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.

I bless the snows down in Africa

This film more or less sums up why I’m so enamored of the idea of riding in Morocco. (Although it was the family copy of Warren Miller’s 1993 film Escape to Ski that first planted the idea in my mind.)

“The conditions were probably not at the best… but it’s the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, just between the desert Sahara and the ocean. That’s skiing in Africa.”

Film from Female Wolf Pack, an awesome place to discover female athletes doing what they do best – kicking ass.