Note: This trip report is part of the TetonAT Trip Report Contest. Grant is now in the running to win a FREE pair of Black Diamond skis based on viewer response and the TetonAT panel of judges! Good luck Grant!!
The Retreating Storm.
“Are those voices”? It can’t be. No one ever skis this place. The access is too long and the rewards too short, but I stop anyway and hold my breath, straining for recognition, but hear only the pounding of my heart. Hypoxic from the exertion, I can’t hold it for long before getting dizzy. I relax and my breath explodes and, just as I let go, I think I hear it again. “Maybe just a squirrel or a bird”? I suck in again and hold, but hear nothing; just the sounds of the forest after a heavy snowfall. I am skiing alone, aiming for the ridgeline above my hometown in mountains I have skied since I was a teenager, and during that span of more than 30 years, I have never seen other skiers this far “up-ridge”.
If those are human voices, I’m both puzzled and pissed, and hearing voices where there should be none is deeply disturbing. But the higher I get the voices become stronger and unmistakable: somebody else is here. There are no other tracks in the fresh snow, so how could this be? The approach from any other direction is arduous with miles of brush and low-elevation-waste, so I am truly puzzled. I continue up and top out 20 minutes later, and, upon cresting the ridge, I see the answer: a bright red tent is perched on the ridge, with two beaten souls sitting in the sun. Their expressions reveal much shock; they obviously didn’t expect company either.
I don’t live in a mountain town, I have a real job and a mortgage and on most Saturdays I’m at the kids’ futbal game. I’ve hiked for turns since I was a kid and I’ve made it work because I’m not picky and will ski anything with snow. It started in fifth or sixth grade when I learned that the peach orchards behind the house, growing askew in the foothills of the Wasatch, protected the snow for weeks after a storm, and the grassy base meant even six inches was plenty. I’d sneak out at night when everyone was asleep and put down awkward “eights” under the moon and stars, my technique still in the developmental stage. My parents thought I was rebellious when I’d sleep through school. The reality was that I was just dead tired.
By the eighth grade my skiing had progressed to the ridges far above the foothill orchards, but I was too naïve and too stupid to think about the danger of slides or frozen Jean’s; I simply hiked to the good stuff and kept exploring the higher ridges and peaks east of town. No, I didn’t live in a mountain town, but the mountains were just a few hours walk from my back door and were continually blasted by lake affect snow.
At thirteen I had my first reality check: while skiing a steep, tree-lined chute, I was caught in a slide that slammed me into a tree, pinning me fast and burying me to the chest, taking one ski, boot and all, leaving me bare-footed 6 miles from home. That tree probably saved my life because the slide continued down another 1,000 feet and piled deep. My only concern at the time was the loss of a ski and a boot, still too young to sense mortality. I limped home in wet jeans with a “hoody” wrapped around my bare foot. I found the ski early the next summer emerging from the avalanche debris, the boot still clamped in place, the sock still frozen to the footbed. Some rodent had eaten half the liner but had passed on the stinky sock.
At 16, when I started driving, I totally converted to the resort world and quickly developed solid ski technique. Lifts provide vertical and vertical provides training. For 3 years I rode lifts without pause for powder, but in the back of my mind I still longed for untouched, virgin descents.
At nineteen my girlfriend becomes pregnant and we get married. I worked grave-yard and went to University full-time, and too broke to ride lifts, I started hiking again. It was a pathetic sleep-deprived existence: I’d clock-off at 3am, drive to the trail head, hike to some corniced ridgeline or a windy summit, and at first light start making turns. By sun-up I’d be heading back to the car and by nine I’d be fighting sleep in some hellishly boring Accounting or Econ class. By noon I’d go home for a few hours of sleep. My University years were atypical. I never pal-ed around with the frat boys; life had become way too adult way too early for me, but I never let the seriousness of my situation stop me from skiing. I was true to my love.
Now, 25 years later, still married to the same (and only) wife, I still seek out those unknown ski hills. My early hiking taught me that there is a plethora of skiing to be had that is largely ignored by the Wasatch skiing crowd. Yeah, the tri-canyons of the Wasatch have world class terrain, but they also have world class access and world class crowds. Face it, Cardiac Bowl and Grizzly Gulch are just suburbs of Alta and Snowbird, and they get trashed almost as quickly. Need even mention the crowds in White Pine or Wolverine? No, I don’t ski the Cottonwood’s much, there is just too much untouched terrain north and south of the central Wasatch affording uncut powder. Yeah, one must hike farther, deal with brush and access issues, but believe me, there exists an untouched world out there that most skiers ignore.
So there I am, skinning alone up my favorite ridge, on a beautiful day with deep, fresh snow, and I’m actually angry that my territory has been invaded. I’ve just had this all to myself for far too long and it doesn’t set well. As I approach, the two trespassers nervously ask if I ever see “avalanches” up “here”. “They” are Dave and Butch, two “high-schoolers” who live in town. Apparently they hiked in yesterday, during the storm – the reason why I didn’t see their tracks – and they are now too nervous to ski back down. We chit-chat and they are actually likable kids, so I invite them to join me. Dave hurriedly accepts but Butch declines, still nervous about a slide. As Dave “gears-up” he tells me he’s seen ski tracks (mine) up here for years, from his parent’s kitchen window, and he’s finally come to sample it for real.
The ridge gets steep and twisted and we de-skin on a peak that guards a great run. But from our location nothing below appears skiable; just trashy rock-bands and stunted trees, and Dave’s expression reveals total doubt. But ignoring his glare I start picking my way down through the rocks, a series of steep 5.4 ledges, down-climbed with skis on. He follows and every time I hear his edges scrape rock he retorts with: “fucking geezer!” But it doesn’t stop him, he continues to follow. A hundred feet down I traverse a narrow ramp to an opening and, when he joins me, his moods changes dramatically. I see in his face the same epiphany I had as a teenager all those years ago, an expression of wide-eyed anticipation. He can now see the secret to our descent; just out of eye-shot of the peak the slope opens to a thousand feet of steep glades, all buried under fresh, untouched powder. At least 75 lines are available without ever crossing another track. He can see his “Mom’s” house 4,000 feet directly below and he wonders if she’s watching. We ski it whooping and hollering and after 100 or so turns, we’re at the bottom, the slope abruptly fenced off by thick timber. I’ve skied this hill a thousand times but this is my first shared run. We re-skin and hike back up to Butch, who, hearing our joy, is now ready to join in. We ski and skin and ski again, yo-yoing until late in the day, until too tired to walk. They retreat to their tent for another cold night. I ski out, down to where the aspen and pine give way to scrub, to where the turning is tight and scratchy, but eventually I find my way down.
One week and two storms later, I glass “the hill” from town, a recon of sorts for tomorrows outing. I expect to see untouched, virgin snow, but to my horror I see one-hundred perfect turns straight through the gut of my hill. I know who made those turns, and I’m pissed for showing them the entry. But soon the realization hits me that in thirty years only 3 humans have skied that hill. Maybe it’s time to share. It’s Ok, in contrast Cardiac Bowl must be hip-deep in moguls about now . . .