Shades of Grey

Skiing the Yellowstone burn.

Trees reduced by flame scrawl charcoal shadows on the deep winter snow. My skis etch their own mark onto the mountainside as I silently pass beneath the ebony skeletons of yesterday’s trees, sentries beautiful as they are disfigured. It’s amazing to consider that life and goodness—not to mention great skiing—can result from an event as destructive and terrifying as wildfire. Here life blurs from blacks and whites into shifting shades of grey.

The wildfires of 1988 consumed 1.2 million acres of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 793,000 of them inside Yellowstone Park. The sheer size and power of such a blaze defies human interference. And while fires have shaped regional ecology for thousands of years, the benefits of letting fire take its course are only now being accepted.

The paradox of this dynamic memorial to the Yellowstone fires that burned here almost 20 years ago—and all of them since—is that something so destructive also breeds life. Grasslands recovered in only a few years and aspen reproduction has increased. Serotinous pines (which produce resin-filled cones that only spread the seeds of the tree when exposed to fire) have all returned. Animals enjoy new grazing and foraging areas. Birds inhabit new cavities and snags in the burned forest. From ash rose a phoenix.

The fires created premium glade skiing by clearing deadfall and low branches from the forest. Secret terrain gardens filled with pillow lines, cliffs, and rollers were revealed by the blistering flames. In Yellowstone, snow falls often and deep, wrapping cool gauze over the burn. Below me spreads a steep slope lined by the forest and a snow-choked boulder field. Between the two is a single perfect line, straddling the delicate boundary between forest and clearing, black and white.

I push off into week-old, shin-deep powder, which is well preserved by the shade of the canyon, nestled anonymously in the mountains outside of West Yellowstone. Except for perhaps a passing Nordic tourer far below, I am alone. Forgotten is the heat and fury that cleared the mountainside. I fall from one turn to the next, skirting the snow-smothered boulder field and skiing over mushroom drops to soft landings. This is why I ski. This is why I am here, covered with snow and soot, chasing lines penned in black and white. Like the myriad effects of fire, I am just another shade of grey.

This story was first published in 2006 by Backcountry Magazine.