In the woods

Last Saturday, I decided to take advantage of the week’s fifty-odd inches of new snowfall and hit up Schweitzer with my snowboard. I texted a few friends on the way, but they were waking up late. I chuckled and surveyed the conditions. Foggy at the summit, and windy. Ice-whipping-sideways-and-stinging-my-face windy. I guessed it would be calmer on the back of the mountain, and took the lift up, crossed the ridge on foot, and boarded down towards the t-bar. I slid to a stop short of it and looked to my right. I spotted fresh powder, and, yes, it looked protected from the wind. It was steep and wooded, but I could go sideways. So I did, cutting through trees and fog gingerly, looking ahead for some less-steep spot where I could relax a bit more. There was nobody around, which was surprising for a ski resort on Saturday after a decent snowfall.

I paused in a narrow clear spot to look uphill, and saw exactly what I did not want to see: cracks atop a steep grade twenty feet above me, ending in a sheet of ice where my board dug in. It looked like there had been slides here, and more waiting to happen. I knew that the ski patrol kept tabs on slopes like this, but I also knew that a guy on ski patrol had gotten buried in an avalanche on just such a slope only a few weeks ago. Up to his neck. And here I was, alone and relatively inexperienced. My adrenaline skyrocketed, making my hands numb, and on its wave I traversed at a speed and straightness usually reserved for the cat track, until I had gotten away, whereupon I caught myself in the deep snow and fell over silently in a nearly-flat spot. I lay there for awhile, cooling off under the two coats I’d donned after reading the day’s wind report. Then I had to take off my board and half-wade-half-crawl to the next ridge. After doing this a couple of times over the next half-hour, and still hearing and seeing nobody, I started to wonder if I had somehow dropped out of bounds inadvertently. But I decided that was improbable, and kept going. Sure enough, I hit a run eventually, and made my way down to the main lift on the back side of the mountain, which had a line that took fifteen minutes to get through. So much for my suspicion that nobody was out today.

Although it is a prize to find untouched powder on the mountain, I wasn’t sure if I liked trying to board alone in a spot like that, since it felt more like terror combined with work than fun. I tried finding a less challenging spot in the trees, but the snow was starting to get heavy, and heavy, knee-deep snow is hard to turn in. I found a few decent lines under a lift, tried the groomers and then headed home.

Yesterday morning, I checked the mountain’s weather report again, which claimed sun and powder. So I decided to go up for a couple of hours before work. Most of the fresh tracks were in the trees, but from my first run, a steep slope that I sank slowly down on a pillow of light snow, to my last, a straight shot over some untouched lines adjacent to the bunny hill, I stayed close to the runs; well within shouting distance. With one exception. I accidentally found a gully on the back of the mountain that was a thin line of wilderness in an otherwise heavily-traveled area. There was a tiny stream at the bottom. It was beautiful, and the sun, which had been hiding, came out just in time to create a charming tableau complete with snow dust falling through the sun-lit trees.

After taking a couple of photos with my iPhone, I tried to backtrack on foot. In several feet of powder. Each time I took a step, I sank to above my knee, punching down through the light new stuff through a thin layer of ice to the heavy older stuff. My foot, encased in its stiff snowboarding boot, would stick in the hole. So I had to crawl, still sinking, leaning on my snowboard, using it like a makeshift ice axe on the steeper slopes, pushing it up these little picturesque hills and through cedars. It was such hard work that every ten to twenty feet I would collapse and eat some snow — intricate, fluffy ice crystals that curled away from my hot breath like polyester from a flame. Or else I would roll over and try to stay positive by admiring the view. It was ridiculous not to be able to walk like an adult; it was ridiculous that such short distances were so daunting, especially when I’d been flying across acres of downhill terrain such a short time ago. The trek was probably less than a quarter mile all told, but it took over an hour to make it back up to a spot where I could put my snowboard on and surf out. On the bus ride down from the mountain shortly thereafter, I realized I was freezing, probably from eating the snow, and so tired that I was practically nodding off anyway. So I went home, took a super-hot shower, and went to bed, to sleep until I felt human enough to go to work. Fortunately, my work is flexible like that.

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