From Couch to Backcountry
|January 20, 2017||Posted by Emily under Uncategorized|
I was standing in a long line of gore-tex and goggles, waiting to purchase a lift ticket for a day of skiing. Or for whatever tiny portion of the day remained after the endless line robbed me of several skiable hours.
I was the outlier in the crowd of seasoned skiers. Instead of bright gore-tex, I sported old rain gear. My goggles were hand-me-downs, the frayed strap knotted into place and branded with a beer that’s likened to feline urine. The room buzzed with words that had never left my lips. At least not in the same context. The only thing I “shred” is cheese and “free refills” is reserved for bottomless beverages.
I googled “how to ski” to kill time. But also because I wasn’t totally sure I remembered how to get myself down a hill on planks. It’d been a while since the last time I tried and I wasn’t especially interested in becoming the laughing stock of the lift as I learned just how breakneck speed can be or unintentionally somersaulted my way onto the Team USA gymnastics squad.
“Three years or so,” is what I’d told the guy at the local ski shop as he stuffed my feet into a stiff pair of Salomon Mountain Explorer boots.
I was lying through my teeth. Afraid he wouldn’t let me explore the mountains if he knew it was more like seven or eight years since my last rendezvous on skis.
But I probably didn’t need to recruit the help of google. Or deceive my ski guy.
I was on skis as soon as I could walk, maybe even before. I spent countless weekends twisting my fun-sized skis into a slice of pizza until I could maneuver them into a french fry formation like a real pro.
I kept skiing for years, graduating from bunny slopes to double black diamonds and runs rendered into obstacle courses by trees and cliffs and choppy fields of moguls. And even graduating, literally, from college on a pair of skis. My alma mater owned its own ski hill and my class traded a traditional processional for an unconventional descent down the lift line in our caps and gowns. I was the last in the stream of black tassels that meandered its way down to the sea of parents. Not because I was the slowest or least competent skier in the class, but because I didn’t want the fun to end.
I never made the conscience decision to quit skiing. It just slowly happened. I moved away from Vermont and its 19 resorts to pursue a political job in Washington DC, where the closest “mountain” is more of a molehill and snow is as unlikely as compromise in Congress.
Other athletic endeavors also stole my interest away from snow sports, namely running. So I migrated to cities that allowed me to log miles all 365 days of the year without any snow or ice in the way. My newfound love for trail runs trumped my long history with ski runs and I let the winter pastime melt out of my mind.
The fact that I overdosed on winter during my 25 years in the tundra of Vermont certainly accelerated the split. Days on the mountain are way less fun when there’s a high chance of hypothermia or frostbite and no chance of the temperature cresting zero. Skis scraped across the icy slopes of Vermont like nails on a chalkboard. By the time I moved to Oregon, I was ready to take refuge in the warmer Willamette Valley, where boogers never freeze, and completely avoid the frigid weather and frozen precipitation that cursed the state’s higher elevations.
But then I fell for an irresistible force: the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. My summers were ecstasy. Packed with running along breathtaking ridgelines, scaling peaks overlooking endless layers of jagged summits, and pitching tents on the shores of alpine lakes nestled into thick groves of evergreens.
Every weekend was an unforgettable outing in the great outdoors. The scenery straight out of National Geographic. The stories piling up faster than beer milers chug cans of that piss beer.
I was the happiest.
At least until October or November, when cold weather buried all of the alpine trails in several feet of snow and I mourned the loss of my high altitude playground from my uninspiring couch. I let myself wallow in this grief for the last few years, but I’ve finally realized that the mountains don’t actually shutdown when the first flake of snow falls, you just need to equip yourself with different toys.
Which brings us back to the line snaking through the lobby of Mt Bachelor, one of Oregon’s largest ski resorts. I was on a mission. Not just for a day pass. But to reinvent my relationship with winter. And, most importantly, to reclaim the skills I needed to get myself into those luscious mountains all 365 days of the year. More specifically, into the backcountry. Where you get more untouched wilderness and fewer people. Where you get to use your own strength to pick your way up a quiet slope, instead of relying on the motor of a cold and crowded lift to get you there. Where stunning terrain swallows you whole and the first scribbles across a fresh field of snow are all yours.
But before I could get to that magical promise land, I had to remember how to ski. Without the help of google.
That first attempt was a bit of a shitshow. I might not have been the laughing stock of the lift, but only because I avoided the terrain directly under the caterpillar of chairs crawling up the mountain.
“MAKE IT STOP.” I yelled as I stopped for my 17th break in one run. My quads burned like a wildfire and I couldn’t string more than three turns together without my tortured muscles begging for mercy.
I questioned everything I’d ever believed about my level of fitness, and the benefits of gravity, as I struggled to get my groove back.
And yet, as is so often the case with running, I emerged from a long day in that cold and snowy pain cave and proclaimed “THAT WAS SO MUCH FUN”. My adrenaline quickly erased the memory of Mt Bachelor as a torture chamber and left me pleading for more.
“WHEN CAN WE GO AGAIN?” I yelled, foxtrotting my skis around the snowy parking lot and gazing longingly at Mt Bachelor’s enticing summit.
The very next day, was the answer. And every other chance I got after that maiden voyage on the foot sticks. I found myself unexpectedly enamored with alpine skiing. Addicted to the physical challenge of it and sold on the location, location, location. The mountains proved themselves as playful and alluring in the winter as they are during the warmer months.
With the help of long holiday weekends and many glorious blizzards, I grabbed 20 blissful days in, on, and face-planting through the snow by mid-January. I got my skis on every type of terrain I could find: deep powder, heavy powder, no powder. An unfamiliar substance to the girl who grew up on the east coast, where skiing is served on the rocks.
I plunged over the steepest hills, forced myself into the woods to maneuver through the maze of trees, and plummeted into piles of snow with pride, because “if you’re not falling, you’re not pushing your limits and getting stronger” (preaches my ski bunny of a boyfriend.)
I spent weekdays doing jump squats and lunges, and climbing up the steepest pitches in Eugene with Brutus. I was “training” with the same intensity I apply to mountain running, (although I hesitate to use that word with either sport since it makes it sound way less desirable than it actually is), my eyes fixed on the prize of that backcountry goodness.
So when the text “Bend! This weekend! Backcountry!” jumped onto my phone last week, I nervously, but excitedly, typed back “HELL YES”, finally feeling confident enough – and beyond eager – to get my feet on some backcountry terrain.
That Sunday, when I clipped into my skis and followed my friend’s tracks into the Deschutes National Forest, I was still sporting my rain gear, along with plenty of hand-me-downs. And the lexicon of skiing remains a foreign language, I’ve never bellowed “SEND IT” and can’t say “pow!” or “gnar” without someone pummeling me with a snowball. My pants were accidentally thrown on backwards and I was pretty sure I’d need to revert to my pizza days to get myself back down through the densest trees.
But as soon as I took that first step toward the snowy summit and started getting swallowed up by that winter wonderland, none of that mattered at all. I was exactly where I belonged.