Although I am primarily a rock climber and trail runner, my feet took me on what I like to call the other long walk to nowhere: backcountry skiing (the first being hiking). I’m not just talking skiing the groomers at the resort every single weekend, which in hindsight is what I should have been doing. I am talking about the kind of skiing where earning your turns, hiking for one single run back down the mountain, and variable snow conditions make you respect the mountains. I learned a lot about my attitude this winter and what drives me to be out in the vast landscapes that surround us. Yet the backcountry is where I knew the most fun could be had so the struggles began.
The first skin of the year was up a moderate area known for its ease of access. A quick skin up past two open meadows. I went with a group of guys who were all confident and experienced backcountry skiers. I felt good on the uphill, staying with the group for almost the entire way. Having a heavy ski set up and a burly pair of downhill boots tends to slow me down in the long skins, so sticking with the group was my main goal in the days endeavor. As we reached the top the guys had made a group decision to ski down the other side and then skin back up for an extra lap. Nervous about how long it would take me to ski down, I told them I would keep transitioning and wait up top. As I waited, I slowly peeled my skins off my skis, Warmed my hands up, and tightened every clip on my boots. I got my much needed helmet and goggles out, then wiped the cold snow off a log and sat down.
As 10 minutes went by I had plenty of time to think about the ski down. Would I even be able to make a turn? What trees would I hit on the way? how many times can I fall before I start to get really frustrated in front of a bunch of friends. It seemed to me that I just needed to get out of my mind. I was thinking about going downhill, the “easy” part, way too much. It was simple: point your tips down make a few turns.
First Ski of the New Year! Photo: Akio Joy
Finally, the crew arrives and I click into my skis while they transition. Then, we head off to the meadow through the low angle trees. Soon the positive attitude had taken a nose dive, just as quickly as I was losing the group. Finally, I pop out at the top of a meadow which was covered in forgiving fluffy snow. Perfect! I thought to myself. Struggling to make the first few turns, immediately wishing I wasn’t there. I thought to myself, what a horrible attitude to have- I just want to flow down the mountain, is that to much to ask for? A couple more painfully slow turns were made as I watched five talented skiers float down to the base of the first meadow. Now It was my chance to just give in and learn to fail, get back up and keep trying. As I was making some more snail like turns I started to feel it- The flow everyone talks about. I was making smooth, confident, and connected turns. I was doing it! I hear a whoop and holler from one of my friends ,Seth, and I get even more encouraged with the excitement from the boys. In what seems like no time, I make it down to them and we were all smiles.
That day was a first for me. The feeling of floating confidently on my skies down the mountain was one I could not forget if I tried. The skiing was not what you would call pretty, or fast, or even extreme. Yet Sharing chocolate and smiles in the parking lot was enough for me to want to try a bigger objective.
The second time out a friend and I did a nice long skin to a peak just outside of Bozeman. This day happened to be two days after a big storm came through the area. My thoughts were that the powder was going to be forgiving. That at least if I fell the landing would be soft. As we gained the ridge we dug a pit and decided that the first meadow we came upon with the lowest angle was probably the proper objective for me. As the first couple turns were made, I felt elated. I was doing it again- skiing down a mountain! After about three turns, however, I caught the edge of my ski underneath the powder. I ejected from that ski and got caught up, falling face first into the snow. With my face freezing, I thought to myself, this must be what face shots feel like. I look up hill to see my wreckage and realize I had no clue as to where my ski was. I eventually dug through all the snow and found my ski, clicked it back on and hoped that the rest of the way out would go more smoothly. The tight luge-like skin track had me worried about hitting multiple trees, but after a couple of small open meadows I was feeling the flow. Soon we were in the parking lot psyched to have survived the day. As much as the flow wasn’t quite there that day, the overall objective that was accomplished got me anticipating the next time.
Finally getting the hang of this skiing thing. Photo: Ryan Griffiths
The last time I went out this year was by far the best learning experience despite being the most frustrating. The snow on the way up was already variable; ice, slush, corn, crust. I would slip almost every step forward. As we kept going up, past more trees and no open meadows I couldn’t help but pause and contemplate how I was about to get down after I got to the top. At the ridge my friends reassured me that I would be fine: “just take it slow and make a turn when you can”. Part of me wanted to cry immediately after the first turn. I was already gritting my teeth while turning trying to not fall while also committing to the icy turns I was making. As I watched my three partners float effortlessly down the mountain yet again, I would wait until they were out of sight. Only then would I attempt to follow the tracks they made tears of frustration in my eyes. Upon arriving at them again, I could hardly hold back those tears as they kept encouraging me that the conditions were awful, especially for a beginner. After double ejecting for the 5th time, we made it out of the trees and into the drainage where I pointed it and wanted the day to end. Once back at the car, I realized that it wasn’t worth getting so frustrated and lashing out on my friends. I was in the mountains with friends, I was enjoying their company, and most importantly I was learning. Committing to something with all of our effort and consistently failing is how we learn as a species. As Arno Ilgner put it “there are two types of fear: survival and illusory. The former is healthy and helpful while the latter is not. It is important to be able to distinguish between the two fears”. My fear of falling was illusory, I find this not only in my skiing but in my climbing. The thought of failing and falling on something well below my perceived ability overcomes me so much so that I end up not enjoying the process.
This last outing concluded this year’s ski endeavors. I learned a lot about snow and avy danger, I cried, I got blisters, I almost hit too many trees, but most importantly: I realized, it isn’t how well you can ski, it’s about enjoying the moments and the people who help and encourage you along your path. Often times we look back upon a journey from our celebration at the end of a goal. Because the journey is so important, I decided that my goals should be ever growing. Meaning that If I set my sights on climbing the rostrum this year and I do end up climbing it that should help me realize that it was just a portion of my journey to eventually climb something bigger. We can always expand on our goals, as I found out this year with skiing. I gained more knowledge than If I just sat at home every weekend, even if I did end up only skiing a total of 7 days. Next years goal will be built on my previously achieved aspirations. I think it would be wise to stick to more groomers in the next season, yet at the same time I enjoy struggling.
Follow my footsteps for more mini epics, fun antidotes, and major struggles. More to come as summer approaches.