaviors that put people into those potentially devastating situations.”

Hendrikx, whose program turns out graduates who enter the avalanche safety profession (see sidebar), said it is fitting that an MSU grad has begun pushing Powder to discuss a behavioral approach to safety in the backcountry.

His focus on avalanche safety is the latest evolution for Stifter, who when he came to MSU was a self-described “ski dork.” Stifter said he’d viewed his passion for the sport as freakishly acute—until he arrived in Bozeman.

“I arrived at MSU and here was this community of skiers, people who lived and breathed skiing, and the quality of life for skiers in Bozeman was really high—it just felt very comfortable,” Stifter said.

Without a journalism option at MSU, he dabbled a bit looking for a major, but knew enough about his desired path to follow up on that interns-wanted ad in Powder.

“It’s funny looking back, because when I applied, I wasn’t even an English major yet,” Stifter said. “I got a very nice hand-written letter from a Powder copy editor saying, ‘Thanks for applying, but you need some (examples of published writing).’”

So, Stifter called the local outdoors lifestyle magazine, Outside Bozeman. An internship there followed, giving Stifter that much-needed portfolio of clippings. Mike England, editor of Outside Bozeman, pushed Stifter to expand his horizons.

“That meant we forced him to write stories about things that were not skiing, which he did somewhat reluctantly,” England said. “He wasn’t shy about saying he wanted to write for Powder.”

Stifter said the learning curve was just what he needed.

“He challenged me, and I appreciate that,” Stifter said of England. “It snowballed from there. I just kept at it, and by the time I applied again (to be an intern) at Powder, I was accepted.”

It was then that Stifter finally declared a major in English (he also majored in history). In the MSU Department of English, Dean Williamson, then an adjunct professor of writing, mentored Stifter in sound fundamentals and, best of all, pointed him toward the best authors of adventure/travel and narrative nonfiction. It was guidance that stuck with him, Stifter said.

His three months interning at Powder gave him an alluring glimpse of what he hoped was going to turn into a real career. Within months it did. ESPN called, based on a recommendation from someone at Powder, to offer him a paying gig doing several months of advance research in preparation of its X Games coverage.

“It was this opportunity to spend three months researching, writing and advising ESPN X Games production with a week spent in Aspen, where I had the chance to meet a bunch of my idols from the pro skiing scene,” Stifter said.

In rapid succession Stifter received a series of freelance assignments from Powder and then spent his final semester of college abroad on a student exchange to New Zealand (during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter season, naturally).

Following his graduation from MSU, Stifter signed on again to cover skiing for ESPN. By May of 2007, Powder had brought him in as an associate editor, a post he held until 2010. After taking a year off to deal with his father’s death, Stifter was back at Powder as senior editor. In April 2012, when Powder officially announced he was taking over the magazine’s helm as editor, Stifter had already spent several months working through the tragedy of Tunnel Creek.

While he had decided that he would get back on skis again, it was different. Even now, three years later, he said he finds the backcountry is not a totally comfortable place to spend time.

“It took a while to get to the point where I do go into the backcountry, but it’s with this constant knowledge that it can turn on me without warning,” Stifter said. “I can’t swear it off completely because I love being out in the mountains, but I’m pretty freaked when I’m out there.”

Now, there is a more serious undertone to his dream job. It’s still about sharing the passion and freedom that defines the hardcore skier’s world. “But all of that comes with a responsibility to educate people about how to stay alive,” Stifter said.

With “The Human Factor” completed and released, Stifter said he is both humbled by the opportunity he’s been given, and proud that Powder has stepped up its game. And, if being part of a bigger conversation about risk helps people stay safe when they venture out of bounds on a big powder day, then “The Skier’s Magazine” is truly living up to its credo, Stifter said. “And I can’t think of a better way to honor those we’ve lost.” ■