Backcountry skiing: Is it worth the risk and the grueling hike up?

If Backcountry Skiing Weren’t So Painful It Wouldn’t Be So Awesome

If Backcountry Skiing Weren’t So Painful It Wouldn’t Be So Awesome

Passions and the people who pursue them.
Feb. 16 2012 7:28 AM

Backcountry Skiing

Is the sublime ride down worth the grueling hike up?

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So far, the trip had been mainly an upward slog. But what of the skiing? The fields of powder? On the second day, my body aching, we set out to hike up the rest of the mountain to claim the peak of New York Mountain. I’d duct-taped my blisters, which eased the pain slightly, and the bright skies brought a measure of inspiration.

We took the time to dig a pit, examine the snow, and make sure avalanche was unlikely. Unfortunately, once you learn a little about avalanches it is hard to put them completely out of mind. A few times, skiing out of bounds, I’ve been caught in a slide, which is like sitting in a car that is spinning across the highway.

Tim Wu at the top.
Tim Wu at the top

Courtesy of the author.

After another 1,500 feet of vertical slogging, we reached the top, and the moment I was waiting for had arrived. Before me lay a field of untouched powder, loose and dry. In the distance, peaks as far as the eye could see, stark white against a blue sky.


My blood turning to wine, heart beating fast, I pushed off, gained speed and began to float on the snow, like walking on water at high speed. Turning, I sprayed powder left and right. Crash went my skis as I ran over lightly covered rocks, my knees buckled, but I made it through without falling. Turn, turn, and turn again—it was glorious, heroic, and thrilling. And then, just like that, it was over.

I’d skied two hours of hiking in something like 14 minutes. If you count the initial trip up to the hut, it was more like nine hours up and 14 minutes down. There’s a phrase in backcountry skiing called “earning your turns.” Yes, but what they don’t tell you is how unfair the exchange rate is. If you climb in pounds sterling, you descend in rupees.

And what about the supposed magic of the backcountry? Late that night, after eating, I went out alone in the woods to look for magical creatures (and to avoid using the outhouse). A few hundred feet from the hut, in the dark woods, I found myself in a snow-insulated silence so complete it felt like a sensory deprivation tank. Sitting in the dark woods I looked around for magic creatures but none appeared. However, after a while I realized that if I listened carefully, I could actually hear the moon speaking. “How are you?” said the moon. “Oh, hello moon,” I said back, trying to be casual. It seemed a bit strange to speak to the moon, but our conversation was just the usual kind, nothing special.

The next day, after a final skiing lap, we headed down and out of the backcountry. (On the way out, finally unable to contain my curiosity, I put on my headlamp and examined the tower of shit, and still wish I hadn’t.) The skiing down was more a way to get our packs down the mountain than any great fun. But I felt different somehow as a skier, and could stand tall, for I had been to the backcountry and back.

Is it worth enduring hours of pain for a moment of absolute glory? Considered objectively, as a cost-benefit thing, the answer would have to be no. Especially when you factor in the risk that the snow might actually be bad. But that’s not really the way to look at it. For one thing, the pain doesn’t remain pain in your memory quite the same way that glory does. And while we all wish it weren’t so, somehow it’s the pain that makes the experience come to life.

That’s backcountry skiing. The good parts are over too fast and the bad parts last a long time. Would I do it again? On that question, Kelley put it best: “We have to.”