Marcus Baranow lives a quiet life in the hamlet of Lake Louise. His summers are spent maintaining campgrounds and his winters are simple: eat, sleep, ski. His nightlife consists of board games or working on one of his many solitary projects. Introverted by nature and isolated by geography, how is it that Marcus became the most followed skier in the Rockies?
I invaded Marcus’ quiet life on his second day of recovery from a recent adventure, a 15-hour slog up and down an obscure Banff peak, to try and answer that question.
People “follow” Marcus in the literal sense of the word more than the social media one. Best known for his guidebooks, Confessions of a Ski Bum: Icefields Parkway and Confessions of a Ski Bum: Kicking Horse Pass, Marcus also has online guides for the Egypt Lake area, a trove of blog posts with detailed Rockies route descriptions and prolific social media feeds full of daily conditions from all over the range. The sheer quantity of information he’s put out for local skiers to use is both unmatched and under-valued.
Marcus has spent countless hours drawing maps, writing descriptions or editing photos of his adventures to share. For his efforts, he’s endured online hate and threats serious enough to make him call the cops on several occasions. “I have a small but very vocal group of haters,” he tells me. Perhaps worse, he’s had neighbours in his own small community corner him and rant about how wrong he is to share information about specific ski zones with the greater community and how any accidents or deaths that happen in those mountains will be on his conscience. It’s a lot of animosity to endure, and the payoff isn’t obvious.
I assumed Marcus was an entrepreneur looking to make money off his passion, but that math doesn’t really add up. His subsistence comes mostly from his summer work. Any guidebook author will tell you that publishing regional books is not a great way to make money. To publish his Icefields Parkway book, Marcus sold a property in Golden that was his “life savings” (money he’d earned working as a programmer before moving west). At this point, he hopes to recoup that investment. Someday.
We spend some time talking about his motivations and keep getting drawn back to what he calls “the true nature of adventure.” To him, the role of adventure in ski touring is misunderstood. For Marcus, adventure starts “when things go wrong.” “I haven’t run into many people who truly want to explore. Who truly want adventure,” he tells me. “They want to go ski something planned. Something safe. And have nothing go wrong.”
“I was brought up in a family that escaped Soviet Russia, so I heard tons of crazy adventure stories from my grandfather. They were being hunted by the Soviets because they were a rich royal family in Belarus. They fled to Poland during the revolution. Then Poland was invaded by the Nazis, and they had to escape again. Crazy war adventures. True adventure. Things were going wrong. Family members were going to gulag camps. So at a very young age, I was fascinated by these grand adventures.”
Now, when he’s faced with hardship in the hills, falling into a creek, for example, and having to hike out with wet, frostbitten feet in polar temperatures, Marcus remembers that, “This is nothing compared to what my great grandfather went through. Trench warfare and that. I know family members have been through worse. I try to channel that.”
Marcus is right that most of us don’t seek out that kind of “adventure”. Instead, we follow and have our own mini-adventures. And we do it in droves. Marcus’ books and posts have significantly changed the backcountry travel patterns of skiers in the Rockies. Any long-time backcountry skier will tell you places that rarely saw skiers in the past can be wall-to-wall tracks now. Previously lonely slopes will see multiple parties the first weekend after an online post by Marcus. The first winter his Icefields book came out, a friendly-looking slope on OXO Puzzle Peak (whose name I’d never known and on which I had not seen tracks even once over the previous decade) had literally hundreds of ski tracks on it the first month it was skiable.
As more and more of us follow him, Marcus has pulled back from some forums. The attitude that some “new experts” can throw at beginners online unsettles him. “They’re belittling people who have just a bit less experience than themselves, and it’s so sad to watch.” To counter that influence, Marcus has taken out dozens of newer backcountry skiers who have been mocked online for their uninitiated questions. He’s spent days showing them safe slopes and providing pointers to help them enjoy it all. It’s a generosity of time and knowledge that you rarely see in the mountain world.
Skiing has a long history of keeping “secret stashes” secret. But in the backcountry, sharing information can lead to safer skiers, and the amount of available beta continues to increase regardless of the haters. Marcus points out that like humans learning to split an atom, guidebooks “can be used for good or bad.”
I see a lot of good when I see more people enjoying more beautiful places in the National Park. And like most of them, I’m often just happy to follow.