Backcountry Skiing with Dogs (or, I want to write about heaven)

“I want to write.”

Has your brain ever spoken to you so loudly that it feels like a voice external to you speaking?

Last night, in the dark, where just a moment earlier I had been falling asleep, came the not-sound, insistent.

“I want to write.”

I haven’t stopped writing. I write a dizzying number of emails. My journal is never far from my side. And yet, I don’t write.

Instead, the evenings and weekend hours when I would have written, I still write but I swap one language for another.

Javascript.

∆∆

I’m sure I’ll talk about that more some other time. For now, suffice to say, even in this moment when I’m writing (finally), I feel the guilt.

I’m writing, but I’m not coding. I’m not studying. I’m not working toward something.

Am I?

∆∆

Let’s not get distracted.

∆∆

Nova is curled up, a tight bun shape, on the couch. She’s tired because yesterday she ran.

Oh, how she ran!

We – my boyfriend, my dog, and I – went to St Vrain. There’s less snow than when he and I went last year, but the snow that is feels surprisingly soft. No melt freeze crust to punch through, just snow wind packed.

When I got Nova, I resigned myself to having a dog that might never be allowed off leash. Huskies aren’t known for their penchant for sticking around. But there is something else in her. And this other side is what I wanted – obedient, responsive, a white shadow at my heel.

Granted, she doesn’t actually know “heel.”

She is a mix of these things. A snow dog that loves to run and wander. An independent spirit who checks back to make sure I’m still there. Who learns quickly to run behind the skier, just to one side. Who comes when called – eventually.

But who gets distracted and has to be gone back for, calling her name as I carry my skis back up the skin track until rounding the corner I see her, just at the next corner up, looking down to be sure it’s me.

IMG_3978

Can I try to tell you what it felt like to see her running with me?

I have new skis, new bindings, new boots, and new skins. I’ve skinned up this path on St Vrain before, but never with such comparative ease. The pain in my knee that plagued and crippled me all last winter, gone. The weight of my old equipment dragged me down and held me back. The right, light gear seemed to propel me forward.

And a white dog ducking in and out of the woods. She alternated between trotting along on the skin track and wiggling through the deep snow on her belly.

We hadn’t broken tree line when we decided to turn around for the day, but discomfort in my right foot (the previously broken foot) and rising wind speeds made the decision easy.

My partner and I switched to downhill, and so did she.

We alternated, finding it best to keep the dog between us as we skied.

When it was my turn to ski first, she ran at my tails as if she knew the command for “heel.”

She ran just at my periphery. A tilt of my head and there she was, tongue out and charging.

When we stopped to let her catch her breath, she dove into deeper snow. When we started again, she was there, running at the heel of whichever of us was first.

In me, with skis on my feet and dog at my heel, the sense of Vonnegut’s heaven; everything is beautiful and nothing – not my knee, not my tweaked shoulder, not my mind – hurt.

∆∆

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The Slog: Or, Existentialism, Cycling, and the Open Door

In Satre’s play, No Exit, three people wake up in hell. Their new world consists of each other, a small room, and a door.

Once all three subjects enter the room, shepherded in by a demure psychopomp, the door locks. Though they may try, none of the characters are able to budge it. Their shouts of protest go unheard.

But, wait. Let me tell you something first. Keep reading. I’ll get back to No Exit, I promise.

But first:

Besides Ultimate, my sports are essentially individual. Running, skiing, cycling. These are things I do because even if I go out with other people, I can do these things alone.

It’s cycling I’m writing about now.

Two weekends ago, I finished my first Century. 100 miles in the rolling hills north of San Francisco.

This was the farthest I’ve ever ridden and the longest I’ve ever been in the saddle.

Months earlier, my brother called me up with the intention of scaring me. putting the fear of hill climbs in me – goading me to either back down or buck up.

I was more irritated than frightened, but the outcome was the same. Hours spent going uphill.

I am known among my bike-riding friends for descending fast, losing myself to gravity and momentum. It pulls me down, propels me forward. Descents are an out of body experience.

The uphill is completely different.

Do I love the push? The halting, painful climb? The screaming lungs, the protesting thighs?

Moving against gravity, I am aware of my own weight. I feel sweat evaporate on my skin. My mind staggers along its own course, lurching from the color of the asphalt to philosophy to lunch to mistakes to half-forgotten dreams.

I must love it.

Why else would I bother?

Why else would my life be riddled with skin tracks, with thin tires spinning through muddy roads, with scraped knees and skin tight shoes pressing against stone.

The descent isn’t difficult. You just find yourself on the top of a hill and you go.

But the uphill is a hard.

It is Sisyphean. Imagine me happy.

See, it is the process of moving upwards with the full awareness that you are just going to turn around and go up again. Why?

Why do you push?

Why do you go?

“Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” The New York Times reporter asked George Mallory.

“Because it’s there.”

He added, “Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge.”

One year and three months later, Mallory was dead.

I call myself a downhill person. But the downhill is not necessarily why I go up.

I go up because it’s there; its very existence is a challenge.

It’s like this:

You sign up for a century ride having never biked more than 40 miles before. You strap your skis to your back not knowing if there will even be snow. You stand at the door of a new job, a new state, a new face, and you do not know what you’re getting yourself into.

The race is there. The mountain is there. The door, you see, is ajar.

So, you walk through — not in spite of but because you don’t know if you’ll succeed.

You have to try anyway. Because it’s there. Because it’s what you love. It’s Freud’s Eros throwing itself against the walls of your heart.

And you must go.

Near the end of No Exit, the room’s only door flies open, followed by a long silence between the assembled damned. I’ve never seen the play performed, but that’s the stage direction, written in capitals: (THE DOOR FLIES OPEN: a long silence.)

The three characters bicker among themselves. Goading first one, then threatening the next to go through the open door and into the hall.

Here is where Garcin cries: “Hell is other people!”

I think you missed the point, Garcin. And I think, ten years ago when I read No Exit for the first time, that I missed the point as well.

I thought of this on my bicycle, slogging up hill on a 3 and a half hour training ride along the peak to Peak highway. I had hit the spot two thirds of the way through when I was spinning uphill, but my mind was spinning down into the dark bilge of unwelcome thought. This was the place of what-ifs, the who-do-you-think-you-ares, the how-could-yous.

Hell isn’t other people.

Hell is standing in front of an open door — and not walking through it.

Here, now, I whisper:

Hell is an open door. Walk through it.

∆∆

(Featured image by Dr Josh Auerbach)

A-Basin

Arapahoe Basin

It’s a little bit funny that this blog is, still, remains, a ski blog. It’s funny because I have a really, really hard time writing about skiing.

I can tell you about my routine before a ski day.

I can show you how a life can change in just one run.

I can share with you the lovelorn ache of a skier in summer.

But I can’t show you skiing.

I can’t describe the way the world drops dead the moment before one drops over a cornice and into a field of moguls. How the universe contracts and expands to encompass just the line – your line – through the mounds that rise and fall at their own leisure, not yours.

Maybe I can explain this:

One of the first runs we took lead us through a copse of trees called Half Moon. Early on, the grade pitches down, snow caked against a rock face. There is a left line and a right line. Neither is particularly narrow or long. A couple of turns, then out. No biggie.

Left line, two turns and I’m down. Thrown backwards and twisted so that my skis are above me, momentum pulling me down, down. Still sliding, I (panicked) barrel roll and, with my skis below me, I brake to a halt. A few seconds, that’s all.

I curse.

Arapahoe Basin

My ski partner laughs and compliments my “smooth recovery.” Let this be a lesson to you; barrel rolls are always cool.

This fall is my achilles heel. It’s happened, moment by moment, dozens of times before and with the same result. I try to dump speed, I fall. The fall is always caused by imbalance, my weight thrown toward the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s incredibly frustrating. Even in the moment, it feels like a rookie mistake that I’ve been on skis too long to make.

I dust myself off, emptying the snow from my coat.

And we skied off.

We skied hard pack, we skied trees. We dropped off the sharp rim of Zuma Bowl. I pointed us down mogul runs until Brian, respectfully, started to decline and met me at the lift.

Maybe I can explain this, too.

I like the way moguls, perhaps more than any other terrain, force you to adhere to their path, bending you and your skis to their will. I like the way that if you ski them and ski them well, then in a way… your rhythm, your heart beats in time with that of the mountain.

But maybe Hemingway said all that needs to be said about skiing. It really is better than anything else.

It’s dumped something like five feet in Vermont in the span of a week, while here it’s hardpack and heavy, sun-warmed cement. I don’t mind. A day in the mountains is a good day to be alive.

The Utmost Importance of Your First Backcountry Tour

Last night, I downloaded Sandra Lahnsteiner’s PURE (a really, really damn good ski film) off of iTunes. I watched a bit, paced a bit, then sat down again to watch some more. I sketch-write in my journal. I hold my ski jacket so that it all tucks into its own hood. I debate the merits of athletic leggings or compression shorts so well used they no longer compress much of anything. (I go with the shorts.) I sit back down to watch more. It’s getting late. I have to be up early the next morning. I keep watching.

I waste time folding the next day’s kit up and piling them up in the exact order that I will put them on in the morning. I’m procrastinating, obviously.

From what? Preparing… for my first ever backcountry tour.

LOOKUP
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING.

Backcountry skiing. From a very, very young age, I knew I wanted to be a backcountry skier. Last night, falling down the rabbit hole of nerves and too much kombucha, I tried to trace that desire back to its root… down to the trembling husk of the seed from which this dream propagated. If I could just identify the seed, then I could explain why in gods’ names I was so nervous… why I felt like I was on the threshold to a door that would take me — somewhere I really, really desperately wanted to go.

My best guess is that it started, like so many other obsessions, with one particular sequence in Warren Miller’s Double ExposureThe Atlas Mountains.

More than anywhere in the world, I want to ski Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Last night, sitting on my bed with my eighth bottle of kombucha since I fell sick last week, I thought: That’s it. If I can fall in love with backcountry, then I will be well on my way to making it to the Atlas Mountains. And yes, I’m fully aware that every single ski sequence I’ve seen that was shot in the Atlas Mountains showcased stunningly lackluster conditions. I don’t care. To me, the Atlas Mountains are mythic. They are my one-item bucket list.

Into the mountains!

I woke up this morning and put on my kit in exactly the order I intended. I brewed a strong cup of black coffee. I gave myself the time to savor it. (I finally got an Able Disk filter for my Aeropress… Liz is back in caffeinated business.) I threw my gear in the car, and with Speed of Light from PURE on my lips, I drove to Brian’s and we were on our way.

It was very, very windy in the parking lot, but the day’s route kept us happily in the trees. Staying sheltered meant that I didn’t have to worry about being blown about, so I had plenty of mind-space to worry about what was going on with my feet.

Skinning is really, really weird. While the idea is similar to cross country skiing, in practical application, it isn’t very much like cross country skiing at all. It’s a lot more like snowshoeing on snowshoes that are much too big for you. When you adjust your bindings into their tallest “walk assist” mode, it starts feeling a whole heck of a lot like telemark skiing with super glue on your bases. Still no glide, but suddenly your upper thighs hurt. A bit like wearing heels, actually.

To sum up: skinning up mountains is kind of like snowshoeing in high heels.

I haven’t taken an Avvy 1 course yet (believe me, I know how important this is. Yes, I will do one. Yes, as soon as possible), so Brian was kind enough to stop and explain the basics as we went. Here is what layers of snow feel like when you’re using a probe. This is how to dig a pit. This is how to do a compression test. This is what slab looks like. This is what slab feels like when someone inadvertently tosses a shovel full of it into your face. Ow. Slab hurts.

"How deep?" "A little deeper than this." "So, about one Brian deep?" "Yeah, about that."
“How deep?” “A little deeper than this.” “So, about one Brian deep?” “Yeah, about that.”

Then, we skied. The trees (spruce of some sort?) were tight, then open, like lungs breathing. Technical, then dappled with light, technical again, a perfectly-placed kicker (apparently, I’m into those now), then a fast run out.  Ah! Divinity. The snow was heavy, 5-10″ of lazy cement, but satisfying. Fast with moments of fluff.

And it was over far too soon.

"The gully is totally skiable!" "Yeah, I've gone down scarier."
“The gully is totally skiable!” “Yeah, I’ve gone down scarier.”

Back at the car, I peeled off my socks, examining two raw blisters on my heels. I don’t have AT boots, see. Or, apparently, ski socks with the appropriate amount of heel padding to deal with the added rubbing.

Any sock recommendations?

Also, seriously. Go watch PURE. The filmography is incredibly badass, and the athletes are all powerful women. Sandra is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever had the honor to chat with, however briefly, and however entirely over email. I seriously, seriously regret not going up to her at IF3 last year when I had the chance.

Pre-Season (Hopes &) Jitters

Three weeks ago, I accepted a job in Boulder, Colorado. The day before I started the long, long drive, I sat in a small town restaurant with my good friend and ski buddy, Doug.

His hands were wrapped around a cup of coffee, steaming in the cool room. Mine were doing their best not to clutch at the cold ginger ale. 

We talked about lots of things, as friends and ski buddies do. Hopes and fears. You know, the usual. And we talked, too, about what our lives would be like without skiing.

We’d have so much more money, we commiserated. We wouldn’t be tied to the mountains, incapable of moving to any number of lovely, interesting places in the world where mountains and winter simply don’t exist. Our lives would, perhaps, be a little more simple if we weren’t head over heels in love with skiing. Half an hour of whining and we both came to the same conclusion.

Neither of us would change a god damn thing.

Skiing sings a siren’s song. It echoes and rattles around inside of us, and the longer we wait, the more the sound drives us mad. Skiing, its freedom, fear, and power composes melodies that ensnare the part of us that seeks novelty, challenge, and adrenaline in equal measure. Skiing demands us.

Last night in Boulder, far away from my Green Mountains, I made the annual pilgrimage to the Warren Miller ski movie premier. As images of powerful skiers like Ingrid Backstrom, Chris Davenport, and XFGIUNBFslashing big mountains and endless powder stashes, I felt the tumble of pre-season emotion, jitters and excitement, roll over me like rooster tails of snow.

Am I good enough to ride these mountains?

Can I keep up?

Seriously, am I ever going move to Chamonix?

And, over it all, like a touch of static blurring the edges of a favorite song on the radio: I am so happy it’s finally winter.

In the words of Johnny Mo in this year’s film, No Turning Back: It’s like falling in love with someone who promises to leave after four months.

Yeah, it is like that. But they’ll come crawling back next year.

The Girl on Silver King

This story occurred before the invention of cameras, so I do not have appropriately dated imagery for the occasion. Here. Have a map instead.
This story occurred before the invention of camera phones, so I do not have appropriately dated imagery for the occasion. Here. Have a map instead.

Once upon a time (as all important stories begin), a little girl stood on a ridge line high above the tree line. She was 13 years old, and she was terrified.

“I’m not going,” she said. “We should turn around,” she said.

“No way,” her eldest brother said.

“Just a little farther,” her father said.

The little girl tried every excuse in the book, anything except admitting that something about walking along the ridgeline made her feel dizzy and sick. On either side, the drop seemed impossibly sheer, the rocks impossibly dark and sinister against the beautiful, powdery white. (She realizes almost ten years later that she is afraid of heights.)

Her brother took her skis. Her father prodded her along, offering words of encouragement and promises and threats. She knows that they don’t know anything about avalanche danger, but she knows, too, that arguing this fact is useless and doesn’t want to think of it anyway.

To her, it feels like an hour before her little troop catches up with another group. First, two men carrying two pairs of wide powder skis and one sit-ski. They take turns carrying the heavier equipment. The men smile, laugh, and wave the little girl ahead. “We’ll catch up,” they say, as if this meeting was planned

The lump in the girl’s throat sinks into a pit of dread in her stomach. Shame starts coloring her face before they even get to the third man. Moving along the path in front of his friends was Jim. His legs stopped at his knees, but he navigated along the narrow path with the ease of familiarity. He looks up and says hello cheerfully.

The girl considers flinging herself off the edge of the next cliff in humiliation.

Unlike so many locals, Jim and his friends welcomed the three outsiders into their group. Their smiles were large and genuine and without hesitation they invited the little group to join them.

She stood there feeling like an idiot (because, obviously, the little girl was me). She spent the entire hike psyching herself out and making her brother and father miserable, and yet here was someone with a physical impediment who had made the very same climb with a smile on his face. She was thoroughly ashamed.

She stuck close to the locals, in complete awe. When they dropped over the cornice, She followed without question and landed her first 10 footer completely by accident. (“Oh, it’s just a little drop,” her father said. Her father is a liar.)

That run is seared into her memory as the best run she’s ever taken. Almost a foot of fresh snow had fallen overnight and even my straight east-coast skis floated through the fluff like a dream. She followed the white clouds kicked up by the locals, delirious with the feeling of flying through powder snow.

Several in-bounds runs later, maybe after a bathroom break, she was walking to catch up with her family. A snowboarder with long, straggly blond hair held out a hand to stop her. a”Excuse me,” he said, “Were you the girl on Silver King?”

It took her a confused moment to answer. He wasn’t one of the locals we skied with, and she hadn’t seen anyone else on that part of the mountain. “Um. Yes?” she mumbled, already trying to move on.

“That’s awesome,” he said.

She felt a jumbled mix of shame and pride, a strange combination of sensations that is as seared into her memory as the heavenly run itself.


 

I’ve tried to write this post so many times. I’ve started, and stopped, and put it away. Sometimes I saved the draft. Sometimes I deleted it immediately. While I’ve told this story countless times, but for some reason it’s difficult for me to place it in written words. Part of this is because I still feel that uncomfortable mix of emotions. I hardly deserved the praise. But I was a 13 year old from Massachusetts, a long ways away from big mountains and powder days in the double digits.

That day marked a turning point for me, as if that day I became The Girl on Silver King. Three years later when I hiked Tuckerman Ravine for the first time, I insisted on carrying all of my own gear, although that same brother offered to help. I also made sure that I carried my share of water, wine and food. I learned my lesson.

It’s crazy to think that I’m already double the age I was on that peak. I still think of myself (with pride) as The Girl on Silver King.

Silver King is adjacent to Crystal Mountain. I do not recommend or condone out-of-bounds skiing for those without avalanche training. Mountains are big. Always tread lightly around things that are bigger than you.

Out with the old, in with the new.

I don’t know about your ski resort, but it’s definitely been a busy summer at mine. Here I was worried that I wouldn’t have anything to do. I couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a different kind of busy than it is in the ski season, but it definitely is busy.

Like today.

Today, Stratton welcomed the first shipment of new gondola cabins. If you are familiar with the original cabins, you’ll know that this upgrade is long overdo.

Why, hello there, you sexy thing.
Why hello, Gorgeous.

I am roundly and soundly exhausted.