More than twenty years ago, I took my first turns out of the ski resort and into a new world. For those of you who know me, you know that touring, and skiing in general, is without doubt a central part of how I identify myself, a major factor in my lifestype and defines nearly every important relationship I have. (Thanks Sabine!) I suspect that for the kinds of people who read ski blogs – this is probably not that uncommon.
That first day was amazing – amazingly awful – but long before I got out there and tried to be a backcountry skier, something began to pull me deeper into the hills and I wanted to expirience the quiet of the snow so badly that no one day, however poor, could have ever stopped me from touring, and touring again.
Sometimes I get asked, on a “bad” day, when the weather is howling, or the gear is futzing up, or the snow sucks, or whatever, exactly why I am still so happy….kind of cool. I wouldn’t say that this is generally a quality of mine – but in addition to the fact that a day skiing is always better than, well, anything – I can always look back to my first day on skins and make a favorable comparison. Its certainly a case of self-schadenfreude – no matter what I am experiencing at the moment in question – I still have it better than me – twenty years prior.
The story is pretty funny – so here goes:
I grew up in South Carolina. While offering a great climate for alligators and golf-courses, it is not, generally, considered a skiing state. I was extremely lucky to have a mother who, being a German immigrant, had grown up skiing and was a proficient skier. As soon as she recognized that my brother and I quite liked skiing on the little hills in the mountains of North Carolina, she made a great effort, and would drive us, nearly every weekend, all the way to West Virginia to ski on the somewhat larger hills there. It was a four hour trip one-way – so I have a lot to thank her for.
We’d also ski once or twice a year out west – all of which was expensive and even more unusual because my Dad did not ski – and refused to – but he went along, and so my brother and I became skilled skiers with a lot of time on snow, and a great coach in Mom as well. It wasn’t long before I began dreaming of a life in the big mountains and the adventures I would have there when I was grown.
School was the priority though, and although I had always wanted to go to school out west, the death of my mother when I was seventeen put me in a mood to stay closer to home. (I have always regretted this decision….) So high school and university both played out in the Carolinas, with the other kids going to spring break and me going skiing…often, alone.
I graduated in December (dismal student) and a week later I had packed my things into my car and set off for Colorado with plans to explore and live the dreams I’d been dreaming for so long. I’d wanted very much to take a friend – but he backed out at the last possible minute – so it was a lonely ride, and a lonely time in general as I drifted from ski-town to ski town.
I had been reading magazines, and at least in some of the hard-core prints, I had seen pictures of guys tracking up untouched powder far from the lifts. It wasn’t at all about testosterone-fueled adventure – back then, the lines were mellow, the people quiet, and one of the main draws was the lack of regulation and the cost of a day’s skiing – namely: zero. It seemed like a good idea to me – but I had none of the equipment, knew nobody who had ever done it, and didn’t have any idea where to start. I figured that in Boulder, Colorado – a town full of alternative, hippyish college kids in the mountains – I might be able to get a lead on this thing and make it happen. So that’s where I went.
I knew that at that time, almost everybody used some weird kind of equipment called “telemark gear” to access the backcountry. I had seen pictures of that stuff – but at the time I thought that learning how to use it was going to be like starting over, (it’s not) and I wasn’t really keen on being a greenhorn beginner again. I had read some articles on “randonee gear” which I had seen on occasion in Europe skiing with Mom and was super-exotic and arousing the interest of a few of the magazines I was reading. It was French for “touring gear” and for a long time, Americans used that word to describe it, because it was not the norm. I thought that once I got to Boulder, I’d be able to go into any ski shop on any street, and pick up this stuff – and away I would go. Not so….
I got to town and all the ski shops I went to had only alpine gear – I asked for “the kind of shop where people go to buy backcountry gear” and was told to go to Neptune Mountaineering. I had never heard of this place, of course, but I found it, and indeed, they did have all kinds of gear for real mountaineering. It was all very intimidating – ropes and sharp, pointy things all over the place. Its since changed ownership, and I can’t testify to its current qualities, but I learned later that, at the time, Neptune was probably one of the best, and most well-known alpinist’s shops in North America. I was very lucky to have bumped into it.
Neptune’s did indeed have telemark gear – but when I asked about “randonee” stuff – there were smiles all around. Yes – they informed me – Neptunes did in fact have a randonee set-up, and a nice one at that. I was given to understand that it was unique in the state of Colorado and possibly one of only four or five in the entire United States!
This did not dampen my enthusiasm. I was, after all, a young man, convinced of my invincibility and of the ineptitude of the general population. I bought it – despite the fact that the boots were a bit small and I didn’t know how it worked. At the time, there were no generally available transceivers, but you were expected to carry a probe and a shovel – so I did, and I knew that getting buried was a real concern so I asked if there was a course I could take.
It just so happened that there was! Very convenient as well, I thought – it was a one-day course, and it was the very next day! I could come to the shop at something like o-dark-thirty and hop on a bus, which would wisk us all into the hills above town and we’d get avalanche training skills and a day in the snow to boot. I signed up.
I was really nervous that morning. It was obvious the day before that I was the kid from South Carolina that was trying to become a backcountry skier, and I wanted to make a good impression on my fellow backcounty explorers. (BTW – I STILL get that to this day when people find out I’m from South Carolina….people will ask me why I ski….like why bother?….it’s fucking rude, it’s exclusive and I hate it. I mean – when all you monkeys come to the beach every summer we never were like….”Beach towels? Really? I thought you didn’t have beaches in Wyoming? Did you learn to swim on an exchange program or something?”….anyway…I digress) So I trundle up to the shop with all the gear I’ve got – and I’m wearing the boots, cause, they got soles on and all – and I’m trying to look….competent.
One by one – others start turning up – and what’s concerning, after a cursory kindness in my direction, they begin asking all the others present “how was your summer?” or “Heeeeyyy – great to see you! How are the kids? Is Shelly adjusting to life at Western State?” The point is – I was the odd man out in this group. They ALL knew each other – and worse – this was the one and only avalanche course because, in a world where people did not generally do avalanche courses – these were the hardest of the hard-core – the one’s serious enough about their hobby that they had set up this course, as they did every year, as a kind of kick-off for their season of shredding. They were fucking pros. All of them. Minus me.
I sat – alone, and drove to unfamiliar mountains for my first turns in a year, and my first time ever on backcountry gear. My stuff had caused a bit of commotion, as no one in the group had ever seen randonee gear before, and most were certain it was never going to be any good. (got that one right) I didn’t want the attention, as I was sure now everyone would be checking me out all day to see how good or bad that stuff was.
Piling out of the bus – I fiddled with my skins and gear. I had no idea how to get them on and using my new dynafit bindings was a special kind of hell in my self-conscious state. I finally got it all together, and just in time, because the group – with very little fanfare and less warning, took off up the hill in snow up to our knees.
I don’t remember it being very steep – but I knew immediately that I was in for a tough day. I was well above 3000 meters and only a week prior I had been at sea level, and although I don’t really remember, I probably wasn’t in great shape. I flagged from the first moment, and began to panic a little that I was not going to be able to keep up.
I tried to keep up appearances, of course, but my sweating, red face, and my huffing and puffing were a giveaway – and some of the passers hit me with “how’s it treatin’ ya” and other words of un-encouragement didn’t make it much better. I got left waaaay behind, but with no way to get home, or even knowing where I was going, I followed tracks as fast as I could, and reached the stopping point, thankfully below the peak, well after all the others and dead last.
My momentary elation at my triumph was cut short as I realized that the group, having long since arrived, had lounged in the sun while resting, chatting and eating their lunch. I don’t really know how long they had been there, but their easy banter and beaming faces were a sharp contrast to my lobster-hue and ragged breath. As I arrived – they began again – fresh and new, while I sopped the sweat from my brow and frantically pulled my lunch, my probe and my shovel from my pack. I ate as fast as I could in an effort to keep up. I don’t think I chewed well, and I drank way too much, too quickly, to lubricate my heavy beef sandwich into my already churning stomach.
At the time – the primary instrument in avalanche safety was the snow-pit. You’d dig one or two or three-thousand of these on every trip and examine the snow layers, afterwards performing standardized tests for stability. The same kind of stuff you do today, really, but at the time that was the only method taught to evaluate snowpack stability.
All this meant was that our course, as it was then, was basically a bunch of digging. All day long. Digging is hard work, and I was already wiped out when I got to the pits! Looking back over time, you can see that quite a lot of the gear we use has drastically improved, and shovels are no exception. Mine was new – and state of the art, but compared to today’s shovels it was heavy, performed poorly when slicing into the snow and it had a handle that was so short that even children in a sandbox wouldn’t have used it. I dug and dug – wheezing and sweating, and getting alternately dizzy and queasy.
I was alone, of course. No friends for me on this day – so while others chatted and took a breather I was digging digging digging. I tried the whole time to keep it together, and unfortunately for me – the other participants behaved as if everything was normal.
We dig the first pit, and look it over. I start to feel really badly and pass out in the bottom of my pit. I can’t say what happened or how long I was out, but when I came to – everybody was digging a second pit – and it appeared that I had gone completely unnoticed!
As I was a young man and painfully unaware of the state of tort law in the United States at the time, I did not immediately contact my lawyer and sue the pants off the organizing institution. I was proud – so I promptly began digging a second pit. Having the first pit beside me was a bit of a blessing now because it became convenient to take a few shovels of snow, then vomit into the old pit, and cover said sick with a few shovels of new snow. This continued for some time.
Shovel. Barf. Shovel. Barf. Shovel, barf, smile at neighbor.
I don’t know what the hell they taught us that day, obviously. As a matter of fact – years of study later – I don’t think they knew what they were teaching us then either, but my physical condition precluded any real learning.
At some point, we all put on our gear and the crew made graceful telemark turns through what must have been a lovely snowfield down to the bus. I couldn’t link two turns together, and was in bliss when they were all out of sight and I didn’t have to die the small death of embarrassment with every flop.
I got on the bus, last – sat in the back and fell asleep. The bus driver woke me when everybody else had already disembarked and collected their gear. I took a cab home as driving was impossible.
I took the next three days off – but on the fourth day. I went back. Alone. I have never stopped since – ever.
I am so thankful for that day. I got to see the alpine wilderness that I had always dreamed of, and it was better than I had imagined. I did the things I had dreamed of doing, and I knew more afterwards than before. I saw people – who could do this sport without suffering and were one-hundred times cooler than anybody at the ski-hill and they were the proof that you could be here, and do these things, and laugh and joke and have a great day. I wanted more than ever to do those things, to be one of them and to live that life.
Nothing we ever do in life that is worth doing is easy. The road to greatness is littered with stones and the way is rough. My day of suffering proved to me that this was indeed my way – and I knew from that day on that I would always be a skier. Forever.
So – help the new guys out. Some of them want it really bad.