This Nonprofit Fosters a Supportive Space for First-Time Backcountry Skiers

Founded by 25-year-old Zachary McCarthy, Inclusive Ski Touring invites everyone to give skinning a try.

This Nonprofit Fosters a Supportive Space for First-Time Backcountry Skiers

Founded by 25-year-old Zachary McCarthy, Inclusive Ski Touring invites everyone to give skinning a try.

by Jenny O’Connell
Photography by Andy Gagne

Issue: January // February 2023

“There’s a sense of freedom when I go up to the mountains. I always feel connected to myself,” says Zachary McCarthy, the 25-year-old founder and executive director of Inclusive Ski Touring. “To be able to go out and give someone that experience for the first time is really something special.”

In early winter of 2021, McCarthy started a casual meet-up group based around ski touring on Mt. Abram. His idea was to create a welcoming and supportive space for people to try out the sport, ask questions, get used to the gear, and meet others who shared similar interests. If someone didn’t have boots or skis, there was usually an extra pair in the community. But what started as a simple idea quickly snowballed into something bigger. That first year, over 200 participants came out to ski. The following summer McCarthy, seeing the potential for growth, organized the group as a nonprofit, bringing on a board of directors and collaborating with the Mt. Abram ski shop to make rentals available. “If someone wants to join, I want them to be able to come out and join,” he says. In the 2022 winter season, nearly 500 participants came through the program.

Ski touring—also referred to as skinning, alpine touring, splitboarding, or backcountry skiing—is a sport where people hike up a mountain and ski down. Skins attached to the waxy bottom of your skis or splitboard (a snowboard that splits into two skis for the uphill, and connects back into one board for the ride down) provide traction on the way up, and special bindings allow for heel mobility when climbing. At the top, you lock your heel into place for the ride down the mountain. The sport comes with significant barriers to entry. Ski touring gear can be expensive and confusing. Very few beginner-friendly spaces exist, and ski touring comes with an intimidating reputation; it’s often portrayed in extreme videos where athletes scale remote peaks and bomb down dramatic and consequential terrain. Misconceptions about what ski touring is—and who can do it—are common. “Skiing outside of resort settings is something attainable for anyone with some downhill skiing experience,” McCarthy writes on the Inclusive Ski Touring website. It is simply, he says, a means to have adventure and activity. And that adventure can be as easy or as aggressive as you want to make it.

Zach McCarthy, founder of Inclusive Ski Touring, skis fresh powder on a backcountry tour at sunrise.

A day with Inclusive Ski Touring goes something like this: you show up at Mt. Abram in the early morning. Gear is available for rent, if needed. A guide gives an overview of the day and a quick safety briefing, any questions are answered, and then you’re off. Summiting the mountain via the 1.4-mile alpine ski trail takes 90 minutes, with an elevation gain of a little over 1,000 feet. Gorgeous mountain vistas greet you at the top, and then you lock in your boots and ski back down, only to turn around and do it all again, if you choose. You’re off the beaten trail, away from the hustle of the resort. There’s an element of adventure, and wildness. Every turn is hard-earned.

McCarthy first fell in love with skiing as a child when his family, who lived in Saco, went in on a condo near Sunday River. At first, it was all about the downhill. But when McCarthy was 12 years old, his neighbor on the mountain, Paul LeBlanc, took his son and McCarthy on their first ski touring expedition, skinning up a mountain and skiing back down. “I always looked at what Paul was doing, and thought it was something so special. It was a different level of adventure than what everyone else was doing,” McCarthy says. “Uphill skiing is all about the adventure. To be able to get out, to get away from other people, to explore—it’s magical.”

Ski touring comes with an intimidating reputation, often portrayed in movies as an extreme sport available to a select few. Inclusive Ski Touring aims to provide a welcoming place to try out gear, ask questions, and build community.

More than a decade later, McCarthy still appreciates the support he had getting into ski touring. “I was very privileged to have the opportunities to go out and ski growing up, but even so, it was very hard to get into. Without someone else to show me the ropes and get me into the gear, it wouldn’t have been possible,” he says. While working at a ski shop in the winter of 2020/2021, McCarthy started casually tossing out tour invitations on social media—and people started showing up. He quickly saw the potential to pay that support forward to others. “It was halfway through the season when I realized there was something really there,” he says. “I fell in love with sharing it.”

“I haven’t seen anything else that makes it this easy to try this activity in Maine, and I would not do this on my own,” says Hayley SooHoo, who made the trek from Waterville with her partner, Ben Scharadin, to try uphill skiing with Inclusive Ski Touring for the first time in 2022. “It was unintimidating,” says Scharadin. “I came away with a good taste in my mouth. It was approachable, and I’m interested.”

Inclusive Ski Touring partners with Mt. Abram’s ski shop to make touring gear more accessible.

Approachability is a great starting place, but as the organization’s name suggests, inclusivity is the ultimate aim. “The lack of diversity throughout the outdoor industry is a big problem,” says McCarthy. “We can’t change the industry, but we want to play what small part we can.” During the 2022 season, Inclusive Ski Touring ran six programs tailored for and guided by women, and partnered with Outdoor Afro and Mountain Shadow Adventures to support a tour for BIPOC skiers. “I’ve never seen so many people who look like me out skiing,” says Inclusive Ski Touring secretary Bryce Barnes in Ski Together, a short film created last year about the organization. “I don’t think there was one second of the day when I wasn’t smiling ear to ear.” In 2023, Inclusive Ski Touring leaders hope to create even more spaces for women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ athletes.

“This program is for everybody,” McCarthy says. Though the program is still in its infancy and runs entirely on volunteer efforts, McCarthy hopes to see it reach sustainability. “What keeps me driving right now? It’s the hope,” he says. “This is a passion project. It’s something I want to grow and share with others. If I can get 15 people on skis next year who weren’t touring before, you can’t put a price tag on that.”

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