Crossing to Safety

From beginning to middle to end and back again, one adventure leads to another. So hold tight—it's a long ride

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This trip didn't quite start in the Lander Bar, although that's the last place we were seen alive. And it didn't really start when Ken and I clipped into our bindings, shouldered our packs, and set out to ski the northern half of the Wind River Range. The obvious beginning is never the beginning; it's usually the middle. You recognize the beginning later on, once you've gained some elevation. Once you stop, take off your skis, climb a big rock, and look back. In this case, the beginning was almost 20 years ago, before Ken and I even met.

I was living in a log cabin at 11,000 feet in the Medicine Bow Mountains; Ken was struggling to make a go of a small outdoor shop down on the plains. It was a winter of deep snow. My mornings were spent struggling at a typewriter; in the afternoons I skied for miles. Ken skied in the morning and spent his afternoons renting cross-country skis and selling outdoor gear. We were in poverty, supposedly, neither of us making enough money to pay any taxes, but who cares when you're outside 300 days a year?

I don't remember how we met—ski touring somewhere—but by spring we'd hatched a plan to become cross-country ski instructors. We drove down to Steamboat and pitched our tent in the snow. A week later, two rubes from Wyoming had somehow managed to become certified nordic instructors. Ken was the better skier—his diagonal stride more graceful, his skating technique cleaner, his telemark turn stronger. However, before the test I'd been
certain my navigational skills were superior. I was the mountaineer, I was the one living in the mountains—and I was the one who flunked this test.

Perhaps, at the time, in our hearts, we do have an inkling that we're only just beginning, but we don't want to admit it. We can't. To admit that would be to admit you don't know what you're doing, which would be to admit that you have a long way to go, which would make the journey appear so daunting as to stymie even starting out. Better to believe you know what you're doing and keep doing it until you do.

That was the beginning. For the next few winters Ken and I taught nordic classes and led backcountry tours together. I kept at my writing and he kept at his outdoor store on the outskirts of town. This was our shakedown period. We each kept notes, made adjustments, developed systems, started recognizing what mattered and what didn't. He collected bad checks; I collected rejection letters. It took years for our passions to pay the rent. Every summer, like migrating birds, I fled to foreign continents to write stories and live cheap, and Ken decamped for Idaho to be a river guide and live on the water. After a decade he moved his shop into a big space downtown and I bought a computer and we both quit drinking Schlitz. We'd long since stopped teaching skiing. We kept saying we should do a trip together.

During the next decade we each broke a leg three-pin skiing. I performed a splendid pirouette and nearly twisted my foot right off my leg; Ken sailed dashingly off a cornice and snapped his femur at the hip. I was high on morphine with a plate and six screws in my leg when he smuggled a six-pack of real beer into my Salt Lake City hospital room. Three years later, Ken's lanky leg in agonizing traction, I waltzed in with a six-pack and a smile. Rehab is hell, but you learn who your friends are.

Through the years Ken became a consummate outdoor athlete. A kayaker, climber, skier. The unassuming outdoorsman, quiet and clear about his knowledge and ability. They are all over the world now. Glenwood Springs, Zermatt, Cuzco. It's a subculture. Men and women who consciously choose the outdoor life. Not for the fame, almost never for the money, but for the life. For the full-moon ski tours and the friends and the dawns when the color of the river is some breath-catching shade of blue. They are masters of their craft, but you'd never know it. They aren't in any videos or magazine stories or manufacturer's ads.

But Ken and I never did a trip together. After all those years the idea of skiing the Winds came out of nowhere—spontaneous combustion—the way all the best trips are conceived. One minute we were talking about how to earn enough money to have the life we had when we didn't make a dime, the next minute we were poring over topos.


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