Indian Summer were everywhere. Grasses, shrubs, rocks and even dirt stuck their unwelcome faces
above a few inches of snow. With every glance and every inch gained, the picture didn't improve,
and this early season tour sank deeper into the realm of worthless ideas. Not only did the scenery
disappoint, the pain mounted. Every slip forward and foot of elevation gained was forced, and the
burn in my legs made me long to be back on that barstool where I'd foolishly agreed to take this
trip in the first place.
It was my first backcountry ski of the season, and I was
dragging ass on the uphill, keeping my buddy Chuck within sight. Sparked by an early winter storm,
we'd come with visions of consequence-free, knee-deep turns down the side of a bare peak. The burn
and the scenery aside, those turns were sufficient inspiration to keep on keeping on. Eventually,
even the turns seemed questionable as my screaming legs were joined by rubs on my feet. Putting my
virgin feet back into tele boots had been difficult enough. Now both my heels were blistering.
Still I tried to Jedi-mind-trick myself into enjoying the slog.
Unfortunately, my old bag of backcountry remedies wasn't
cutting it. Blowing wind and snow kept me from spacing out. The blisters kept me from zoning out
on the dance of my tips through the skin track. And counting breaths hardly ever works anyway.
Despite all efforts, rhythm was nowhere to be found, and I clumsily lost more ground on
But then, I recalled another friend's recipe for mellowing
the slog. He called it "head music," finding a tune and locking it into your internal turntable.
With this technique and specifically The Band's "The Shape I'm In," he peeled off dozens of miles,
always in first position.
I figured this could be the answer and tried slipping on
Robbie Robertson and The Band for size. I started with "The Shape I'm In," but quickly degenerated
to "Life is a Carnival" and eventually bottomed out altogether with commercial jingles. Now, I was
really dragging, and I was doing it to the sound of "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh what a relief it
is." For close to two hours, I slid one foot in front of the other with Alka-Seltzer on the brain.
In retrospect it was short-lived.
At the sound of the thousandth "plop, plop, fizz, fizz,"
the peak's ragged, southern shoulder appeared suddenly through a snow-driven haze. The backcountry
had started taking its clothes off, and for the first time all morning, the scenery was helping
and my feet, skins and skis slid forward effortlessly. At last, The Band strummed, strutted and
howled within my head. And as promised, powder-filled gullies, glades and couliors were around
every corner, up and down. Most gratifying of all, Chuck and I had it to ourselves. No one was to
be seen or heard. The day's first turns would be ours.
I'll never forget when the sensation of skiing powder was
first explained to me at the age of 9, a tender age for most, but I was already a hopeless junkie
for fresh snow. I started to understand why when I was told, "If you look at the physics of skiing
powder, you make almost no contact with the ground. You're literally floating, flying on a pillow
of snow and air."
And I'll never forget seeing the physics in action as we
floated down the side of that twisting ridge, weeks before the official beginning of ski season.
Our descent began with a not-too-steep gully, bordered by fir and stair-stepping out of sight. We
picked the shot apart, bouncing through short sections of bottomless, perfect powder. But,
bottomless can be costly. Between face shots and perfect carves, my too-skinny skis would
occasionally smell dirt and submarine.
After about 40 turns, we came upon a crossroads. The track
we'd made coming up entered on the left, and we remembered seeing next to no coverage.
Consequently, we'd planned on opting out and following the skin track back to the car. But, now we
were looking at a slightly different exposure. Close to a thousand feet of vertical beckoned, and
we hungered for more turns.
The terrain was not as dramatic as the drop off the ridge.
But with eight to 10 inches of fresh resting on solid crust, the snow was supreme. Turns were
effortless, and powder routinely splashed on our chests and frequently shot into our faces. We
moved from glades and trees into chutes and bowls, during that long trip down. And we arrived back
at the car exhausted but intoxicated.
As we returned and eyed our original skin track, I
recalled my initial suffering. My feet and my new pair of nickel-sized blisters provided evidence
of the toil. I thought about my reluctance to hang up the mountain bike, put away the hiking boots
and bury the shorts for a long winter.
But seeing that summit poke its head through the blowing
snow that day erased any of those doubts. And floating down its side on a pillow of snow and air
was pretty powerful medicine.