Learning to Ski in the Backcountry

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Herman’s Gulch. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lee 

I wasn’t nervous when I purchased the skis. I wasn’t nervous when I set them behind the door of my apartment next to the cardboard box with the heavy ski boots and bindings. I wasn’t nervous when I took them to REI to be mounted and the man behind the counter asked me how long I had been skiing and I said, “this is my first time.”

“You’re going to learn to ski in the backcountry?” he said. I nodded.

“Good luck.”

But the night before my first trip, as I stood in my apartment trying to clip my clunky boots into the narrow bindings—toe then heel—my heart began to pound. My ankles felt restricted, my feet were snug, and my quick, short bursts of breath lent themselves to the claustrophobia setting in. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t escape. What would happen to my knees when I fell? How would they twist with long planks strapped to my feet, ripping them through the snow?

I was sweating through my shirt.

I woke up before the sun the next morning and force-fed myself a bowl of oatmeal. I filled a metal thermos with coffee. I filled a backpack with warm clothes, extra gloves and socks, a bottle of water, ski skins. I looked at my skis leaning against the wall and felt my stomach churn.

My snow pants swished as I moved around my apartment, waiting.

When the headlights appeared out the window, I swallowed my last bite of oatmeal and moved through the door, my skis tucked under my arm, my boots swinging from my other hand.

In the car, I picked the skin around my thumbnail until it bled.

Trees whirred by in flashes of white and evergreen. I envisioned myself falling over and over again until I made myself sick and had to lean my head back and close my eyes.

When we arrived at Herman’s Gulch, I slipped the snug boots onto my feet, not even certain I had strapped them on correctly. J. handed me a beacon, a black plastic box foreign to me that strapped around my waist and shoulder and gave a loud beep when he turned the switch on.

“We’re going to practice,” J. said and shoed me away from the car, down through the parking lot, until I could no longer hear his beacon beeping. I squatted behind a snow-covered car and waited. Within minutes, he was close, and his beacon was so close to mine that the beep was almost a constant tone.

We switched and I closed my eyes as he ran down the parking lot and hid behind a car. I followed the arrows on my beacon and watched the number of meters decrease between us until I was next to him, the constant tone muffled by the snow. He clicked them both off of search mode.

In the event of an avalanche, this is how we would find each other.

Also added to my pack was a probe to poke down through the snow to find a buried person. And a shovel, if I should need to dig them out.

We walked up to the trailhead and stuck the carpet-like skins to the smooth undersides of the skis, pressing them flat with the palms of our glove-covered hands. After a few tries, my toes were clipped into my skis, the heels unclipped to allow for the climb up the mountainside.

I nearly tripped on the first step—the ski pulling awkwardly through the snow. The second step, my skis crossed and I fell onto my side. I laughed and pulled my body up, steadied myself and continued up the mountainside.

Kick, slide, pull. Kick, slide, pull.

I was out of breath immediately. We shed our winter coats, stuffing them into our backpacks and continued on in light base layers and snow pants.

J. stopped every couple hundred yards and waited for me to catch up.

Kick, slide, pull. Kick, slide, pull.

The skis slid like ice on each step up, and held like a boot on gravel at the end of the stride.

I fell multiple more times, clumsily crossing my skis over each other, getting caught up in snow covered willows, before we even made it to the second climb.

Which proved steeper than expected. My skis slid backwards, no longer holding to the snow at the steep angle of the ascent. Every few feet I had to stop just to breathe. My back was damp with sweat beneath my pack and the effort to lift the weight of the ski with each step was becoming unbearable. At this point we had been out for hours.

When we reached the top, we tucked behind a few clumped pines, blocked from the wind.

I fumbled with the bindings, unclipped, and lay down in the snow.

Within minutes, hot damp sweat turned into freezing evaporation, and even with my down layers zipped snuggly over my torso, my teeth began to chatter.

We had to keep moving.

J. took me to the back side of the mountain, where the peak leveled off into a gentle slope and taught me how to turn.

Pole down, weight on the outside heal, pivot, bring the toes together, strain the hip flexors, slow down, stop. Repeat.

By the grace of the universe, I managed not to fall in this initial phase. Which perhaps gave me the confidence not to cry out as we came upon the drop, the final descent. Straight down, through a maze of trees speckled on the mountainside.

I fell on the first 6-7 turns. Each fall made it harder to get back up. Each fall wedged snow up my jacket, into my gloves, and made it that much harder to pull the skis back up.

I won’t say I took these falls laughing or with grace. In fact, I took most of them in completely exhausted anguish—at one point uncertain that I would have the strength to heave my body perpendicular to the mountain.

J. helped when he could and called out encouragements when he couldn’t.

By the end of the run, I made several turns without falling and stayed on my feet. And it was only then that I laughed.

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Herman’s Gulch. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lee

A few more falls on the way back, a few toes completely numb from cramped boots, and we made it to the car.

It was no wonder people fell in love with winter in the mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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