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.

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.

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.”

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