Spring is a funny time in the high-country. Powder skiing turns to corn skiing. Backcountry skiers venture farther and higher into the mountains to ski bigger lines. Some folks abandon skiing altogether and dust off their mountain bikes for spring desert trips. Others drive to lower altitudes to find dry crags for rock climbing. It’s like outdoor sport schizophrenia. The time of year when your vehicle is always loaded down with all the different types of adventure equipment and you decide daily which activity is on the agenda. It’s fun. It’s confusing.
For backcountry ski adventurers, Spring is the season of suffering. Good suffering. Type 2 fun. As the spring sun takes a higher angle in the sky, days get longer, and the temps get warmer, our go-to ski spots become harder (if not impossible) to access. No longer are we putting our skins on in our backyard for a quick afternoon tour. In fact, we are rarely still in ski boots by the time afternoon rolls around. Our days begin several hours before first light, often in hiking shoes, skis and boots attached to our packs, and sharp things at the ready for when the climb gets steep. Some may refer to our plans as “hair-brained.”
When the alarm went off at 2:45am, I groaned. It’s an awful time to wake up and nobody ever gets to bed early enough to make 3 am seem like an appropriate hour to be roused from slumber. You really have to want it. I wanted it. So, I got up, and put the coffee on. In the pre-dawn darkness, waiting for that hot liquid that would surely make 3 am seem like an okay time to be awake, I decided to look over the maps once last time before heading out to meet the boys. The plan was in place, well, two-thirds of it at least. We’d start out walking on a seasonal forest road until we hit snow, then throw the skis on and before long we’d be at the top. Plan A was to ski an east facing chute then climb back to the top and ski a north facing line into a different drainage than we climbed. Seemed simple enough.
Maps and plans are “theory.” Until you are standing beneath the objective, you have little knowledge of the “reality.” As we approached the base of the behemoth mountain around sunrise, it didn’t take long to realize that Plan A was shaping up to be a lot like showing up to an all-you-can-eat buffet with a growling stomach. There was clearly no way we could eat everything we’d piled on our plate. So, we abandoned the “warm up” line and shifted our focus to the main event, a 3,600 foot north facing couloir descending into no-man’s land. The descent would dump us into a relatively mysterious zone, with very little beta available for planning. We had decided ahead of time that we would make our egress plan once we got down there and put eyes on the lay of the land.
Just to reiterate, maps are mostly theory. Sure, you can get an idea of general topography. But, what you don’t see on maps, are the micro-details, the rock outcroppings, the cliffs, the trees, the little creeks, seasonal conditions, or the deadfall. To make a long story short, what seemed like a relatively straightforward exit, became one of the longest slogs back to the car of all time. After almost 9 miles and several hours of walking, in the sun, carrying gear that got heavier with each step, and discussing topics like hanging up the ski gear for the summer and the definition of the word “private”, we made it back to our starting point. By the end of the 13 hour day, we had all resolved to take at least a week (if not the whole summer) off from skis, boots, crampons, Clif bars, deadfall, and suffering.
It has been five days, and I’m just wondering what we are skiing next…or biking…or climbing….