Addicted to Powder

photo by Simon Peterson

Addicted to Powder

Coil, Mike
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Ask any hardcore, dedicated, addicted powder skier about their first time, and you'll likely get exquisite details about one run or ski day where they made a connection with powder and skiing and how it inspired them to devote themselves to our common quest for perfect turns in deep fluff.

My story is significant as well. I was 14. It was Christmas vacation. The sun poked through around 10am after a heavy storm with broken light and clouds. I and six others trudged up a ridgeline with our scout master. We'd seen a beautiful cornice line from way off and decided to investigate. Our approach was almost an hour in deep snow. We took turns breaking trail.

I wore World War II army-surplus skis with spring-loaded beartrap bindings and homemade skins. We had no lightweight backcountry boots in those days, so I donned a pair of hiking boots. The toe was held in place by a leather strap across the boot.

I'd been struggling for a season and a half to learn my telemark turn and connect turns in powder. We didn't know about ski lifts in those days, and therefore every run we made to practice was earned by hiking up. We backpacked into a cow-camp cabin along the Idaho/Montana border near Monida pass.

Straggling onto the cornice, we gathered to remove our skins and hear our leader’s safety lecture. For reasons now lost in the fuzz of the past, he asked me if I wanted first tracks. I timidly eased my skis out over the small cornice (it seemed gigantic at the time) and launched into a free fall. I could tell this was a bigger drop than any I'd previously made—there was that momentary fear that I'd bungle the landing and make a fool of myself in front of my scout master and buddies, all of whom were grinning with delight about the imminent yard sale.

What happened next is the stuff that makes for lifelong memories and addictions. I managed to land in the fall line and, with my poles positioned correctly as outriggers, remain upright. I accelerated faster than was comfortable. I dipped a knee as I'd been practicing and the skis turned—high-mountain champagne blew up over my head. I dipped the other knee, and suddenly, I was in rhythm, blinded by fluff. I was floating. I couldn't see or breathe, and I didn't care because I was in the grip of magic, surprise, and elation all at the same time. I connected a dozen ragged turns across the meadow and stopped... and then all hell broke loose from the top. Whoops of delight and joy rang from the top as the rest of the kids launched off of the cornice, blower covering them at every turn until they managed to regroup around me, covered with fluff, all laughing and chattering wildly as we looked at our tracks and craters. It was a defining moment. I have been chasing perfect powder turns ever since.

When one thinks back over an entire ski career, into clarity come all the decisions and sacrifices made in order to pursue the quest. I chose my professional career so I could move to a ski town and still make a decent living. I set up my work schedule so I could skip out on powder mornings and get fresh tracks. I started my kids skiing as early as I could so they could learn well and be solid partners and ski buddies. I chose my wife partly because she had an interest in skiing. Most of my friends ski. I spend most of my winter vacation days in pursuit of powder. I work out year-round so I can be in shape for the first powder turns of the year and have the stamina and energy to be there after every storm, without fail, all winter long. I purchase my vehicles based on my perception of how they will drive in the snow and how well they will start after sitting in a ski-resort parking lot or trailhead all day at minus-zero temps. I even pick my ski days in part based on how recently the snow fell and the likelihood of more snow in the next few days.

Somehow this sort of obsession has not had a negative effect on my life. It motivates me to stay fit and live a healthy lifestyle. While it is an addiction, I don't really care about the money spent, the cat-skiing and chopper time paid for (I'm a lawyer, what can I say), or the quiver of skis and room full of boots, clothing, poles, helmets, goggles, packs, avalanche gear, survival gear. I don't rue the large, expensive vehicles purchased or the season passes at my local hill – so many now that I've lost count. When I contemplate all this, I realize that some of those memories are among the best of my life.

There was the time in BC that it snowed so hard the choppers were grounded for two days. When it finally cleared, there were 40 inches of new snow on a 20-foot base. We skied until dusk that day, blowing down the fall line in a continuous face-shot, lofting off of the headwalls and rollers only to settle back into the waist-deep pow with endless turns ahead.

There was the time we were snowed in at Jackson on Super Bowl weekend with 22 inches of new and nothing to do but ski the blower.

There were the tram runs at Snowbird in 18 inches of new on brand-new skis in a storm that went on for most of a week.

There were the long backcountry slogs after big storms that ended in perfect turns on untracked fluff across meadows of the north Bridgers or Bear Basin.

There was the massive storm of 2003 at Bridger Bowl that dumped 98 inches in six days and left us smiling and weak of quad.

But these memories don't come when the snow is falling late in the day and it looks like a big storm or I'm blasting along with my kids making perfectly matched powder turns late on Christmas Eve when the hill is deserted, or when I'm at the bottom of the lift watching the storm of the century and a patroller crests the hill on a snowmobile and settles back into the fluff, disappearing in a rooster tail to the unbridled whoops of joy from everyone waiting for the lift to start. What I think about is that feeling of floating downhill, two strips of metal and plastic bolted to my feet, making effortless turns in the deep white. There is no way to accurately describe it to the uninformed. It is a feeling known and shared by all riders of the addictive white fluff. I pity the lives of the nonskiers spent without the joy of knowing what it feels like.

I'm 60 years old now. As I finish writing this, it's 6:30 on a winter morning. I've gotten up several times during the night to check on the storm. Flipping on my driveway lights, I see it piling up, straight down, no wind, five degrees above zero. I've already heard from one of my ski-patrol buddies at the top of the Ridge, who was just starting his control run. It was calm on top as well; 21 inches of new, falling at two inches per hour, with no end in sight on the weather maps. He estimated they would have things controlled by mid-morning. (I will row the raft for him a bunch next summer as recompense for these early-morning calls on powder days.) I have my favorite fatties out, waxed and tuned. They're in the back of the truck with my pack, lunch, and cameras, ready to rock.

As dawn breaks, it becomes clear that this is an epic dump. The snow sits deep and light on the trees and fence rails. I see my neighbor back out and head toward the hill. I cannot stand it any longer so I do the same, following his tracks toward the highway and then the ski hill, stopping to pick up my favorite partner. The stereo blasts our favorite tunes and a hot drink steams in the cup holder. The windshield wipers barely keep up. As we drive along, anticipating the turns and the day and yakking about what routes will be the best, I realize I have that old familiar feeling, that same one I had when I dipped my knee that first time in the fluff 47 years ago. It's an excitement, an anticipation somewhere deep in my soul at the prospect of perfect powder turns. It's been a consistent feeling during every powder day of my life: always the excitement, the anticipation, the yearning for perfect turns in deep, fresh, dry, light snow.

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