Arts of learning

Fat ski skintrack on a wooded ridge at 6500′ today.

Backcountry skiing is hard.

It’s worth letting that simple statement rest by itself, because just as backcountry skiing is about using fancy sticks to go up and down hills, the meanings of hard have infinite variation.

When the snow is good, like it has been the past four weekends, skiing can be easy.  When the snow is a bit funky, like it was today, things are a bit harder.  And nightmare snow conditions make backcountry skiing into the most frustrating outdoor activity I’ve ever experienced.  By a fair margin, over even the worst bushwacking.

The terrain upon which the snow rests is equally variegated; bad snow can make simple terrain impossible, and good snow (lots of it) can make impossible terrain easy.  And everything in between.  Throw in altitude, a necessary constituent of skiing, and you can experience an impressive range of conditions and challenges to your skills in the course of 30 minutes.  Which is of course what happened today.

I picked a drainage almost at random, the goal being merely to get out, get some exercise, see some stuff, and do some ski practice.  Only way to get better is to get amongst it, a lot.  I followed a goofy, bushwacking skin track from earlier that day.  Those folks work was much appreciated when things steepened and I was able to fly up the already set booter.  I ended my ascent at 6500′, fearful of getting too high and up into serious avalanche terrain.  For the first 1000′ there was close to a foot of settled powder over the solid crust, and the steep little chute into which I dropped was fast, fun and easy.  As I lost altitude, the snowpack got smaller, the snow got less uniform, and powder layer got thinner, and the terrain got more interesting.

For instance:

See the line?  Such as it was, anyway.  A good learning experience, in extensive side slipping and panic turns.

There’s always more to learn.

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3 thoughts on “Arts of learning

  1. Nice post, and good for all those aspiring skiers out there. I haven’t skied in years, but Sunday night memory remembered, and kicks-and-glides came after a few kilometers nearly as they should be. As we have no mountains to speak of, the frozen lakes, covered in a good coating of snow, are the terrain to traverse. Now the snow is good, but I remember it from last spring, when I was snowshoeing, and it was a pain. Learning is good.

  2. I agree, backcountry skiing is hard. The hardest part, in my opinion, is matching the gear to the terrain and the ability of the person using the gear. I’ve gotten better and I’m tolerant, so I have nothing to complain about. But trying to get others into the sport can be a challenge. I have a lot of hiking friends that have only dabbled in cross country skiing. I have been on plenty of runs and thought “Wow, this is great — it is so easy and so pretty — Fred would love it!”. Then I take Fred up to the same spot a week later and he falls on his ass all day. The conditions changed. What was a great, easy run is now a mess. Maybe Fred would have been better with much heavier gear. Maybe we should have gone someplace easier (but not as scenic). Or maybe we just should have waited. Now, of course, Fred wants nothing to do with the sport and only wants to ride the lifts.

    Trying to get everything matched up right is hard, very hard.

    1. Agreed. I’ve gotten better at predicting conditions and matching person to terrain, but things still go very much awry on a regular basis.

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