The idea of a backcountry ski trip in Africa, no matter where on the continent, may seem wild to the common resort skier. There are a few dedicated ski areas here and there, but saying “I’m skiing in Africa” or “I skied in Africa” or “I want to ski in Africa” usually comes with a response along the lines of “there’s snow in Africa?” High in the mountains of Morocco, hardboot splitboarder Bryce Barnes found an answer to that question.
“There’s snow in Africa! It was something I’ve never felt before. It was like deep, deep corn. You could turn into it and just sink and push all kinds of snow. I don’t think anybody had any sluff slides, but it was like deep, rooted corn. It sounded different than all the other corn I’ve been skiing, too. I mean I’ve been snowboarding for 21 years now, and it was something else. Deep enough that you could cut an edge and grab a rock if you weren’t careful, and there were many rocks that were grabbed.”
This past winter, at the 50th Anniversary Summit of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, Barnes connected with a group of 12 Black skiers and snowboarders who had their eyes set on riding snow on all seven continents. Africa was their next target, and Barnes was invited to join them. A little more than a month ago, he departed for a 14 day trip through Morocco and, after a few days in Marrakech, headed into the mountains of the Middle Atlas.
“We started at one in the afternoon on the first ski day. We just started skiing on our drive out. You can ski off the side of the road going through some of the Mountain passes.”
“We ended up in this town that’s, you know, a thousand years old, give or take a few hundred years. Huge history in these towns and it was just incredible. Being able to get right into the towns and the villages, meet the people in the village, and see the respect that they have with each other and with the guides that work there.”
The Atlas Mountains are a near 2,500 kilometer (1600 mile) mountain chain spanning across Algeria, Tunisia, and, of course, Morocco. The Middle Atlas, specifically, is located in Northeast Morocco, with peaks reaching above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet). The tallest mountain is Mount Bou Nasser, which tops out at 3,340 meters (10,958 feet). The altitude means that, despite Morocco’s geographical location, the peaks do receive a brief period of snow throughout the winter.
“We did make a summit push for a couple of days, getting up to 12,000 feet with 3,500 feet of skiing below us. That was really cool. There’s big big lines out there. There was a little bit of ice that I saw, too. I was like ‘ooh, may have to come back in February next year and see if I can hop on some ice in Africa.’”
Barnes and his group were guided by Kristoffer Erickson, one of the very few mountain guides that puts together ski trips in the area. Erickson employs a number of Berber locals, the primary inhabitants of the Atlas mountains, providing Barnes with the opportunity to get a close look at the similarities and differences between cultures.
“One of the biggest things that I took away was that we’re all very very similar. You hear things and you see things, but everybody is the same. Everybody’s got the same jokes and the same sense of humor, it was very funny. Some of the drivers we had, because obviously it’s super dusty, had drawn hearts and written in Arabic on each other’s cars. I don’t know what they said because I don’t know how to read Arabic, but how many times have you done that to your friends? Everybody’s done that before.”
Barnes grew up in Newry, Maine, beginning his life of snowboarding on the hard packed ice of the East Coast. After graduating from high school, he began work as a Snowmaker at one of the state’s larger ski resorts. Though he began splitboarding with softboots, backcountry riding the ice patches on and around Mount Washington in New Hampshire and a requirement for ski crampons on more intense climbs pushed Barnes towards the harder alternative.
“Climbing up 40-50 degree steeps, hitting real ice patches, you could even do some ice ascents with ice screws, the whole nine yards, just to ski some lines. Doing it with soft boots is just, it gets scary, it gets really scary sometimes. That was something I really wanted to do for a couple of years, at least just to try it, and now I’m deep dove into it. I have some soft boots but I don’t dare wear them anymore.”
In 2020, Barnes’ joined the non-profit group Inclusive Ski Touring, where he’s now the Secretary of the Board of Directors. What began as a small Instagram group has grown from around 50 participants to 500 in just a few years (or, as Barnes points out, only about 13 total full weeks of operation). They’ve hosted multiple meetups, including Introduction to the Backcountry classes and a near weekly women’s program, all focused on making the backcountry a more inclusive place. Barnes’ helped to connect the group with Outdoor Afro, an organization focused on Black connections and leadership in nature.
“The first meetup, we had like 13 black and brown people, and that was just introducing Outdoor Afro to Inclusive Ski Touring. I think half of the people came away with setups after that first group in 2021 or 2022. This year, we had 3 scheduled Outdoor Afro tours and all three were filled up entirely. There’s so much demand for it once everybody can see it.”
Barnes was introduced to the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), an organization founded in 1973 that brings Black skiers and snowboarders together for a yearly summit, through his Scarpa mentor, Tele Mike, back in September. He was one of 2,100 registered participants who attended the group’s 50th Anniversary Summit in Vail, Colorado. He helped lead trips and classes throughout the summit, including an avalanche class with the incredible Phil Henderson.
“It was just incredible to meet Phil Henderson, the guy who just led the most black people to the summit of Mount Everest all in one trip. So incredible to get involved with the NBS and to have things just pushing like they are now, and that’s like my whole mission, just to get more black and brown people out skiing in the backcountry and get them all avalanche educated.”
That summit, as already mentioned, is what led Barnes to Morocco’s peaks. In the final days on snow, mule assist brought the group to a remote village miles deep in the mountains. A village which, to the surprise of the splitboarder, saw imports and exports solely on the back of working animals. Despite the remoteness and lack of road connections, a large crop growth appeared to strongly exist. The small mountain settlement acted as a staging ground for an exploration of the deeper mountains where, after a few more miles of climbing, steep skiing could be accessed.
“We actually skied some 45 degree couloirs and 40 degree steep stuff. It was really, really sweet. One of the things that we kind of hit home to the guides was that we can ski at a very high level. I don’t even ski at resorts anymore, because, I mean I can’t afford it, but I’m getting it. That’s the same thing with everybody on the trip. All 13 of us black people, we ski very hard. A lot of people take it for granted when we say that, and then we end up waiting for them at the bottom.”
Despite strict film permitting in Morocco, footage was taken throughout the trip and a sizzle reel does exist. Something will likely be released to the public at some point, though nothing is quite ready to be shared. Barnes returned to his current home in Juneau, Alaska, after the trip, where he’s currently working to climb the ladder of American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) classes. He’s also a mentee with Scarpa, and an ambassador with Weston Backcountry and Mountain Hardwear.
“I’m gonna keep excelling and keep pushing my way up the AMGA ladder. Trying to push for my ski guide certification, and then mountain guide licenses and certifications. It’s so weird to say it all, but it looks like I might be the first Black AMGA ski guide.”
This summer will see Barnes guiding through Alaska, and next summer he hopes to do some work on Denali. Future plans for the entire group look towards Antarctica and New Zealand, both of which are needed to complete their goal of skiing all seven continents.
“I’d love to do some Denali next summer. I think that’s what I’m going to push for more. And then just try to keep working my way into the mountains so that I can soon be able to teach AIRE, become and AIRE instructor, and just an all around mountain guide. I want to make sure that black and brown people can see the stuff that I’m seeing and feel the outdoors in a similar capacity to what I’ve gotten to feel. It’s very therapeutic when I’m out there.”
Images Courtesy of Bryce Barnes