Zen and the Art of Ski Touring
Sliding my feet in that familiar cross-country motion, I take a look at my surroundings; karst mountain peaks ripple the landscape as far as I can see, I’m surrounded by a strange variety of trees seemingly mummified in a blanket of windblown snow and ice, as the sun beats down providing a comforting warmth in a seemingly cold and hostile place.
Almost anyone that tours will agree, it’s simply a beautiful thing – the surroundings, the challenge, the sense of adventure, the reward for your effort, and simply the motion of it all. Because it truly is a beautiful means of transportation. Two planks that effortlessly slide on top of waist deep powder if they must, mohair skins clinging to the small ice particles, defying gravity at every step. It can seem a strange environment at first, the alpine that is. It’s a rather hostile environment. Trees and vegetation start to die off, the wind picks up, shelter becomes sparser – it feels challenging. You feel your nerves pulsing; it keeps you in check, and spikes your heart rate a little. It all makes you feel more alive.
You try to strike a balance between layering up to protect from the elements, and making sure your body can breathe. Too many layers and the beads of sweat that form everywhere will eventually cool off and leave you with a chill, yet to little and the bite of the cold air keeps your muscles tensed.
The first ten minutes hit you hard, your body temperature rises, you heart rate increases and you think, “Holy shit, I’ve got to climb far”. But soon you relax and realize you’ve entered a rhythmic trance, each step flows effortlessly from the last. Your switchback technique becomes increasingly honed, like clockwork you ascend up the mountain.
I remember my first few tours I was constantly trying to calculate how long until I would make the run, because at that time touring was for the fresh lines, and that was it. The hike, the skin up, the boot-pack, that was all a struggle I simply endured for the sake of a beautiful line down an open face of white gold. Now, the skin up is equal or if not more gratifying than the ride down. I relish the movement, the crisp air, and the adventurous spirit of it all. It feels very holistic. No lifts, no lines, no predetermined routes, it’s very personal.
It reminds me of surfing in a way. The battle to get out to the break, the effort to continually check your position, the patience to wait for the right wave, it’s very independent and the effort you put into it makes each wave that much more enjoyable. Touring is similar in fashion, requiring the same energy and struggle to reach your destination, the same concentration to pick your line and determine the safety of it, and the same gratification knowing that you’ve earned every turn. Every beautiful head side face-shot, and every smooth toe side lay down. It’s the fastest realization of creativity I’ve witnessed. You can imagine a line, plan it out, follow-through and make imagination a reality on a blank-slate in mere seconds.
It’s difficult not to be stoked at the bottom. It’s simply common practice to throw high-fives around with the small group of people that shared the whole experience with you, give a few, “yew!’s” as you plummet down the powder filled chute, and enjoy the lasting childlike sense of joy that stays painted on your face. If it’s the first line of the day you just hop right back into rhythm and go through the struggle of pulling your skins apart again. If you’re heading back inbounds you enter with a small feeling of pride as you duck the ‘out-of-bounds’ rope and integrate with the inbound riders. Although Whitewater offers tons of lifted natural terrain, riding backcountry gives you the sense that you’ve experienced some revelation that these other currently ‘on-piste’ rides just don’t get.