A weekend at the Potosi Alpine Yurt.
It was a curious moment on the steep hillside. After miles of rhythmic skinning in the early light of dawn, the trail turned upward. At almost the same moment that the sun broke over the high peaks in front of us, the climbing skin on my downhill ski caught on a root, stopping my progress in midstride. Tattered and old as the skins were, I had set out knowing they might tear--but I'd sacrificed much to the ski gods and hoped for their benevolence. Off balance and tired, I kicked the ski forward hard. There was a short ripping sound; then, without any sticky climbing skin to slow it down, the ski accelerated as I stepped down hard. It was a beautiful moment for physics: momentum unencumbered by friction. I flipped almost completely ass-over-head and began rolling back down the steep mountainside. The gods were apparently angry after all. Goggles shot off in one direction, poles in another, and snow poured in through my armpit zippers, wide-open for the strenuous climb. Still sliding, I swung a leg underneath me and stopped quickly, 40 or so feet below my buddies. They all looked on astonished, like I was the Elephant Man or had just suffered a seizure and they weren't quite sure what to do. Adrenaline coursing, I quickly scraped the snow from inside my ears and nose and mouth, then removed the shovel loads packed in my jacket. "That'll get you up in the morning, lads!" I yell in my best Irish accent. They all laugh as I climb up to them, gathering pieces from my yard sale on the slope. We inspect the damage and Mike suggests putting a couple of Velcro ski straps around the torn skin. It works, and we're on the way again, if not a little slower, but making progress.
Backcountry skiing trips with a group often have their moments of crisis. Whether it's a forgotten glove, broken gear, or poor snow conditions, there's always an unplanned obstacle to surmount. At a ski hill, you could just ski down, borrow a screwdriver and fix a binding, or buy a new glove. But in the hills, the only currency is resourcefulness and wits. Unlike lift-served ski hills, here you are your own ski patrol, search and rescue, and ski guide all in one. This is empowering to some, but overwhelming to others, so a key to a fun and relatively safe outing is making sure you know the abilities of your partners. On this trip, everyone was pretty much on par with each other, save two brothers that were absolute mountain goats. I'm sure they could survive on snow and tree bark.
At the top we sat down on our packs, zipped up, and put on hats. It felt warm with a soft breeze from the west, but at almost 10,000 feet, we knew we would cool off quickly. We passed around trail mix and water, leaned back, and enjoyed the view. Below us, the South Willow Creek drainage flowed out to the east, past Pony and out into the valley. The clouds hung mainly around the peaks behind us and from the valley it must have looked stormy up here. Among small talk, everyone began getting gear ready and double-checking straps, snaps, and transceivers.
The snow was deep, like fine sugar: not too crystalline, slightly firm. As a standard avalanche precaution, we took turns skiing sections of the slope, waiting out of the way at the bottom for the next person. There is an indescribable elation when you're sliding through knee-deep powder, ski tips barely poking out, that makes you want to howl out loud. Beside and behind me occasional whoops and hollers echoed off the steep canyon walls and assured me that the feeling was mutual. Mostly though, there is great silence, but for the gentle shhhhhhsh of the skis slicing through the snow. We quickly progressed down into the lower tree-filled meadows. The terrain flattened out a bit and we were all skiing fast, side by side--snaking around trees, hopping off small ledges, and jumping buried tree stumps. At the bottom, everyone stopped in a circle, all red-cheeked and smiles, looking up at the tracks. Then without a word, we went about strapping on skins to begin the trek back up.
We made four more runs that day, and on the last run skied down the ridge to our camp at 8,500 feet. Far from winter camping, we stayed in an alpine yurt that we rented for the weekend. The Potosi Alpine Yurt is a large, (about 20 feet in diameter) round structure equipped with cookstove, outdoor grill, bunks for six, and a big woodstove for heat. As we unloaded the heavy packs we'd left near the yurt that morning, it became apparent no one was going to be hungry on this trip. Within an hour, there was a roaring fire, steaks on the grill, veggies steaming, and a card game going on over beer and chips. Throughout the roomy yurt, coats, hats, and gloves hung drying. We'd planned to sled down the gentle hill outside the yurt on our shovels after supper, but no one seemed sober or motivated enough to quite get out the door by then. In fact, despite all the bravado and taunts, everyone was asleep by 10.
The second day, we hit it hard and early, skiing different runs each time, until noon when we found a long, beautiful meadow that we stuck to for the rest of the day. By day's end, I was exhausted enough that even a slight edge-grab would sending me tumbling through the deep powder. That second night, it warmed up and the northern lights stretched across the sky in green and white wisps. The stars, not to be outdone, shone full and bright, and seemed just out of reach. And, there, before the spectacle of nature, I felt congruence.
The warm weather made us all jittery the third day, watching for signs of unstable snow. By noon, we could hear a deep whoomp now and again as the snowpack got heavier and settled. I skied over and across a chute, dropping into a wide, fairly steep gully, not waiting for the others to arrive. I could feel a soft layer below the surface when my tips would dive in. A soft, hoary layer can be deadly with heavy snow on it--but I kept on, trying to keep my turns tight and not traversing or falling. Adrenaline pumping in my head, I could see the snow cracking outward with each turn. I skied out of the open gully as soon as I could, then waved the rest of the group off to flatter terrain. This hillside felt like it could go at any time. Then one of the brothers came rocketing past the rest and launched off the small cornice, sailing right into the gully. It was a massive jump and he landed square in the gully, made a quick turn to cut his speed, then stopped. It was John, and all around him a break line formed. It seemed to come in slow motion, the cracking, a loud whooomp. Then, silence. We held our breaths, waiting for a great avalanche to sweep John and possibly me into the great beyond. But nothing moved, not John, not me, and thankfully not the whole damn hillside. John quickly gathered himself and we skied over to the gentler slope and back to the yurt not a little shaken by the ordeal.
The excitement, like the gear mishaps, roll into the fold of the backcountry experience. Where exhilaration and labor blend with solitude and quietness. The views were icing on the cake, and with the yurt, it was all quite warm and comfortable. The amount of risk you take--and there is always risk--is up to you and your partners. In all pursuits, despite technology and prudence, there are accidents, and you do what you can to mitigate them. But up in the high alpine, I'm reminded that to be out in nature is to be on its terms, not yours. That even fractured and insulated as modern life is from danger, perhaps the real danger is forgetting how precious a thing life is. Not something to be guarded and obscured, but dreamed and flourished.