The interloper

Danni Coffman skinning Big Mountain this past Friday morning.

Competency is one of the larger burdens/insecurities I carry through my life.  For exactly, the fear that I will be incompetent and be experienced as such by others.  Sometimes these two are the same, sometimes they are very, very different.  Provided that in work and in my main leisure pursuits I can feel and feel that I appear competent, I can give most other areas a pass (I’m quite content to suck at washing dishes, for instance).  Fortunately I’m eight weeks into a job that’s just far enough outside my past experience to be interesting and challenging without being scary, or frequently engendering incompetence.  Outdoor pursuits are typically even more secure; I’ve been doing them my whole life.

Typical dawn fog on Big Mountain.

There have been a few notable instances where this has not been the case.  Doing Le Parcour with Kevin was one, and aside from my not packing enough food (which was emphatically not competent, but I got over it), my fears were for naught.  Signing up with Luc and Forrest to do the Selway was another, and while that run stretched me mentally a lot more than either of them, it also went off splendidly.

The third instance happened today, when I went ski touring with a crew vastly more experienced and capable than me.

The fast part of our nine-person group heading back across the lake, 5k+ of skinning and skiing already in the bag.  Look closely above the head of the lead four and you can see our tracks from the day’s first descent.

In the above picture are two local guys who have been in the top five of the US Ski Mountaineering National Championships, plus some guy who gave a talk last night on his project to ski 2 million vertical feet in 2010.  It was attending said talk, and my glooming onto Brad’s plans for today, that got me invited in the first place.  Our group was big and unwieldy, I’m a worse skier than all of these people, and aerobically weaker than almost all of them.  I knew I was in trouble from the first.

The day began with a snowmachine tow three miles up to the summer TH.  (I’m with Forrest on this being an ethical use of snowmachines.)  Brandon towed four of us with his machine, masterfully moderating the speed to both get through the ruts and powder and allow all of us to dodge the deadfall without running into each other.  It was a new experience that gave me a good arm pump and numb hands (even in mitts), which as our crew put on skins degenerated into a wicked case of the screaming barfies.  I was probably death gripping the tow handle a little bit much.  The 2700′ ascent was pleasant, Brandon and I talked about packraft and fishing (he wants an Alpacka, and has run Meadow Creek gorge in inner tubes), and with my inflexible three pin bindings I struggled and flailed, unable to do snap kick turns.  When we summited Eric, who does avy work for the USGS, dug a pit, pronounced things good, and the leaders tipped over down terrain as steep or steeper than anything I’ve ever skied.

I learned a lot today, as you invariably to from being out with people more skilled than you and on terrain over your head (if perhaps only just).  This education started with watching 6 or 7 of our group absolutely destroy the 2000 vertical feet of perfect powder, the first few hundred feet of which were certainly steeper than 40 degrees.  Complete control, total confidence, able to dodge trees and arc turns of whatever radius, speed, and frequency they saw fit.  How everyone wishes they could ski.  On every descent, irrespective of sluff, rocks, or refrozen avy debris, the crew was shredding, and I was quivering trying to keep up.  On the first run I flailed a bit before I coached myself into remembering proper technique, and then managed to put together the best run of my life thus far, linking even turns down a continuous 1200′ stretch.  The snow was phenomenal, superlight low moisture pow over a solid base.  Good, kind conditions for me to use to my advantage, if I could.

On the top of the second run I was even more intimidated.  Even after side stepping and sliding down to the easiest entry point, I still looked between my ski tips at seven feet of almost vertical snow above a very steep apron.  Below that were some rocks on the left, avy debris to ski through, then more perfect snow through the trees.  I dropped in (the first time that term has ever been accurately applied to my skiing), skidded almost to a stop, and began to link cautious turns down the powder, reaching downhill, through my bubbling panic with my outside hand to maintain good form.  I was doing ok, but wasn’t fast enough, and my sluff caught up to me, snarled in my skis, and sent me cartwheeling.  I didn’t go far before I got my edges under me, came to a quick halt, and dug myself back out, cursing.  There was some good snow in the rest of the run, but some funkness as well, and those conditions, my nerves, and my light gear combined to suck deeply from my reserves of quad power.

Skin track in the shade.

I had been able to keep close, if not up, with the leaders earlier (never mind that they were breaking trail).  Not on the third ascent.  My legs were toasted, not excessively, but well beyond immediate repair.  I set my own pace, and arrived to a summit where, in the several hours recently passed, the clouds in the valley had moved in.  We had bluebird skies and a solid ceiling 1000′ below us.  We dropped off the other side, ripping perfect turns in perfect snow between snowghost trees that stood like legions of dinosaurs drapped in sheets.  I summoned a good rhythm out of fatigue, until we dropped into the fog, visibility dropped to a graduated 100′ at best, and all contrast left what illumination the sun was still able to cast upon the world.  Intimidation conspired with fatigue to make my skiing once again a thing of ugliness and desperation.

Greg had already given notice that he would be skiing out, his daily tally had been met and exceeded (though not by much, he’s had to average 5800′ a day all year) and a long drive to Revelstoke awaited.  At the bottom of the run I called my day as well, I couldn’t expect my form to get better, perfect though the conditions were.  I had another 1000′ of combat skiing down a gully before I reached the summer road, though thankfully the fog soon relented.  Brad even caught up to me, and I got a snowmachine ride the last two miles.

I got home at 430, nine hours after I left, beat down; and hard.  Sitting here at the computer my thighs have a 100 miler (bike) ache, and my arches and toes (!) keep cramping without warning.  Was I, with my lack of skill and experience and too-light gear, the interloper today?  Oh yes.  But though I worried frequently that despite the best reasonable expression of what skiing competence I have I was looking unwelcome and out of my league, I think I acquitted myself well.  I tried my hardest, hope to ski with the same crew again soon, and look forward to being a bit better when I do.

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14 thoughts on “The interloper

  1. I wish I even had the skills to be an incompetent interloper. Someday soon. I’m super impressed. No better way to get better! Skiing with me is good balance because then you get to be the superstar and I can be the insecure one.

  2. Dave, your humbled approach to this write-up makes it even more spectacular than the scenery and activity would normally provide. Any chance you’ll part with the location of that beautiful line?

      1. I was wondering why you never disclosed the region of these gorgeous mountains in this blog post even though you are usually very thorough with your trip reports. Ugh, ski culture. I kinda understand the “don’t trash my powder stash” sentiment, but mostly I just find the unapologetic elitism and exclusivity unpalatable.

        Last year, when I was hanging out occasionally with Juneau skiers, I had friends of friends openly ask me not to blog about certain places that were basically just the side-country of Eaglecrest Ski Area, and public land at that. I think skiing is a fanastic way to experience the world, but I can’t really stomach the private-club culture.

        OK, rant over. It does look like an incredible day outdoors with cool peeps, and an epic workout at that. From the outside looking in, I’m exteremly jealous.

      2. Ha, just looked at the GCAC photos on Facebook and I see you were skiing with Ben Parsons. He and I were on GNP trail crew together. Small world.

      3. And now my nerdiness really comes out. I spent the last 15 minutes searching Google Earth and comparing it to the GCAC photos and found your secret spot.

      4. Nice work Sam. It’s not thaat secret I’d imagine. I’m fine with sharing stuff I find or a route I invent on my own. When I’m a guest the burden seems a bit different.

      5. Yeah, given that terrain is all included in that Flathead b.c. skiing guide (the name of which I can’t remember just now) it’s probably not too secret ; )

  3. Man, I hate winter, but that just looks super fun. The last time I went downhill skiing (for the first time in 15 years), I found the lifts mind numbingly boring and the crowds just killed all the fun. Earning the turns in this way really looks fascinating though.

  4. Good story. Trying to keep up with a crew centered around “the guy” skiing a million vertical feet in a year — these guys are close to if not pro skinners/pow shredders — demands that you keep it all in relative perspective.

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