Three Turns

Early-season splendor.

Three turns. That’s all we need. That’s the unwritten code of the early-season gully skier. To be honest, it’s not really much of a code—more of a goal. Here’s the gist: When there’s even a remote chance that snow has stuck to some miserable, rocky gully, slog your ass up there, make at least three pathetic, ugly turns, and try not to break your leg.

The Three Turn Code sounds more poetic and less moronic than the actual explanation. It’s kind of like how the Declaration of Independence sounds more legit than “Hey you British bastards, we’re done paying for your funny wigs and royal traditions that will one day provide nothing more than tabloid fodder and national shame!” So there you have it. The code of the gully skier.

Gully skiing is a compulsion, like licking peanut butter from a pocket knife. You know you’re eventually going to slice your tongue into a forked abomination and end up spending the rest of your life as a circus attraction married to a bearded lady named Hope, but you do it anyway. And it’s delicious.

Part of the excitement is the surprise. The first shimmering, bright dusting of snow in the mountains is never expected, usually arriving in the night or during a soaking afternoon thunderstorm. But there it is nonetheless: the glowing white embryo of an entire ski season.

After a long, hot summer, nothing could seem more clean and pure and good than snow—any snow. Hail or graupel are even acceptable substitutes for the truly deranged gully skier. The objective is not quality turns. It’s not really quantity of turns, either (as long as there are at least three). In fact, it doesn’t have much at all to do with skiing. It’s the principal. The Code. When there’s snow, it’s time to slide.

It begins with a ritual and a journey, like the African tribesmen who in order to be respected must go out and kill a lion with only a sacred stone, a blessing from the Earth Mother, and a ported AK-47. Rituals and journeys define the gully skier’s experience. And it begins with the skis.

These skis are subject to very specific requirements. The first rule is that they must be valueless, as they will ultimately be sacrificed on the alter of jagged-ass rocks. They must also be at least ten years old, no wider than a beer can, preferably with neon-colored bases and rusty or damaged bindings that are more likely to rip out of the ski than release in the event of a fall. Safety first.

The journey begins somewhere high—as high as you can get without inhaling, ingesting, or injecting. Then we follow the wind. With only a trace of snow, wind is the sole savior of the desperate gully skier, scouring crystals from worthless ridgelines and laying it neatly into protected, unmolested gullies. This is our habitat.

But all gullies are not created equal. They must be steep, but not too exposed; high, but not too rocky; grassy, but not too brushy; protected but not isolated. Above all else, they must be covered with enough snow for you to smoothly glide for at least—you guessed it—three turns. What else? Well, while you’re frantically searching for the Grail of gullies, what paltry snow collected in the crevices and cracks is rapidly melting, and the turns you crave are slipping away before your eyes. It’s all very Herman Melville. Or Jack Sparrow, depending on your frame of reference.

But if you’re lucky, after months of waiting, hours of slogging, and at least several minutes of critical thought, an appropriate gully appears and the opportunity to ski has arrived. The term ski is, of course, loosely applied in this case. Other, more appropriate verbs for the act of gully skiing include: grind, clatter, jolt, flop, tumble, teeter, pitch, plummet, and topple. If you’re unlucky, this list may also include fracture, sever, separate, and/or splatter.

Risking bodily harm, and, even more astonishingly, the entire real ski season in pursuit of three crappy turns is, well, insane. Juggling-feral-cats insane. Swimming-with-sharks-wearing-a-sirloin-thong is insane. But unlike the senseless risks of rabies infection, genital disembowelment, or obtuse corporate concubines in positions of power, gully skiing provides ample reward.

I always say that if you can’t be the best at anything respectable, be the first at something strange. Gully skiers do it for the exercise, the views, the camaraderie, and the anticipation of those first turns, but as much anything else, I suppose we do it for the bragging rights. Frankly, it’s a stupid reason for a stupid sport, and I’m a little ashamed. But not that much. After all, I made turns yesterday. SIX of them! Ha! Beat THAT!