Earning turns is no different, and even though the out of pocket expense might seem less, in reality the cost is higher because it involves a personal investment in time. Thus, it was easy to recognize that turns earned with sweat were better than turns burned beneath a chair, even if that were just a mind game played to justify the investment. What came as a surprise was the realization that it wasn’t so much about the turn as the tour taken to make fresh tracks.
The Saga of Close Calls
It didn’t really hit me until I’d been backcountry skiing for at least a decade, and even then it took awhile to truly accept what was going on. A quick rerun through my most vivid memories of backcountry skiing turned out to be surprising short on turns and exceedingly long on pivotal moments during tours, or what would be more accurately labeled the ongoing saga of close calls.
The seductive moments of floating down through deep powder or cruising corn snow, while sweet, tend to blend with each other blurring any distinction over time. Oh sure, there’s a few standout fall line moments but mostly it’s the events surrounding the turn that are etched deep enough to survive senioritis.
Baldy EpicLike the first time a relative stranger, Pete and I were caught in a whiteout atop Mt. Baldy (10,060′). We knew we were walking into a cloud, but the view behind us was clear. By the time skins were shed and skis back on our feet we couldn’t tell which way was which. It’s a football field of a peak so the pitch was barely discernable. By the time we realized we were probably in the wrong drainage, well, I just didn’t have enough experience or confidence to say how far down we were and how many ridges we had to cross in the whiteout to get to familiar territory.
I’d studied the map enough to know the correct drainage would lead us to the hut, the wrong one would simply take a long time to ski out. It was actually worse than that, but I was too naïve to really know how much danger we were in. We spent the last 1000 vertical feet skiing through mushy avalanche debris at the bottom of the canyon that was piled 20 or more feet deep. It was fresh and we knew it, consoling ourselves that since it had avalanched already the danger was past. Even so, when we found a stretch without avy debris we moved as quick as we could so it wouldn’t come down on us while we were there, all the while silently praying the reason there was no debris was because an invisible ridge above was deflecting the danger.
By the time we managed to stumble onto the road leading to the trailhead we were four miles downstream from where we started that morning. This was before the age of cell phones and Pete insisted on getting home lest his wife freak out and call in Search and Rescue. So I sped across the width of the SmelLA metropolis, hydroplaning the puddles enroute to his home in Huntington Beach. Next morning I rose early and hiked back up to Baldy Hut to let my friends know we were okay and not a statistic. The skies were bluebird the following day but to tell you the truth I don’t remember any of those turns, just the ones I couldn’t see the day before.
Bivy on San JacintoThe first time down San Jacinto’s 9,000-foot north face, Snow Creek, the snow ran out at the top of a 70-foot cliff. We rappelled to the stream below as dusk enveloped the skies. We stumbled by starlight down a path that wasn’t any more visible in daylight two years later, with burnt out headlamps. When my skis hit a low hanging branch for the zillionth time I reached up with a self arrest grip to rip it down. In doing so the branch broke, I lost my balance and began doing backwards cartwheels while a boulder I must’ve dislodged at the same time chased me down the slope. My friends watching said my headlamp looked like a strobe-light, bobbing down the slope. On the third cartwheel I landed safely on my feet.
There were less trying moments too, like skinning straight up Baldy’s 35° slopes of Southern California corn just to see how steep I could go with Ramer super-climber heel posts, or a few years ago, doing the same exercise to prove I still could, only with Switchback bindings, on day four of the Sierra High route, for a sustained 2500 vertical feet.
You’ve heard it said, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, and hopefully, wiser. These are the things that build character and provide the real value in backcountry skiing. After awhile you realize that and even though the hook remains the turn, the lure is the tour and it’s easy to justify the higher cost because when the value is defined as adventure the only realistic way to do that, without being suicidal, is to go on a long tour with a half-baked plan, a map, and enough determination to see it through to the end.
Even though I continue to head into the backcountry, it isn’t the prospect of repeating these close encounters of the fatal kind that I seek. Nowadays, it’s about meandering along a slightly different path each time I head to a fave local run, just to learn the local topography better. Those forays either confirm why the fave run deserves its reputation, or add a new variation to the local repertoire.
It’s ironic, I know the tour is the meat of the experience, the place from which adventure springs from, and yet I continue to head out seeking the promise of untracked turns, using that as the basis to convince partners to come along even though we both know full well it is about the tour, not the turn.
This is a slightly revised version of an article first published in Ascent: The Backcountry Ski Journal.