The joys of a long, mellow ski tour.
Not long ago, I did what many Bozeman backcountry skiers do—I focused on challenging tours with steep slopes and demanding terrain. My days centered on elapsed time, vertical feet, and miles covered. I captured the stats on electronic devices and announced my radness on social media. And I returned from these outings feeling burly, my ego inflated.
Over time, however, I’ve found pleasure in tootling—leisurely outings with little concern for how long or how far or how extreme. While I still strive to ski stellar conditions and challenging terrain, sometimes it’s nice to be out for the sake of being out. During a tootle, I leave my devices at home and stop counting. I find it easier to enjoy the moment, revel in the simplicity of backcountry skiing, and clear my mind of extraneous thoughts.
Last winter, my partner Mike and I discovered that not all tootles are effortless jaunts, and some may require miles of travel, survival-skiing skills, and the willingness to push through tough conditions. After several days of above-freezing temperatures, great ski conditions were elusive, so our options were to sit home and sulk or to get creative.
After studying maps, we settled on a location. We’d explored the area before, so we didn’t expect too many steep spots. If conditions were bad, we wouldn’t be committed to risky terrain and could simply enjoy the scenery. The weather forecast called for sunny skies, calm winds, and a temperature inversion.
The day began in the comfort of our favorite breakfast place. The dreadlocked baker, the often-inefficient-yet-always-friendly staff, and the colorful interior haven’t changed since my first visit two decades ago. I ordered the same breakfast bagel I’ve been ordering forever; we lingered and enjoyed our food. We were getting into the tootling frame of mind.
At the trailhead, we were pleased to find only one car in the parking lot. As forecasted, it was perfectly sunny. My hands tingled, and a chill penetrated my ski pants as we set out in the minus-seven-degree air. The sun wasn’t yet at full force as we began the rhythmic shuffle across the long, wide-open expanse, but constant movement helped keep us warm.
A creek meandered through the silent flat valley. Animal prints dotted the snow, yet ours were the only ski tracks. We soon came to the first uphill section of the day and began climbing through the trees before reaching a long ridgeline. Here, we undulated in and of the timber and passed through a few open low-angle meadows as we gained elevation.
Fire-charred trees appeared in intermittent clumps. Their foreboding, mangled forms added a blackness seldom found in the white, blue, and green landscape of a sunny winter day. Evergreen trees, also scarred by the fire, sported crisp ginger needles. The destruction of the forest fire brought a haunting multi-color beauty I hadn’t expected.
We reached the saddle and pleasant weather persisted. Skies were a stunning cerulean, and Wyoming’s Teton Range protruded off in the distance as we approached treeline. Red rocks jutted off a nearby ridgeline, mountain ranges appeared in a 360-degree panorama, and snow abounded. At high noon on this clear day, the glittering snow produced shades of white only a paint manufacturer could name.
We headed toward the windswept summit, a short skin above us. Conditions turned to sastrugi, winter’s equivalent of rippled sand dunes. We skinned up the irregular surface without trouble and were soon on top. The long, undulating, wide-open ridgeline stretched out in front of us, and grass poked through the snow, standing proud and remarkably still. A few mountain goats stood lumplike and solemn.
We lingered in the stillness and silence before heading down. I proceeded gingerly through the sastrugi, pulling out the best survival-skiing skills I had. I skidded, side-stepped, and focused on staying upright. Luckily, it wasn’t steep, and I made it to the saddle. Mike and I linked nice turns on the steep pitch off of the saddle and were soon back at the long ridgeline where we connected delightful, effortless turns in the first of the low-angle meadows.
We regrouped after some shuffling and pushed on. Mike skied first, and the sight was stunning: burnt-black trees and stark white snow against a backdrop of cloudless skies. This magical moment lingers in my mind and is my special souvenir from the day.
We came to the last patch of trees where we wallowed in unconsolidated snow. Like a trap door pulling the floor from beneath our feet, we found ourselves jerked around and eventually up to our knees in sugary facets. Luckily, the terrain soon opened, revealing a wide and untracked hillside. Here we skied in the shade knowing that the dark slope would keep the snow consistent. We were rewarded with a series of effortless, excellent turns back to the flats.
Back on the valley floor, the mountains in the distance began to blush in the dwindling daylight. Just when I thought the stunning palette of colors had peaked, we skinned along the bottom of a hillside, both charred and healthy trees bathed in gold.
Back at the car, I slipped off my shell and a chill bit sharp before I cozied up in my warm puffy coat. I noticed black marks littering my ski jacket, pack, and new yellow ski pants. Rather than being bummed out over the messy clothing, I just smiled. I was content. We had tootled through the winter woods. I had not measured anything, nor would I post anything. And the day was perfect.