Outside magazine, January 1998
Working Your Way to the Top
The roots of backcountry skiing lie in good old-fashioned puritanism. So what are the rewards for all that lung-searing labor? A few fast thrills, some glorious isolation, and mountains of smug satisfaction.
By Rob Buchanan
From the moment we make camp, on the edge of a little iced-in lake at 10,500 feet, our target for the next day seems clear. Or at least it does to me. Five big peaks form the cirque at the head of Rock Creek Canyon, but the one in the middle, Bear Creek Spire, lofts its snout a few hundred feet higher than the others — to 13,720 feet — and a narrow, tantalizing finger of white extends a long way up its face from the snowfields below. No doubt there are good descents to be had on all the peaks — the guidebooks, after all, tout this place as the finest backcountry ski destination in the Sierra Nevada. But it's like looking at one of those perfectly composed Renaissance tableaux. My eye keeps getting drawn back to the vanishing point, the spot where all the lines of perspective converge: The Spire.
"That central couloir is just so...obvious," I tell Michael Powers, our guide and instructor, as twilight fades. "Plus it's high and north-facing, so the snow will be good, right?"
"Well, maybe," says Michael, not looking too convinced. "But we can go check it out."
By the time the sun hits the tents the next morning, we're underway — Michael and photographer Chris Noble in the lead, with Carl Schulze and me bringing up the rear. We pole across the frozen lake and head up into the woods. A hundred yards farther, another lake opens before us, and after that another: a path of glittery stepping-stones leading us gently on high. For the first hour, the climbing skins stuck to the bottom of our skis hardly seem necessary.
Then the work begins. At timberline we pass one last snowbound lake, zigzag up a little headwall, and emerge on the steep upper snowfields. Michael stops to make a brief point about route-finding. "As we traverse our way up this thing," he says, "look ahead for flat places where it'll be easy to turn,
and terrain traps where it won't." He pauses. "But don't look too long from the same place — you'll just be wasting time. Keep moving and the way will become obvious."
But it's hard to look up from the snow now, hard even to catch a decent breath. I'm preoccupied with the timeless mantra of the uphill skier: Breathe. Plant. Shuffle.
Two hours later, we're right up under the Spire, 500 feet of sheer rock pitched up over our heads. Chris stops first, setting up his tripod on a little knoll. Carl and I doggedly follow Michael up the steepening pitch to the foot of the couloir. Up close, it looks a lot narrower and more vertical than it did from down below, and the snow is positively nasty — heavy, wet Sierra cement. Obviously my snow-reading skills were way off base. Michael looks it over, stabbing at it a couple of times with his ski pole, and then traverses the bottom of the couloir and disappears around the corner. "There's a ramp over here," he yells a minute later. "It's a better line. Steeper." Carl and I look at each other. Where we are is steep enough. We stay put.
It's a strange moment. All morning, I've been focusing on the climb, sticking faithfully to Michael's track and counting the steps between rests, losing myself in the Zen of ascending. Now, suddenly, it hits me: We are up here, perched in space,13,000 feet above sea level, 6,000 feet above the brownish haze of the Owens Valley, half a mile above the yellowish specks that are our tents. And somehow we have to get down, preferably without dying. The adrenaline begins to pump. I'm on telemark gear — a new thing for me — and not too confident about that crucial first turn. On the other hand, I tell myself, this is what we've come for: 2,500 feet of untracked vertical. The fruits of our labor. Dessert.
I unclip from my bindings, strip the skins off the bottoms of my skis and stow them in my pack, and clip back in. I look down at Carl. "Go ahead," he says. I take a breath and shove, and....nothing. It's as if my skis are glued to the snow.
"What the..." I say. "I'm totally stuck!"
I take a deep breath. "You go ahead," I yell.
"OK," Carl shrugs. He shoves, with the same result. Nothing.
We look at each other, mystified. Is there something wrong with our skis? Something we don't know about this wet snow? We look over to the spot where Michael was a moment ago, but he's gone. Carl shakes his head, annoyed. "You'd think he could have told us something about this," he says. I'm with him on that. Here we are at the crux of the entire day, our little moment of truth, and what has our fearless instructor, the guy we're paying to teach us the fundamentals of the sport, gone and done? He's bailed.
Only later do I realize that this might be the best lesson of all.
It used to be known as alpine touring. The French call it ski de randonnïe. Strap an ice ax to your pack and you're ski mountaineering, though in truth, with a pair of snowshoes, you can just as easily do it on a snowboard. Whatever it's called, though, the backcountry experience has grown increasingly popular these past few winters. Just how popular is hard to say exactly, since there are no ticket sales to monitor and satellite behavior tracking is still a few years off. Still, there are certain indicators. At least two small niche magazines (Couloir and Back Country) are now dedicated to the sport. And the various companies that sell avalanche transceivers claim double-digit increases in annual sales.
The image of the backcountry skier is by now almost generic. A guy with a huge pack, straps fluttering behind him like prayer flags, kneels into a soulful telemark turn on the face of some powdery peak in a lost mountain range on a distant continent where the helicopters have not yet arrived. It's freedom, self-reliance. It has high-tech elements, but at the same time, it's traditional to the core. Of course, there are moments of great transcendence in the backcountry, when you have first tracks and the entire world seems under your dominion. But the reality is usually more prosaic. Physically, backcountry skiing is about as demanding as it gets. It takes a triathlete's masochism to enjoy the uphills, and once you're headed back down, the struggle is by no means over. The powder is rarely perfect, and trying to drop a knee in "variable" snow conditions, especially with 60 pounds on your back, can be like paddling out into the lineup at Waimea with Chris Farley draped around your neck.
"Why do I do this sport?" asks Chris, midway up the mountain. "It's not for the skiing, I'll tell you that."
It's the same, I suspect, for most backcountry devotees, a perverse lot who defy easy categorization. Permit me, then, to list the various components of my own attraction to the sport: There is, first and foremost, the puritanism of it all, rooted in the notion that skiing downhill is such a sinful pleasure that it must in some way be hitched to some suffering to be properly enjoyed. There's the general disdain for mechanical conveyance and groomed terrain. There's the anti-elitist objection to the Bogner-clad burghers of downhilldom, and the quiet snobbery of doing something even more exclusive. And finally, there's the satisfaction of pitting one's skill against the underlying danger of the environment.
Yet somehow I found it hard to get enough experience on my own to feel truly comfortable off-piste. So when I stumbled upon a four-day spring backcountry ski course offered by the respected Bellingham, Washington-based American Alpine Institute, I signed up immediately.
There aren't many rules in backcountry skiing. That's kind of the point of the endeavor, to escape the tyranny of the ticket office and the liftline and the ski patroller. There are, however, a few fundamental laws that govern the sport. The first of these has to do with packing. Generally speaking, for every day you plan to spend in the wilderness, count on spending two immersed in the intellectual challenge of figuring out all the stuff you'll need.
This turns out to be my experience, at any rate. The folks at the American Alpine Institute fax me a gear list that, at four pages, is even longer than their liability waiver. I dutifully assemble most of the ingredients, at which point it becomes clear that no pack ever manufactured could hold it all. Thus begins the painful process of winnowing. Do I need both storm-weight and silk-weight balaclavas? What about that 20-below degree sleeping bag? Wouldn't my old beater bag, once rated to ten above, do just fine?
The night before our rendezvous with Michael, Chris and I spread our stuff across an empty, ten-bed dormitory at Tom's Place, a year-round resort 24 miles north of Bishop, California. There's a preliminary round of cuts and then a series of increasingly agonizing decisions. By midnight, I'm down to the nitty-gritty. "Screw the mukluks and the first-aid kit," I tell myself. "And forget the headlamp — isn't the moon going to be up?"
Carl arrives the next morning, dropped off by his parents. He's a rangy 20-year-old from the San Diego area whose basic shyness occasionally gives way to staccato, Beavis-style bursts of laughter. Organization does not appear to be Carl's strong suit. Judging from the yard sale he immediately creates in the parking lot, he's several hours behind Chris and me in the packing department.
Michael shows up a few minutes later. He's driving the quintessential guide vehicle, a tattered Subaru, but otherwise doesn't really fit the mold. I'm expecting someone from The Eiger Sanction, hard, terse, and proud, but Michael turns out to be more like the young Andy Griffith — tall, gentle of demeanor, with a bobbing Adam's apple and a weakness for cornball humor.
Over breakfast, Michael manages to tease out Carl's story. As a kid, he hiked some big peaks in the Sierra with his dad, and even undertook a few mildly technical climbing routes. Then, last Christmas, he asked for an ice ax. Exactly why, he isn't sure. It just seemed like a cool thing. Now he wants to "figure out the winter stuff" — not just the ax, but all the other gear: crampons and skins and avalanche transceivers. It will be his first time winter camping.
I have to laugh listening to Carl, because I too am the proud owner of a brand-new ice ax, with no particular clue as to how to use it. The only difference is, I can pinpoint the precise reason why I decided to get mine.
A few years ago I bought some telemark gear and started to experiment. I enjoyed the uphill part immediately. In an hour or two of furious sweating, I could be somewhere remote and breathtaking, looking down on the world with Olympian disdain. I started to think of myself, undeservedly no doubt, as a backcountry skier. Wherever I traveled, I'd find myself staring at distant mountains, wondering if they were skiable.
One mountain in particular, Mount San Jacinto, the 10,801-foot colossus that looms over Palm Springs, piqued my curiosity. My then-girlfriend and I would pass by it every Easter, driving out from LAX to visit her parents in the desert, and every time I'd stop and take a picture of the snowy couloirs that threaded down the peak's north face. Out on the golf course a day or two later, having shanked another drive into the barranca, I'd find myself looking up at the peak and thinking, "I'd really rather be up there."
So it was that one June afternoon I found myself on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, copping a ride to 8,500 feet. From there it was a short hike to a campsite and only an hour and a half to the summit the next morning. It was a perfect day, warm and blue, birds afloat on the thermals. I stripped down to a T-shirt. Nearly two vertical miles beneath me, little insect cars crawled along the interstate. The couloirs, so inviting from below, now looked a hair too steep for comfort. But when I climbed down into the main one, directly below the summit, and tested the snow on the left side, where it had been warmed by the morning light, it was reassuringly soft. Strapping on my skis, I made one elegant tele turn in the sun and cut across to the right side, into the shade. Whereupon both skis shot out from under me — the snow was still frozen from the night before — and I began the longest, nastiest fall of my life.
I can't say that my life flashed before me. I was too busy screaming and twisting back into the hill, digging furiously for some kind of purchase — a maneuver that cost me all the skin on the insides of both forearms and left permanent scars. Then I was tumbling, completely at the mercy of the mountain. I do remember one scenario that passed through my mind before I slid to a stop, 400 feet down the mountain. "Someone's going to find my body out here in a day or two," I thought, "when the buzzards start circling, and they're going to look in my wallet and find my driver's license, and they're going to shake their heads and say, 'Just another dork from back east who thought he knew what he was doing.'"
Michael and Chris look at me strangely as I relate this story. Maybe it's a little too much show-and-tell for the first day of school, or maybe they're just making a mental note not to stand below me if we go anywhere steep. In any case, we all vigorously agree with Michael when he suggests that we might want to end the first day's outing — a tune-up ski across the snowfields above nearby Convict Lake — with a little clinic on self-arrest.
If the first law of backcountry skiing is that it takes forever to pack, the second law is that no matter how much winnowing and repacking you do, your burden will always be absurd. This becomes clear on the morning of day two, when Chris and I saddle up at the Rock Creek Canyon trailhead. (Carl, despite having spent most the night packing, seems to have left his avalanche transceiver back at Tom's Place; he and Michael drive back to get it while Chris and I lumber off.) "So you wanted to know what backcountry skiing was about?" Chris says, huffing at the first rest stop. "It's about strapping a Buick on your back and seeing how far you can stagger before it crushes you into the earth."
Then, out of nowhere, the obnoxious whine of a two-cycle engine intrudes on our little idyll. It's a snowmobile dragging a supply sled, bound for a wilderness lodge two miles up the road. Chris shoots a sly glance at me. It wouldn't be kosher, of course. A hard-core backcountry skier wouldn't even consider it. The whole idea, after all, is to earn your turns, to carry your stuff every step of the way. And what would our instructor say?
On the other hand, we are on a road, several miles short of the wilderness boundary. It just happens to be closed for the season, but in the summer we'd be able to drive all the way to the lodge and beyond. And then, too, there's something unfair about the weight we're carrying. Chris has almost 30 pounds of photo gear in his pack, and I have the tent, stove and food for both of us in mine.
"How much for a lift?" Chris calls as the snowmobile goes by.
"I can't take you," the driver says, pulling over. "But I'll take your packs. Ten dollars."
Call it cheating, if you like, but Chris and I are thrilled to arrive at the edge of the John Muir Wilderness with our legs and lungs at least semi-intact. Carl and Michael show up an hour and a half later, with Carl appearing to be out of steam. But in truth I am too, and after lunch we struggle on for only another 45 minutes before parking our Buicks.
"You mean everybody who goes on one of these AAI trips gets written up?"
Michael winces and squirms. "We give all of you guys numbers, man."
So the next day what are we doing, Carl and I, but complaining? Granted, we're in a tight spot, at the foot of the couloir that runs down Bear Creek Spire. And granted, our skis are behaving in an odd and unprecedented way, sticking to the snow as if the skins were still on them, only backward. But it's at times like these that one's evaluation form, whether actual or cosmic, gets filled in.
We wait for our guide/evaluator to reappear, but he's out of earshot now. We're on our own. Delicately tiptoeing on the edge of vertigo, we remove our skis a second time. On close inspection, it appears that the bottoms are covered with icy clumps. Perhaps they're attached to little bits of leftover adhesive, perhaps they're just bonding to the bases because the bases, insulated from friction by the skins, never had a chance to warm up. In any case, the ice comes free with a few seconds of vigorous rubbing, and our skis are skis again. It's a stupefyingly self-evident remedy, about as obvious as shaking a ball-point pen when the ink runs dry, but all the same I feel a certain pride in figuring it out myself. And that, in a nutshell, is the whole point of enrolling in a camp like this, at least for me: arriving at the realization that I can, and will have to, unsnarl every tangle that arises, and negotiate every impasse for myself — and most important of all, make the final judgment call as to whether a slope is safe to ski. At its heart, backcountry skiing is a sport of self-reliance; therein lie its numerous hassles and its innumerable joys.
After this realization, it's much easier to make that first turn. Not that it's a pretty one. There's a foul sun-crust on the snow, and my boots, bindings, and skis, which felt so leaden on the ascent, now seem impossibly flimsy. I porpoise, stagger, lurch — everything but fall. When I look back at my tracks, I can't get over how ugly they are. It's as if someone had scrawled a large, lewd grafitto halfway up the side of the Washington Monument.
Michael bounds down the ramp to the left of the couloir in textbook tele form, leaping and lunging like Errol Flynn defending the deck of the HMS Bounty. I fall in behind him, pulling a turn every now and then, just letting gravity carry me sweetly down. And it does, all too quickly. In ten minutes, we're at the bottom of the upper snowfields. Then we're skating out onto the first lake, dropping down through the forest and then clattering out onto the next glistening sheet of ice. In no time at all we're back at the tents. Four hours' labor for maybe a hundred turns.
Michael offers to lead an assault on another face for a twilight run or to show us how to build a snow-cave. Chris begs off first. "The more I ski," he says, stretching out in our tent with a book, "the more satisfying it is to do less." No one argues with that. I drag my sleeping pad out onto a slab of granite, seeking my own space. Across the way I can see Michael and Carl sprawling on outcroppings of their own. Clouds drift over the sun, casting a sudden chill, then drift on, releasing spring's delicious heat once more. A dragonfly buzzes past — where did he come from?
I don't care. About anything.
This is the great thing about backcountry skiing. Not the good pain of the climb, or the exhilaration of the descent, but the contented, toe-wiggling exhaustion of having done both and gotten to a place where no other conveyance could have taken you. Which is to say, far from the troubled past or the uncertain future, and into the eternal present.
There's one little thing still bothering me. Have I really figured out how to take care of myself off-piste? Maybe spring in the southern Sierra wasn't the ideal choice for a backcountry clinic. Maybe it's too...perfect.
Michael confesses as much the next morning. It's our last day in Rock Creek Canyon, and before we leave we've got time for one more run, this time up the south-facing slopes below Mono Pass. At the foot of the climb, Michael pauses for a little speech. Normally, he tells us, he'd spend a lot of time in a class like this talking about avalanches, digging pits, and looking at snow layers. But this time of year in this part of the country, he says, it doesn't make much sense. The southern Sierra is legendary for its firm spring snowpack, and besides, a high pressure system has been squatting over the region for three weeks."Even though it's sort of closing the barn door after the horse is out," Michael says, "you might as well get some practice with the transceivers." Carl and I look down at the little yellow gadgets strapped to our chests. We've been wearing them for three days now, implicitly trusting that their operation would, like our sticky skis, be self-evident. We hadn't expected to get tested on it.
Michael explains the basic drill. He'll bury his own transceiver in the transmit mode while we switch ours over to receive. Then, moving along a straight line, we'll listen for the telltale ping to strengthen and then weaken again. Returning to the midpoint of that line — that is, the place where the signal was strongest — we'll begin to scan along a second, perpendicular line until we find its midpoint. And so on, continually reducing the volume of the unit for greater sensitivity, until the grid of the search has been reduced to an area no more than one square foot. "At that point," Michael says, "you dig."
After a few trials, Carl and I feel ready for the final exam. "Move fast," Michael says. "Imagine your friend is buried, and you have three minutes to dig him out or he's dead."
"Maybe not dead," Chris adds helpfully, "but well on his way to vegetable-dom."
We turn our backs as Michael buries his transceiver. At Michael's signal, I fly across the snow, low and fast and serious. I mark the first line, run to the midpoint, start down the second, mark and wheel again. Two more turns and I have my spot. "Dig!" screams Michael. "That's your best buddy!" I root like a terrier after a rat, feel the transceiver, and seize it triumphantly.
"Three and a half minutes," Chris says, looking at his watch. "Brain dead."
Michael doesn't seem too worried. "You'll have plenty of chances to work on it," he says. "Some other time." Right now, it's late April in the southern Sierra, and our chances of surviving the day look pretty good.
Correspondent Rob Buchanan profiled snowboarder Shaun Palmer in the June 1997 issue.
Photographs by Chris Noble; gear photographs by Clay Ellis
Filed To: Snow Sports