"How do you do it, Ralphy?"
Big-mountain snowboarder John Rodosky is half-kidding, half-serious when he poses this question to Ralph Backstrom in a hotel at the base of Revelstoke Mountain Resort in British Columbia. It's mid-January and Backstrom has just won the opening competition of the 2013 Freeride World Tour, with Rodosky in eighth place. Backstrom, the defending champion, didn't just finish first; he made one of the scariest mountains on tour look like a playground, hence Rodosky's inquiry.
True to his personality, Backstrom laughs off the comment without really answering. But it's a fair question, and more people than just Rodosky have reason to wonder.
In the past two years, Backstrom has gone from a rider on the fringe of snowboarding's elite to one of the hottest athletes in the game. He's currently No. 1 on the Freeride World Tour after four of six events, he's filmed with Teton Gravity Research and for Jeremy Jones' backcountry trilogy in some of the world's steepest ranges, and his list of sponsors now includes the likes of GoPro and Alaskan heli outfitter Points North.
Still, anyone who knows Backstrom knows that none of this is likely to change him. Follow him around the mountain on a powder day, listen to him wax prophetic about life, and you realize why he's having success. It has more to do with his mind than his talent, although there's plenty of that too.
For starters, he doesn't waste time. "We all like to get off the chairlift and go to the bottom without stopping, and you do a lot of that with Ralph," says fellow Lake Tahoe rider and FWT competitor Sammy Luebke, who is second in the standings behind Backstrom.
Yet Backstrom's gift is that he never seems to be in a hurry. He thinks before he speaks and earns respect without trying, from riders his age as well as the sport's pioneers. During a morning powder shred at Revelstoke, he and some of his friends suddenly found themselves riding next to snowboard legends (and FWT judges) Tom Burt, Temple Cummins and Andy Hetzel. Backstrom's group was trying to capture video footage and thus wasn't going as fast as Burt's, but for 100 yards the two generations rode side by side down Revy's famous Kill the Banker run.
Later, Burt, who lives near Backstrom in the Tahoe area, said, "I don't ride with too many guys who ride in a style that I enjoy. Ralph's one of the few people I can rip around the mountain with and have a great time."
Backstrom gained his first measure of renown by beating Xavier de Le Rue and Terje Haakonsen at the Mt. Baker Banked Slalom when he was 18. Lately, though, despite his FWT success and commitment to winning the world title, he's thinking more and more about riding (and camping) in remote places. Earlier this winter, Backstrom had his eye on a coveted and largely untouched face outside Lake Tahoe. Local legends Jim Zellers and Glen Poulsen have been eyeing it for years, but it's hard to reach, requiring a 25-mile snowmobile ride just to get to the zone.
"We got on it two seasons ago then last season didn't have the conditions to ride it," Backstrom said. "It's about a 1,500-foot face and in a good winter it spines up in places. So it's like a little bit of AK in Tahoe. The zone is really big. I think we could easily spend a week back there."
Beyond that, he is hoping to spend a good chunk of April in Alaska and continue pushing himself on his splitboard. When riding consequential terrain, Backstrom, 29, draws strength from his older brother Arne, who passed away in a 2010 ski mountaineering accident in Peru's Cordillera Blanca.
"I still think about Arne every day," Ralph said. "There are times when I go snowboarding and at the end of the day, I'm like, I didn't think about Arne today. And then I realize that I was thinking about him pretty much all day."
As Backstrom's profile has grown in snowboarding, he's gotten more conscious about nature's fragility and what his generation can do to protect -- and appreciate -- the outdoors. "Young people don't need to change their entire life or stop having fun because there's this scary issue," he said. "Just all the small things we can do, like turning off the lights, carpooling or riding your bike. I think kids need to get outdoors with each other. It's easy to get caught up in what's going on with your phone, but put your phone away and get away from everything and enjoy it."
He practices what he preaches in that regard. But he also feeds his free spirit with ambition.
Back in Revelstoke, after a half-dozen powder runs and three gondola interviews, Backstrom announces he's heading home.
"I'm going to go spin for a while," he says.
Not on his snowboard, mind you -- on the exercise bike at his hotel. He has a world title to win, lest anyone forget.