Tracy and Shawn Ross
Ross and husband (Photo by Chris Buck)

You Don’t Bring Me Clif Bars Anymore

They met in Alaska and became the ultimate adventure couple, biking and hiking and skiing their way to lifelong commitment. Then the kids and careers arrived, and the passion started leaking like oil from his bro truck. (Don't get her started on that.) Can a hardcore backpacking trip stand in for couples therapy? The author drags her husband into the Colorado wilderness to find out.

Tracy and Shawn Ross
Photo by Chris Buck
Tracy Ross

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SOMETIMES YOU'LL DO ANYTHING TO REMEMBER YOU'RE IN LOVE. On the first full day of our relationship challenge, my husband, Shawn, turns to me and says, “Screw it. Let's go to Aspen and eat Mexican food.”

Tracy and Shawn Ross

Tracy and Shawn Ross “One part of me believed that outdoorsy love was stronger than urban love. But lately it seems like even those couples are started to unravel around me.”

Tracy and Shawn Ross

Tracy and Shawn Ross She said, he said


We're standing on a ridge that leads to a big rocky peak in central Colorado's Maroon Bells­Snowmass Wilderness. Miles of chossy, fall-and-you-die scrambling lies between us and our destination, Conundrum Hot Springs.

Though the skies are clear, I sense a storm building in the distance. A spurt of saltwater erupts from my tear duct, but a stiff gust of wind kicks up, drying it before Shawn can see it.

“Seriously,” Shawn says. “You hate this kind of climbing. Let's go back.”

“I don't hate this kind of climbing,” I snap. But he's right. I can't stand walking across scratchy knife-edge ridges. I always start shaking, which makes it impossible for me to trust my footing. I want to lie down on the iron-oxidized dirt and cry like a baby. But we've come to the Maroon Bells as a matter of our own survival. After 11 years of wedded bliss, we've realized our weddedness isn't so blissful.

The culprits of our decline are both common and predictable: kids, jobs, and the stress of being adults when we both still think of ourselves as Peter Pan and Wendy. At 40 (me) and 37 (Shawn), we're not on the verge of divorce or anything—far from it. But over the years, our roles have been seriously altered. In 2004, when I got a job as an editor at Skiing magazine, Shawn pulled double daddy duty, staying home and raising our sons, Hatcher and Scout. I came and went, following my dream of skiing the world and writing about it. Now our eight- and nine-year-old boys are in school, I'm a freelance writer, and Shawn is beginning to regain his man-in-a-man's-world sense of self. But our once happy, carefree relationship has become stale, unbalanced, and, occasionally, nasty.

There came a time, last summer, when I knew I had to do something drastic. I went to see my therapist, Kathy, who specializes in couples counseling and has known Shawn and me for more than a decade. Shawn is suspicious of Kathy because the one time we went to see her together she told him he wasn't man enough to go “toe-to-toe with me relationally.” The last time I saw her, in October, we did “regression therapy,” which plunged me into a pitch-black depression. When I told Shawn I was going back, he said, “Don't let her do some reverse memory displacement on you again. No need to get fucked up for a month or two. Or forever.”

And yet Kathy seemed to understand us. “The problem with you and Shawn,” she said, “is that you want intensity while he wants passivity. You push the problem while he refuses to accept that there is one. Keep it up and you have the perfect recipe for an explosion. Or worse yet … stable miserable.”

Stable miserable sounded like skiing into a tree well—a predicament that, on your own, would be nearly impossible to get out of. But how to save the marriage? The answer came one day while I was staring out my writing-studio window.

If Shawn wouldn't go to therapy, I'd bring therapy to him. As infatuated twentysomethings, we'd learned to appreciate each other's strengths and weaknesses amid snow-draped mountains and surging rivers with Class IV rapids. But that was then. These days, all the stuff we used to love doing together has become a major source of our problems. In no small way, the health of our relationship is now contingent upon the amount of time we spend mountain-biking and the cash we blow on rafts, backpacks, and carbon-fiber ski poles. My hope was that we'd resuscitate our relationship by disappearing into the wilderness and climbing a couple of technical peaks that would force us to address our jealousy, bitterness, and resentment. It'd be just like the old days—except we'd do exercises from a book Kathy gave me called The New Rules of Marriage.

Shawn wasn't keen on the idea initially. But a week in the mountains without kids—even one involving my quest for matrimonial betterment—is still a week without kids. In late July he finally relented, and we decided to climb two classic Elk Mountain shale piles, Precarious (a Class 3 thirteener) and Pyramid Peak (a Class 4 fourteener). Our reward: camping near the soothing, possibly romantic waters of Conundrum Hot Springs. I called my mom, who agreed to fly in and babysit.

It was a plan so good I was sure even Dr. Phil would approve. Except that now, staring down the ribbon of death stretched before me, there's no way I'm going to see it through.

I know that to turn back would be the equivalent of refusing to do a trust fall with Shawn at a couples retreat in Sedona. Before we left, Kathy had crowed, “This trip is about daring to face real intimacy.” But surely Kathy wouldn't want me to slip, tumble hundreds of feet, and bleed internally. I look at Shawn, who's staring hard in the direction of our intended route and … whistling.

My ego kicks in, spurred by the fear that I no longer have the ovaries to follow Shawn into the abyss and that he must love me less because of it. I almost suggest we go for it. But my desire to live outweighs my desire to have the perfect adventure-couple marriage. I swallow my pride, hoist my pack, and follow my husband back down the mountain.

FOURTEEN YEARS AGO, if you had told Shawn and me that we were going to fall in love, get married, and have back-to-back, 17-months-apart babies, we would have laughed you off the barstool you were straddling. When we first met, in Talkeetna, Alaska, in 1996, Shawn was drifting and I was married to a toothless and socially hostile dog musher from Scotland.

Worse yet, we both came from families where marriage was synonymous with disaster. Shawn's dad was a violent alcoholic who ran out on his mom when Shawn's sister was still a baby. Their mom did her best to make up for it, putting her kids on ski team, backpacking with Shawn's Boy Scout troop, and sending Shawn and his sister to fancy New England prep schools. Meanwhile, my childhood was tainted by even more severe transgressions. My stepdad molested me from the time I was eight until I ran away at 14. A few years ago, seeking closure, I decided to finally confront him about the specifics of the abuse, and I recently finished writing a memoir on the subject. But back when Shawn and I met, I was still half in denial and clawing my way out of my first, tragic marriage. Secretly, we had both vowed lives of independence, adventure, and, for the most part, solitude.

Fate, as we know, has a way of soiling itself on our best intentions. A year and a half after Shawn and I met in Talkeetna, we ran into each other again while backcountry skiing at Berthoud Pass, Colorado. I had left the dog musher and was standing in the parking lot when his 130-pound malamute mix, Tank, head-butted my ass. When Shawn appeared, a thousand watts of electricity made my neck hair wiggle. Seventeen months later, we were married and alternating summers in Alaska with winters in Colorado.

Up north we climbed in Alaska's famed Ruth Gorge, skied peaks off the Denali Highway, and shooed away grizzlies as we rafted down salmon-choked rivers. Fall was for camping in Zion and climbing in Colorado's Eldorado Canyon; winter was for skiing, both backcountry and resort. Eventually, we settled in Winter Park, Colorado, me working for the National Sports Center for the Disabled and writing for the local paper, Shawn managing a ski shop. Then the boys arrived, and within three years both Scout and Hatcher were leaving bottles of curdled milk under the seat of our Jeep Cherokee.

But far be it from Shawn and me to let two pooping, gurgling—albeit adorable—babies stop us from following our passion. Which was to continue to hike, climb, ski, and mountain-bike as much as the boys' tolerance (and nap time) would allow. The summer Scout was born, I must have logged 50,000 vertical feet hiking up and down Winter Park's grassy runs with him in a front pack while Shawn raft-guided on the Colorado River. The following winter, after work, in the dark, in temperatures that dropped below zero, I stuffed Scout into four layers of fleece and skied through the Arapaho National Forest.

Life hurtled forward. In 2004, I got the job at Skiing, and the family adventure continued. By the time Scout was five and Hatcher was four, they'd skied Wolf Creek, Winter Park, Loveland, Steamboat, Snowbird, Bridger Bowl, and Targhee. It seemed we had achieved the perfect skiing-to-parenting ratio. And yet that job marked the first real sinkhole in our relationship. Because with it came a move to Boulder, where daycare was too pricey for Shawn to keep working. He stayed home with the boys while I “researched” stories by shredding powder in places like Iran and Alaska's Chugach Mountains. Did Shawn balk? Not often. Though the seeds of resentment were sprouting, he was too busy teaching Scout and Hatcher to stand on the toilet seat and pee into a Cheerio.

THE RELATIONSHIP CHALLENGE had challenges before we started.

The night before we were supposed to pick up my mom at the airport, Powder had a meltdown.

Powder is Shawn's big, loud, white, stinky Ford F250 diesel pickup and a major source of strife in our marriage. Shawn bought Powder after I got an advance to write my memoir. He'd always wanted a man truck like Powder, just for fun but also to solidify our standing as redneck Democrats. Not a week goes by when some bit or bobble doesn't break off of Powder, increasing our stress levels and decreasing the joy of riding in “her.” Shortly before our departure, her engine started clanking. Two days later, her driveshaft fell onto the pavement.

Undaunted, Shawn hitchhiked 20 miles back to our house and rented us a car.

“Economies are cheap,” he said. “Just $130 for the week.” But the next day, when he pulled out of the Avis parking lot near the Denver airport, he wasn't driving an economy. It was a souped-up all-wheel-drive Mazda SUV the color of faded money.

“What's that?” I gasped.

“It's our rental,” said Shawn. “Isn't it awesome?”

“Awesome? More like expensive. How much was it?”

Shawn paused. We both hated the money conversation, which had been awkward ever since I started working at Skiing and continued to be with my next gig, at Backpacker. As much as I appreciated his dedication to raising our boys, and as jealous as I was of how much time he got to spend with them, I couldn't help feeling like I was doing the more important job by bringing home the organic, nitrate-free bacon. Never mind that people constantly praised Shawn for his parenting abilities. I tried to express my gratitude by bringing him ski swag, but Shawn retaliated by refusing to look at our bank account, which left the job of stretching a $34,000 salary over 12 ultra-lean months to me.

So it went, with Shawn trying to work but getting sidelined by kid duties, until 2009, when I began writing the book. Now, at least, we're not worrying about money. But it still burns me up that I have to balance the checkbook, even as Shawn spends his well-deserved share on things like new bikes, ski trips with friends, and, well, Powder.

After several more seconds of stalling, Shawn said, “I upgraded. But look how sweet these leather seats are! And it was on sale. Four hundred dollars for the entire week!”

Four hundred dollars was exactly one hundred dollars less than my total travel budget for this story. I started to argue, but an epiphany stopped me. Up to that point, I'd worried that Shawn would do exactly what Kathy had predicted when I asked him to talk about our problems: pretend we didn't have any. But by not asking me to weigh in on the car upgrade, he'd just broached two of the five marital-trouble zones I'd identified and planned to talk about during the relationship challenge: money and communication. The others—bikes, sex, and beer—would come later.

I mulled this strange stroke of luck that seemed to verify that, yes, Shawn and I did have issues that needed fixing. I must have pondered for a very long time because, eventually, Shawn stopped smiling. Tapping the Mazda door, he said, “So, what? Are you pissed at me now because I made a decision without your permission?”

“No, not pissed,” I answered slowly. “Just … thinking.”

As we pulled away, with Shawn and the boys in the Mazda and my mom and me in my Toyota, I called Shawn several names I don't feel comfortable repeating. (OK, full disclosure: Shawn, I called you a f—wad. But I didn't mean it!) It felt good to get it out—and in front of my mother, a reliable ally. But almost as soon as I'd said them, I had a change of heart. At the next stoplight, I rolled down my window and smiled in a gesture of loving conviviality. My apology had come too late. Shawn refused to even glance at me. Though I speed-dialed him at least eight times on the 40-minute drive back to our house in the mountains above Boulder, he wouldn't pick up his cell phone.

TWO DAYS LATER, we were finally on the road to Aspen. Shawn drove and I sat in the passenger seat reading from The New Rules of Marriage. Among the things the author, Terrence Real, promises in the first chapter are the tools to “turn bad relationships into good ones and good relationships into great ones!” As Shawn gassed the Mazda up Independence Pass, I recited cheerfully, “Because great [in a relationship] is what you're really after. Great is what you deserve. Not merely a relationship you can live with, but one that is truly alive—passionately, tenderly, maddeningly …”

“Can I say something?” Shawn pointed out the windshield to a toothy massif with a runnel of old snow snaking down its middle. “See that peak? Road-Rage Rob and I skied it last winter.”

“Awesome,” I said. “Are you listening?”

“I am! I am! Continue!”

I didn't read him the next part because I knew it wouldn't hold his attention. After Real reminds you of the disheartening fact that roughly half of today's marriages fail, he asks, “And of those marriages left standing, how many are really fulfilling?” I thought of the other couples I knew, outdoor couples who, like Shawn and me, got married because they loved adventuring together. I'd been to their weddings, mountain affairs with bare feet and kegs of Mirror Pond Pale Ale. One part of me believed that outdoorsy love was stronger than urban love. But lately it seemed like even those couples were starting to unravel around me.

On casual observation, this seems to be because once outdoor people have kids, they rarely get to do all the things—boat, bike, ski—they used to enjoy doing together. Kathy calls it “common marital hatred,” but for us it's really outdoor jealousy.

It goes like this: Shawn gets to ski more than I do over the course of a month, and I sink into self-pity because of it. I get into a weekly mountain-biking rhythm when Shawn can't, and he feels the need to berate me verbally. We both know that life and personal recreation is a balancing act that requires extreme amounts of patience and understanding. But that knowledge never eases the sting when, say, I'm cajoling Hatcher to keep skiing with me for ten more minutes, please! on a day that's nuking two inches of snow an hour. When I see Shawn again, I pout voluntarily. We both get it: child-rearing is challenging. But this perpetually unequal distribution of adventure time never fails to bring out our inner vampires.

Now was not the time to focus on the negative, however. With the car blunder, we had four short days to complete our objective—this, in part, because Shawn had decided to go on a guys-only mountain-bike trip to Park City, Utah, that was to start the day after the relationship challenge. Though he'd known about it for months, he'd never been that enthusiastic about it—to me, anyway. Now he checked his watch every few hours, urging us to get moving.

We kept the pace—buying last-minute supplies in Aspen and power-hiking two miles—until we came to our first campsite. After wine and a bite of chocolate, we climbed into our sleeping bags, where I took the opportunity to slip Shawn a bright yellow, pocket-size, spiral-bound notebook, on which I'd written RELATIONSHIP NOTEBOOK.

I fully expected Shawn to laugh at the small yellow diary lying conspicuously on his sleeping bag. Instead, he switched on his headlamp, opened it, and wrote.


THE SECOND DAY of the challenge started out pretty great, too, until we reached the ridge where I had my meltdown. Now, tripping along behind Shawn as we head back to Aspen for chimichangas, I wonder if we should have gone to a traditional couples retreat. A quick pre-trip Internet search had revealed only a handful of organizations that offer adventure-based ones, but most of them seemed either too Christian or too touchy-feely. A program called the Wilderness, based on Lookout Mountain, Alabama, encourages participants to provide “their insight into God's plan for our lives, playing a guitar, building trails, preparing meals, growing into their part of the Body of Christ!” while Santa Fe–based Animá Lifeways and Herbal School relies on “canyon energies” to create “that unending process of healing, awakening, enlivening, and creating.” I liked the sound of Yellowstone-based Wilderness Retreats' couples pack trips, but the cheapest—a four-day fly-fishing adventure—was $1,750 per person.

We're just about to accept defeat when a guy wearing an ultralight backpack comes bounding toward us, a map of the Maroon Bells in his hand. As he slows, Shawn seems to stiffen. It irritates him when I ask other men for directions. But my reporter's instinct proves fruitful. Ultralight says he's doing the Four Pass Loop, a classic Maroon Bells circuit that crosses four 12,000-foot mountain passes over 26 rugged miles. When he adds that most people take three to four days to complete it, I look at Shawn and say,”Gold mine!”

Shawn looks dubious; I continue. “Don't worry! We'll go the opposite way as that guy. We'll dump our climbing gear and sleep in the parking lot. In the morning, lighter and reenergized, we'll attack! Twenty-six miles and 9,200 feet of elevation in two days? That has to hurt.”

Shawn takes a swig off a beer he packed in, the one he'd hoped to sip in a bivouac on the side of a mountain. “OK,” he says. “Since you put it that way.”

DAY THREE, CAFFEINATED and enthusiastic, we start our power hike. In lighter shoes and without climbing gear, I'm practically levitating. As fish pucker the surface of Crater Lake, all seems vibrant, joyful. But Shawn isn't brimming with enthusiasm. Shawn is brimming with Brian.

Brian is our neighbor, who for the past year has been expecting Shawn to go on the all-guys bike trip to Park City. And for months, Shawn was 100 percent committed. Now, however, due to our logistical stalls in the relationship challenge, Shawn's commitment level has dropped by half.

“If I don't go on this trip, Brian's going to bust my balls,” he says.

“Don't go if you don't want to.”

“But I do want to. I haven't left home in months. And the riding in Park City is supposed to be killer.”

We hike on. The sky is a dome of blue, clear and cloudless. Along the trail, the leaves in the aspen groves are starting to turn yellow. “It's just a bike trip,” I say. “What's the big deal?

But bikes—bike trips, bike gear, bike time—are a big deal, especially as they pertain to certain parts of our marriage. They hit the nerves of trust and respect. Take, for example, Shawn's $4,000 Yeti. I like to make fun of the Yeti because, even though it's the most expensive bike in our gear shed, it also requires constant maintenance. Shawn hates it when I mock the Yeti because he thinks I'm mocking him.

“See?” he'll say. “There you go. Making fun of my bike even though you know it makes me feel like an asshole.”

“You're not the asshole,” I'll answer. “Your bike is.”

“That's not the point. The point is, you know it hurts me and you continue to do it.”

But Shawn has a way of getting back at me with his bike, too. When it's just us, he'll pedal as slowly as possible, claiming he needs ample time “to ease into the ride.” Trailing him, I'll feel great about my fitness level, which, though still above average, isn't what it used to be. But as soon as we're in a group, Shawn bursts to the front of the pack. Later, when I badger him, he'll say, “It's just the way I warm up.”

“Yeah, it isn't,” I'll bark. “You do it to one-up me.”

Bikes also contribute to our less-than-perfect sex life, though not because of saddle issues like erectile dysfunction. The bike-sex problems are mainly mine: if I don't get enough bike—or exercise—time, it's nearly impossible for me to feel sexy. There are other reasons, too. As an abuse survivor, I have the unfortunate disadvantage of obsessing over my body even more than most women. And I've been oversensitive lately, as working on my book has forced me to relive the horrors of my childhood over and over. All of which is to say that where Shawn's and my sex life is concerned, my attraction to him has always been more about my acceptance of me.

If I'm trending toward the chubby side—say, as a result of Shawn not pushing us hard enough on our bikes or my eating too much four-cheese ravioli—I feel ugly and undesirable. Shawn can charm me all he wants, but I refuse to give in. This began shortly after Scout was born, when our lives became too hectic for me to exercise to a desirable (and psychotic) 15 percent body fat. For years, Shawn tried everything to seduce me, first with flowers and Kama Sutra oil and then with guilt. Over the months leading up to the relationship challenge, we've bridged the gap between close-to-none and some, but I still feel like I'm holding out. Since sex is one of my main marital-trouble triggers, as I've been calling them, I decide to bring it up.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Why do you have so many questions?” says Shawn. “I feel like I'm on the spot.”

“You are on the spot. But that's the point, isn't it? Our sex life. How is it?”

“Honestly? I think it's gotten a lot better.”

The feeling that I have finally tipped the scale to total raving madness makes me stop hiking. Since Shawn is bounding between boulders in front of me, I have to shout. “Why do you keep doing that? That thing where you think nothing's wrong with us?”

Shawn stops and says, ever so calmly, “I'm not. I'm just being honest. You're the one who thinks we have all these problems. I'm just saying that we're not as bad as you think we are. And besides, here we are. Approaching a herd of mountain goats.”

True enough, a herd of fluffy white goats is emerging from a stand of pine trees. But I remain fixated on our sex life. It saddens me to hear that Shawn thinks it's gotten better, because I still give him only a fraction of myself. It means that, over the years, I've worn him down to the point where he now thinks sometimes is as good as always. I hate knowing that I've been robbing him of one of life's great joys and vow that once we get home—heck, maybe even tonight—I'll find ways to spice it up.

AT THE TOP OF Buckskin Pass—the first of the loop's four—Shawn and I sit on a rock nibbling hunks of summer sausage. A man in a beige sun shirt approaches. His name is David, he says, and he's a lawyer from Miami. A week ago, he was vacationing at his condominium in Maui. Now, needing a vacation from all his vacationing, he's spending the weekend at his second condominium, in Aspen.

We chat, sip water, and stare into the precipitous-looking scree fields and the ridges sharp enough to open your next piece of junk mail. After a while, David asks what we're up to.

“Doing a story,” I say. “It's called the relationship challenge.”

Shawn shoots me a look that says, Really? Do we have to tell everyone? Everything? Every second? But it's too late. David is captivated.

“Oh yeah. Mountain porn. I like it,” he says.

I start to tell him that he's misunderstanding when he adds, “I know about being married. My wife and I have four kids: six, four, two, and one. You should have seen her when I told her I was coming out here. Miami schools started last week. When she dropped me at the airport, she started crying.”

As we hike away amid cheers of “Hoo Yeah! Get some!” from David and a small crowd who've gathered on the pass, Shawn whispers, “See what I'm talking about? How would you like that guy for a husband?”

I see his point. If there's one thing Shawn isn't, it's crass. He respects women, which is one of the things I love about him. But even though Shawn doesn't like to talk about our marriage problems, we both know we have them. Real problems, highlighted by how we argue. In a matter of seconds, insignificant spats can turn into insult-slinging tsunamis. In the months leading up to our trip, our arguments had gotten worse. Perhaps stress, as Shawn says, was the culprit. But I wasn't happy with the effect our fights were having on Scout and Hatcher.

They would usually start as simple ribbing. Maybe Shawn didn't wash the dishes right or I forgot to feed the chickens. We'd joke, but the jokes soon turned acidic. Before we knew it, he'd accuse me of needling him to the point of paranoia, and I'd call him “the perfect husband. A martyr in every sense of the word.” Such fighting had the effect of turning Scout and Hatcher into unwitting mediators. The worst occurred after a friend's party, during a rainstorm that had turned his driveway into a mud slick.

We'd each had a couple of cocktails, which, with kids in tow, should be reason enough to condemn us. In our defense, we knew the two-mile dirt-road drive to our house would be quiet and relatively carless. But at the end of our friend's driveway, Shawn backed Powder into a ditch, leading us to say things to each other that no child should have to hear. Our sons' eyes swelled with horror.

And yet I have to admit that our relationship has gotten better. The money from my book advance has allowed Shawn to follow his dream of becoming a cat-skiing guide, while I have a stronger hand in raising the boys. Now, when I'm not on a magazine assignment, I do things like volunteer in their classrooms. And our freer schedules give Shawn and me more time to be out in the mountains, hiking, skiing, and riding.

But can marital bliss really come down to a cushion of cash and more personal adventure time? Watching Shawn lope down the trail before me, I really hope so.

AMONG KATHY'S MANY nuggets of wisdom, one stands out: Cherish your partner. So on the afternoon of day three, when Shawn decides to slip off his boots and wade into a burbling creek to investigate the largest beaver dam we've ever seen, I focus on the things I love about him.

As he scrambles up the dewy bank across from me, I acknowledge adoring that he is light-footed and agile. I also love his body, broad-shouldered and strong enough to jump off the couch after a week of sloth to school whoever invited him to go riding or skiing. And his rapier wit and unrefined and wacky sense of humor—and the fact that, being naturally reserved, he never feels compelled to go out of his way to impress people.

Into my relationship notebook, I write: Shawn is what he is: satisfied, game averse, and honest (except for when he does things like buy a raft without telling me and wait to let me find out until the next time I check our bank account. I really hate that. But I'm not supposed to write about what I hate. And besides, even the money thing is OK. Because even though he's too chicken to tell me the truth when he spends a big wad of cash, I know that the first time we launch the boat I didn't agree to buy, the four of us—Shawn, Scout, Hatcher, and I—will be all the happier for it).

Ten minutes later, Shawn walks up, tapping his watch. We're on a schedule; Park City time, and we've got to get going. But I'm not quite ready.

“Your turn,” I say.

“For what?”

“To tell me what you cherish about me.”

“Right now? But we're running late. How about I write them down in my relationship notebook?”

“Just say some.”

After five minutes, Shawn recounts the things he loves the most about me. My smile. My body. My flexibility. My commitment to our family.

Good enough. We shoulder our packs and continue hiking.

LATER THAT AFTERNOON, just when I'm beginning to worry that we've run out of things to talk about, he says, “If the shit hit the fan and the Apocalypse happened, I could live without beer but not without coffee.”

“You? Go without beer? But you love beer!”

“I know. But I don't need it.”

I hike behind my husband, relieved. Beer, and wine, is on my list. From the time we met, Shawn and I have been daily imbibers, yet our nightly drinking troubles me. My brother is a recovering alcoholic, and relatives on both sides of our families have addiction issues. Shawn is never happier than at the end of the day when he's sitting on the deck with an IPA in hand. Nearly all of our friends have the exact same après-sporting ritual. But what used to be a few cold ones after a bell-to-bell ski day for Shawn and me has turned into the need to “celebrate” after every sporting event. Occasionally, in the summer, Shawn will après while doing projects around the house, and I've been known to sip one during a hard stretch of writing.

Of course, as always, there's a chance I'm making lemons out of lemonade. Shawn and I drink less than most of our friends do—especially those we ski with. But once again, this is where Shawn and I differ. Whereas he drives me crazy by refusing to acknowledge our legitimate issues, I overcompensate with my constant quest to improve every aspect of our relationship, down to—quite possibly—the fictional. Normally I wouldn't jump on his fondness for beer. But, well, that's why we're out here, so …

“Since you mentioned it,” I say, “let's talk about drinking.”

“Beer is joy and happiness,” says Shawn.

“But what if beer is coming between us? What if beer and wine are numbing us to each other?”

“They're not. I'm sure of it. I love you the same whether I've had four beers or one.”

“I know, I know. But what if we drink too much?”

“Tracy. I know you don't believe me. But we definitely don't have a problem. Two beers after a long day? Totally normal. And besides, beer really helps me. It relaxes my mind and takes the edge off my self-loathing.”

This is the first time in 14 years that Shawn has said anything about self-loathing. In my heart a tiny well of compassion springs open with the realization that my husband is not just naturally optimistic, that he has to work at it, just like I do. His beauty is that he refuses to waste time focusing on the negative.

Because of this, I cease drilling him about beer-drinking, deciding to take it up another day—or never. At the top of Trail Rider Pass, because we don't have beer and wouldn't drink it if we did, we dig into our packs for our smallest red squishy bowls. We crack open our Platypus Preserve, filled with a 2008 La Vieille Ferme, and toast to the fact that, despite all we throw at each other, we still have love, and the mountains, and enough wine to drink now—and later, with dinner.

Five hours after our toast, we reach the final camp of the relationship challenge, a flat patch of grass next to a silver, twinkling creek. Next to me, a lone deer grazes in the willows, and farther off, across the valley, a lonely elk bugles longingly.

After dinner, we climb into our bags, which lie at the edge of the creek. Now more elk are bugling, which kicks open the valves of Shawn's and my longing for each other. Unfortunately, without a tent, it's too cold for any serious canoodling. But before I drift off, I roll onto my side and find Shawn's lips protruding from his mummy. I kiss them, and fall into a river-lulled slumber.

SOMETIMES IT'S the little things that make you realize you chose the right partner.

On the last day of the relationship challenge, Shawn and I are schooling the competition. Never mind that none of the backpackers toiling up Frigid Air Pass alongside us know they're the competition. Shawn and I do, and we're crushing them, and that makes us feel good about our relationship.

Will things improve once we complete the Four Pass Loop and go back to our routine? We'll still fight, starting with the day Shawn comes home from his boys' bike trip to Park City, because I was “the only wife who insisted on calling every day.” I'll hound him on the mornings he wakes up moping because he hasn't skied enough and proceeds to take it out on the family. But will we give each other a little more room to be the people we were before jobs and stress and Scout and Hatcher? And will we take more moments throughout the day to say the things we love about each other? Absolutely. If there's one thing I can say, it's that we're definitely happier than we were before the trip.

Below the pass, we dust the girl from New York City and the guy who just hiked every country in South America. Halfway up, we crush the Indian woman from the World Bank and her friend from the National Democratic Institute. On the broad, flat saddle up top, we stop to jam several Fig Newtons into our sunburned faces. But our rest break is short.

Across the valley, a quarter-mile into the distance, we lock our sights on our final objective: two brightly colored backpacks inching slowly up West Maroon Pass. It was there, on the first afternoon of the relationship challenge, that I had my meltdown.

Since then, we've accomplished at least a little “relational healing.” Before breaking camp this morning, we both wrote in our notebooks, vowing to practice Real's Five Winning Strategies:

  1. Shifting from complaint to request
  2. Speaking out with love and savvy
  3. Responding with generosity
  4. Empowering each other
  5. Cherishing

Who knows how long we'll be able to keep it up, but as an early reward for our efforts, we unzipped our bags and squeezed together, melting the frost that had settled on top of us. All in all, it felt like progress, even if we had barely cracked the pages of The New Rules of Marriage.

Pointing to the final challenge, I yell, “Over there!” and we descend Frigid Air Pass, practically running. At the bottom, we power across the valley. The two hikers in front of us grow bigger, until we're a few feet behind them and realize … they're 70.

But does age matter when you're engaged in the most important challenge of married life? No! Morale does. And that's what we've got.

We finally slow our pace, relishing the few remaining miles of the challenge. As we wind down the last switchbacks, Shawn brings up the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, an unsupported backcountry ski race that you must enter as a two-person team. It starts at midnight in Crested Butte, Colorado, and, 40 gnarly, through-the-night miles later, ends here in Aspen. By many accounts, it's one of the toughest ski races in the West. Teams must rely on each other to make it over the two 11,000-plus-foot passes.

The idea takes root. The Elk Mountains Grand Traverse. That we could do. That would take communication.

From Outside Magazine, Apr 2011 Lead Photo: Photo by Chris Buck