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?

120202_OBSESS_BackCountry

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Having spent much of my life skiing I’d long heard rumors of a mythical land where the powder is plentiful and deep, lift lines are unknown, and nymphs dance among the trees. It is a place called the “backcountry,” the skiable mountains unreachable by any lift. Like any magical world, it’s not easy to arrive there, and the journey can be dangerous. But if you make it, the rewards are boundless, or so the legend goes.

How to get there? The easiest way is to charter a helicopter to drop you at the top of the mountain, but I didn’t want to spend that kind of money. You can pay between $5,000 and $15,000 for a week of heli-skiing, which makes even Vail and Aspen lift passes look like a good deal. But you don’t have to be rich to reach the backcountry. The oldest and simplest way to get there is to put on your skis and climb the mountain yourself.

My friends Tucker and Kelley are people who went to the mountains in their 20s and never returned to the plains. Residents of Steamboat Springs, Colo., a town that is remarkably hard to leave, they always break out bourbon the moment you enter their home, and know how to dig a friend out of an avalanche. Kelley told me they’d rented a hut deep in the Rockies, just below the timberline at 11,040 feet, miles up and away from any traversable road. It sounded like an adventure. I was in.

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Starting out early one morning, we drove south, deep into the uninhabited Rockies, where the mountains are tall and craggy, and ruins more common than homes. We’d driven through a minor blizzard and when we finally reached the supposed start of the trail there was nothing but deep snow as far as the eye could see. Skiers love to see fresh powder, but here our job was to go up, not down.

The Hut.
The Hut.

Courtesy of the author.

God made mountains for reasons we may never understand, but man’s reasons for creating ski lifts soon became painfully clear. Strapping on skis and muscling heavy packs on our backs, we began what can only be described as a painful trudge up the mountain. That wonderful fresh snow quickly became a nuisance, forcing us to take turns breaking trail. Even on skis made for the job (Alpine touring, or Telemark skis), climbing up the mountain is just awkward. I kept waiting for it to feel natural. It didn’t happen.

On that trudge up the mountain I reflected on the fact that so much of hiking or mountain climbing is about feeling pain migrate to different parts of your body. For a while, my shoulders would scream, dissatisfied with the fit of my pack. Then, a duller, deeper pain in my right hip called out louder, only to be drowned out by the sensation of a blister, on the inside of my heel, rubbing rawer with every step. The heel held the floor for a long time, until joined by the shoulder for a kind of duet. Then I noticed a blister beginning on the left inside heel. And so it went, for hours and hours, the constant pain slowing time to a crawl. More than once I thought to myself, “The skiing better be good.”

After hours of slogging uphill, things began to flatten out, and Kelley said, foolishly, “We must be just about there.” Cursed words that haunted us for several more hours of misery. When we did finally find the hut, a wooden structure half buried in snow, it was less in a mood of triumphant arrival than with the air of an injured dog who has managed to limp his way home.

The human capacity to forget physical pain is an astonishing thing. Once we dug our way in, we found the hut a cheery place with a wood-burning stove that we lit to melt snow for drinking and cooking. The fire soon warmed the whole hut. Within an hour, whether brought on by warmth, bourbon, altitude, or the beginnings of a sunset, I found myself in a deep state of pleasure that our ancestors must have known well as that which accompanies the happy end to a day of grueling labor.

The only discordant note in this blissful scene came from the monster in the outhouse. In a remote mountain hut, it is a fact that the outhouse will be emptied less than regularly. In this case, something remarkable had happened: Years of accumulated human feces, landing and freezing upon impact, had coalesced into a tower of astonishing verticality. A shit stalagmite was lurking right beneath the toilet seat, threatening to poke its head out of the opening and sodomize the backcountry innocent. This we knew because previous guests had sketched their artistic impressions of the monument in the guest book. I told myself not to look down when using the bathroom, but knew at some point that I would be tempted.

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