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Monday, May 10, 2010
Updated: June 18, 5:29 PM ET
Three of a kind

By Devon O'Neil

From left: Ralph, Ingrid and Arne Backstrom.

The way Ingrid Backstrom tells the story, it was only a matter of time until the snowriding world discovered what she'd known all her life -- that her two younger brothers, Arne and Ralph, charged bold, exposed lines in uncontrolled snow with nary a whiff of hesitation; launched cliffs with more speed than most pros; and made entire mogul fields look like smooth powder.

When she was in college, Ingrid, 31, remembers going home to her beloved Crystal Mountain, 70 miles from the Seattle suburbs where she grew up, and seeing Ralph "just chucking backflips." When did Ralph learn to throw a backflip? she wondered. Two years later, at 18, he beat snowboarding legends Terje Haakonsen and Xavier De Le Rue at the Mt. Baker Legendary Banked Slalom.

Even after she hit it big, spending 30 days per year on heli shoots in places like Alaska and British Columbia with the most radical skiers on earth, Ingrid kept telling Matchstick Productions' Scott Gaffney the same thing -- that her brother Arne was still the best skier she'd seen.

The Backstrom kids during a rare day when they were actually indoors.

But Arne and Ralph weren't about to peddle themselves. That is not the Backstrom family way, never has been. So for the better part of a decade, as Ingrid became the closest thing skiing has to Beyoncé, her two biggest inspirations not named Mom and Dad remained virtually unnoticed.

The thing about a Backstrom's talent, however, is that it's impossible to hide forever -- especially when you follow your big sister to the snowy proving ground that is Squaw Valley USA, as Ralph and Arne did. Their emergence finally materialized this past season.

After making a name for himself in Chamonix last May -- more on the famous ice-climbing wall he skied in a minute -- Arne, 29, filmed his second straight segment with Warren Miller Entertainment this winter in addition to a part with MSP. He won the McConkey Cup as the Freeskiing World Tour champion, then returned to Chamonix in mid April and is headed to Peru for some ski mountaineering with Sweetgrass Productions the last week of May.

Ralph, meanwhile, has been more or less handpicked by 15-year Squaw local Jeremy Jones, who is showing him in his new movie "Deeper, Further, Higher" and sponsors him on the Jones Snowboards team. In April, Ralph took fourth at the stacked King of the Hill competition in Alaska, and Outside magazine ran a two-page spread of him slashing a couloir in Antarctica. At 27, he lives in the multimillion-dollar Unofficial Squaw mansion and makes a living by recording his adventures with a helmet cam.

If nothing else, the brothers' sudden ascension has changed at least one dynamic for good. "I would say in general, people know that Ingrid Backstrom has brothers now," Jones said.

Some families brunch together. The Backstroms clan climbs peaks like Washington's Mt. Rainier.

It should come as no surprise that the Backstroms' parents, Steve and Betsy, fell in love on a ski run. They've been married 36 years, most of which time they spent as volunteer weekend patrollers. In fact, Steve, a steel salesman, and "Bionic" Betsy, a tutor for special-ed students whose nickname comes from her ability to ski hard all day, are as close to local legends as you'll find at Crystal.

They are also spontaneous free spirits, like their children. When Betsy was pregnant with Ingrid, Steve had to fly to Sweden, to tend to some family business. While there, he ripped out the Backstrom section of the phone book, and they named Ingrid and Arne after two random people in Stockholm.

Every winter weekend in the late '80s and '90s, they'd load their three young kids into the "Bookmobile" -- a 20-foot-long, 13,500-pound 1954 GMC that was used to deliver library books -- and drive up to the Cascades for two days of skiing.

Steve and Betsy Backstrom spent the winters as volunteer ski patrollers.

"We put 'em in the racing program because they got to a point where they could outski their friends, and we knew if they didn't have friends to ski with, they wouldn't ski," Betsy said.

The Backstroms competed for the same Crystal Mountain Alpine Club that produced World Cup racers Scott Macartney, Libby Ludlow, Tatum Skoglund and Paul McDonald. They were not the best racers, but they had their moments, especially Arne. One day, as Steve watched his son on course, Olympic champion Phil Mahre happened to be standing next to him. Mahre turned to Steve and said, "That kid's got a great feel."

"And I said, 'Well actually, that's my son,'" Steve recalled. "And he said, 'You can't teach that. It's in here,' and he tapped his chest."

The Backstroms became standouts at Highline High School, with Ingrid paving the way as a straight-A student, three-sport varsity athlete and co-valedictorian. She, like Arne two years later, went on to attend Whitman College, a prestigious liberal-arts school in Walla Walla, Wash., where they joined the ski team.

She was in the middle of a 1999 summer internship at a geologic consulting firm in Seattle when she realized something disturbing: she was pathetically excited about the free donuts every Friday. She imagined herself working at a desk as a middle-aged woman and became disgusted. The epiphany would indirectly shape all three Backstrom siblings' lives.

Ingrid was the first Backstrom to become a household name in snowsports, but her brothers aren't far behind.

After college, instead of embarking on what she called the "OAP" -- Only Acceptable Path ("get good grades, get a good-paying job, work hard, picket fence, etc.") -- Ingrid took her geology degree and moved to Squaw, sight unseen. She found a job at a café and skied her brains out, thinking she'd do it for a year and then find a corporate job in a city.

Of course, one year morphed into two, and she started winning big-mountain contests. In the fall of 2003, Matchstick co-founder Steve Winter e-mailed to see if she'd be interested in filming. She was.

Arne, meanwhile, took the corporate route slightly further. He landed a coveted rep job with Volkl/Tecnica one year after graduating from Whitman as a chemistry major; the gig took him to Vail, where he promptly grew miserable. Too much work, not enough steep skiing. "I hated it," he said.

He quit in the summer of 2006 and moved to Squaw, joining Ralph, who had joined Ingrid after failing to land a job with Accenture upon his graduation from Western Washington (with an International Business degree) in December 2005. For the first time, Arne and Ralph began focusing on their pro careers.

Arne Backstrom in Revelstoke, B.C. en route to winning the Freeskiing World Tour stop there.

"Ingrid's success definitely had an influence on us," Ralph said. "It just brought it home that it was possible, made it seem more realistic."

As Ingrid racked up Powder Video Awards and Reader's Poll victories, Ralph and Arne paid their dues on Squaw's steeps. Ralph, always one of the first in line for the KT-22 chair, caught Jeremy Jones' eye by straightlining mogul fields and stomping big airs in horrible conditions. Arne, known for high-speed cliff jumps, learned how to score points with freeskiing judges, which paid off this season.

The factor most responsible for their recent success, however, has been their increased backcountry profiles. Ralph cut his own splitboard last summer and now is a regular touring partner of Jones. "What impresses me the most [about Ralph] is he really tackles huge mountains with a lot of speed and power," says the legendary big mountain ripper. "There's very few people who can ride like that."

Arne has turned his attention to ski mountaineering. Last spring he flew to Chamonix, bought a pair of crampons and an ice axe, and began rappelling into massive couloirs. In a valley where it takes years to establish oneself, he proceeded to knock off some of the biggest lines in the Alps. Most notable among them were his descents, with Dave Rosenbarger, of the fabled Mallory Couloir, a giant ice-climbing route under the Aguille du Midi that almost never gets skied; and the Himalayan Face, an 11,066-foot run off the west face of Mont Blanc.

"For someone to walk into Chamonix and leave an impact on that town is pretty unheard of," said Jones, who was in Chamonix at the same time. "He was putting turns on places where people normally sideslip. Every time I'd see my friends in town, they'd be like, 'Who's this Arne Backstrom guy?' And these are people who it takes a lot to impress."

Ralph has always had a mean backflip, and photographer Jeff Hawe estimates that he blasted this one in AK at about 50 mph.

Bound by their humility, Ingrid, Arne and Ralph nonetheless maintain eccentric, individual personalities. Ingrid is the gregarious, responsible big sister; Arne the quiet, meticulous engineer, who can repair everything from a car to a vacuum cleaner; and Ralph the perpetually smiling creative brain, who dotes on his house plants and sprays each leaf one at a time.

"It's a bit of a joke around town; they're just this über-talented family," said Squaw local Emily Turner, who is friends with all three siblings.

Yet while Ingrid once monopolized their surname's renown, Turner said a collective profile has emerged.

"They're 'the Backstroms.' And increasingly so."