Woody Creek Confluence

Shared joy in the face of risk. 

As I climb this ridge in an angry wind, with friends who are alternately grimacing and grinning, it occurs to me that these are the unkind conditions most of my steadfast friendships have been formed in.

For example, Lisa, with whom I forged a bond on a Colorado fire-line in the deadly summer of 1994, and consequently developed a shared, sharply defined knowledge of what’s at risk in these pursuits, hikes up this windy ridge with me today. Naturally, it was Lisa who invited my husband Don and me on our first hut trip in the Elk Mountains of Colorado, and now it’s my turn to host her. Along with Lisa and her husband John, one of our sons Chris, Don’s ski-patrol boss Anne, her friend Ivan, Jess, and her friend Hans have all joined us on this windy Woody Ridge south of Cooke City in the winter of 2014.  

The consistent winter storms have us checking the Avalanche Center advisories for weeks, and conditions aren't easing. The day before we ski to the cabin, there’s an avalanche fatality on nearby Crown Butte. During our stay, there will be two more avalanches in the area, with injuries and another fatality. The carnage has us on edge and keeps us from even thinking about skiing the Fin, a menacing slice of ridge that towers over our imagination and our objective when we reserved the cabin a year ago.

At the start of today, we skin up and gain ground quickly, skiing quietly in anticipation of the climb ahead, wondering what conditions we’ll encounter or how we’ll do as a group. Icicles and Old Man’s Beard hang from tree branches at a horizontal angle. Once in the backcountry, we test beacons, dig snow pits, and make adjustments and assessments—of conditions, and each other. We ski below Pilot and Index peaks, up onto Woody Ridge. The route provides views of Granite Peak, the peaks of Yellowstone Park, and nearby Crown Butte, revealing the tracks of ongoing avalanche activity.

No lingering here, though, as our faces are scrubbed with stinging pellets of wind-driven snow; we drop west into the Republic Creek valley. Here, months of record-setting snow accumulation pay off. Whooping and schussing and choking on face shots, we drop 2,000 feet through aspen and spruce and small meadows. Lisa laughs in warning as Don approaches: “He’s coming in hot!”  Like running a river of powder, sometimes we’re deep in the flow, and other times we eddy out. The avalanche danger is not forgotten but rather kept in perspective. All senses are attuned, not just to the landscape, but to each other, knowing what’s at risk, and wanting to keep grief at bay. With real risk comes an enhanced and shared sense joy in hard work, discovered runs, and earned turns and trust.

Woody Ridge, Cooke City, Backcountry Skiing
           Tools of the trade, locked and loaded.  

At the cabin, laughter releases tension; we're relieved to have made it back unscathed. Ivan shows up with a new “do” of long moss hair, which is later transformed into mustaches for all. There’s a meal of pesto pasta that tastes better for all the effort of the day, followed by stargazing on the deck. We sit, fortified by the meal, soaking up the rewards of a good day and a good crew, and the mood turns contemplative.

Woody Ridge, Cooke City, Backcountry Skiing
  Moss mustache anyone?

There’s an unspoken sense that we’ve found what we were looking for. We’ve experienced a metamorphosis from a group of individuals into a team of friends with shared intentions, confirmation that even with—or perhaps because of—all the risks, we are a group that is most at home in the mountains. Don breaks out the champagne, intending to celebrate this hoped-for confluence of enduring and newfound friendships, but Anne and Ivan have news to share—last night, when the moon was near full, they skied to the falls where Ivan asked Anne if she’d join him in marriage, for all the adventures, risks, and joys of a lifetime.