Back Country Skiing

The snow’s been flying which means it’s ski season and the inevitable bug has entwined itself throughout my consciousness to the point where my dreams are filled with visions of deep powder. To satisfy an aching that reverberates deep in my psyche, I venture into the high country with my gear and many gadgets to embark on a spiritual odyssey within the snow swept mountains. The absolute silence of a snow-smothered forest is truly inspiring, and euphoric enlightenment is the inevitable result when my shadow is my sole companion.

Step after quiet step I climb a moderately inclined hill laced with thick stands of pine trees. I weave my way aloft allowing my mind to wander and bask in the pure simplicity of my actions, the basic elements of my life, the core of my being. By expelling intrusive thoughts of life’s mundane duties-and being encompassed by this spectacular yet unforgiving environment-my mind is keen and aware which allows me to instinctively navigate beyond crossroads whose paths are far from certain. Being subtly nudged this way or that by my subliminal bond with the universal life force, I am intuitively directed away from peril and towards the bounty of this mystical mountain grandeur.

Ascending further, the terrain steepens so that each of my steps is an exercise in fortitude as I zigzag my way higher and higher, breaking trail through many inches of freshly fallen snow. Eventually, the forest begins to thin as the pines give way to aspen and the labors of my endeavor are rewarded when, through a clearing, I spy my goal. Looming above me is a high ridge that holds a double meaning within its windswept cornice. It’s the pinnacle of my toil, an apex from which the phrase “No unearned turns” originates. The pleasure of the ski descent must be paid for with the hard work of climbing to the top of the mountain as opposed to the less rewarding method of riding a ski lift. Also, it holds the dawn of a new stage, the second act in my wintery play as my exertions during the climb will be rewarded with the prize of a descent through glades of virgin powder, like such sweet nectar never before enjoyed.

Before I’m able to reap the fruits of my effort, however, there’s still much climbing to be enjoyed as I settle into a rhythm of striding and poling up the slope while delighting in the strength of my legs and heart and lungs. I take my time scouting the route, following terrain that will keep me out of danger and stopping occasionally to evaluate the structure of the snow to determine its stability and potential for avalanche. It has been a long journey but the final paces to the high point of my epic climb are pure joy as I devour a visual feast of jagged peaks soaring skyward. With adrenalin surging through my veins I’m on a high from the anticipation of my upcoming descent.

Standing alone atop the world, it’s as if time slows to a halt when I gaze upon the wide-open spaces that serve to magnify my solitude. My insignificance within this great land is brought into sharp focus when my mind’s eye seems to drift away from my body and I view myself from afar. I cannot help but feel the terrific power of the universe and a common bond entwining everything within the natural world, something that is often lost to the hustle and bustle of every day life. At this moment, however, the only thing of significance is the here and now, as my existence is reduced to that very next action I must take.

There is no need for haste as I begin the slow metamorphosis from the needs of my laborious climb to those of the awaiting tellemark turns. Wet clothes are replaced with dry, climbing skins are peeled from the bottom of my skis, and after replenishing my depleted energy with food and drink, I begin to contemplate the many possibilities of descent so as to best savor that which I worked so hard to gain.

With final adjustments completed, I stand looking down at a steep slope blanketed with an unruffled downy quilt of white crystals and wonder at its hidden secrets. Will it be consistent in structure, or contain layers of crust which will railroad my skis in a direction beyond my control? Are unseen obstacles lurking below the surface waiting to injure my unsuspecting knee? Is there a weak boundary layer which needs but a slight trigger to start the fall of rumbling snow, the wave of white death, the perilous avalanche? Or is it like fine sugar, allowing my skis to guide me from one perfect turn to the next? With one step I will know, so I push off into the unknown and lower my knee into the beginnings of a telemark turn.

The snow is deep and I sink to my thighs as the edges of my skis carve into the champagne powder- a wonderful, fluffy combination of dry lightness, the stuff of which a skiers dreams are made. The test is over as I complete the turn in the perfectly yielding snow and relax in the knowledge that the rest of my descent will be pure bliss. I seem weightless in the bottomless depth as I gain a rhythm floating from one arcing turn to the next. With snow swirling all around me, I snake down the mountain threading my way through the sparse aspen, dodging this way and that to stay just beyond the reaching branches, as if in a playful game of tag.

After many turns, the aspens send me on my way and the pines arrive to greet me, becoming my partner in a beautiful waltz that helps define my path. The rhythm of my skiing matches that of the dance as I weight and unweight in each turn, bobbing and dipping from one turn to the next. Sinking deeply into a turn, my thighs burn like fire, but the thought of stopping is rejected because the continuous blast of snow to my face is wonderful compensation as the snow billows up my chest and over my head. I continue on, as if by Braille, accepting whatever terrain presents itself before my ever-turning skis.

Gradually, the pitch of the mountain diminishes and the end of my run is close at hand. As my speed slows I massage the few remaining turns from the hill and come to a smooth arcing stop. With heart racing, breath heaving, and legs aching, I turn to behold the beauty I just experienced. A single, sinuous track weaves down from the steep open slope of the high ridge, continues through the aspen glades and finally into and out of the lower pines, coming to an end at the tails of my skis. A smile comes to my face. I am at peace.

By Eric Mouffe