Five or six years ago it really became clear that this whole backcountry thing was going to be my thing, one of those very few things in my life that I would be truly good at. Acute limits to my risk taking propensity and physiology had already limited how far I’d been able to progress in rock climbing and endurance mountain biking, but not only has my body always been well suited to walking, my aptitude for planning and execution already favored longer endeavors. Add in existing experience with climbing and ropework, and a willingness to learn things like whitewater and skiing, at least at a modest level, and it was clear that I could do a lot.
I have done a lot since, trips which have exceeded what I thought possible in the realms of fulfillment. I have also learned that having backpacking, especially mildly technical backpacking, be your thing is no small curse. Backpacking isn’t the only thing I like, and in this same period I’ve embraced ever more easily how much I get out of being home, and out of my career in children’s mental health. These things end up in a necessary, if not inexorable, tension with each other. Good planning can give a lot of value and intensity in short outings, and I’ve been especially proud of how much quality I’ve been able to fit into 2-5 day trips in the last year. But backpacking means long distance, which after a while means bigger terrain, which at this point in my life means either winter in the great wildernii of the lower 48, or points north. When time, season, or circumstance does not permit either a big trip or a particularly sharp and alluring trip I find it harder and harder to get enthused by backpacking, which means I do it less. This is fine, and not something I care to fight against, but when (for instance) I head out for my first overnight ski mountaineering trip in 20 months, there are some kinks to reckon with, and carbon to be blown out of the system.
And I made some big mistakes this past weekend.
Route and equipment selection was not one of them. I figured the South Fork of the Teton would have snowmachine traffic at least a little ways, allowing for some good biking, and would have plenty of good snow cover above that. I couldn’t bike all that far, but the riding was challenging and easier on the way out after a hard freeze. The relative lack of traffic up canyon made for some of the densest snowshoe hare activity I’ve seen anywhere, which logically turned up some fresh lynx tracks. I didn’t need my ice axe for either the traverse up to the cirque or the final steep bit to the saddle, but a bit more wind in the previous week and I easily could have. My new skis were light, fast (as my legs would allow), and my mounting point made them predictable and quick. My newly modified pack (more soon) carried a big winter sleeping bag and was stable enough to ski a steep (for me) line without any thought of stability problems.
My mistakes were far more pedestrian, and testament to my long held belief that those who don’t get out often or more often are at far greater risk of little things biting hard. First, I forgot a second set of skins or some kick wax, and had to voile strap my skins on for the final flat miles after too many transitions in cold dry snow rendered them useless. Second, I didn’t pull a layer for the trailbreaking in and arrived at camp, at dark, with a lot of moisture in clothing I needed to be functional the next day. Third, and by far the most egregious, I brought a small and not full fuel canister which was wildly inadequate for snow melting. I needed hot water bottles to dry all my stuff inside my sleeping bag, so I went without dinner, and was a bit cool and damp for a while, and really learned how to get the last bit of gas out of an inverted canister (warm with hands, shake lots).
I woke up after a good night of sleep a bit hungry, but with dry clothes and a skim of ice on the shell of my sleeping bag. I backtracked and found an open patch of water near the top of a waterfall, and with this and short rations for the day managed to get within 600 vertical feet of the summit I had in mind. That final bit of ridge looked ugly, and decidedly not skiable, so it was easy to dedicate energy to the very skiable looking couloir which led 2000 feet right back down to the trail.
Given the amount of skiing I’ve done, or at least the amount of time I’ve spent on skis in the backcountry, I should be a much better skier than I am. Long before Ben died last January I was leery about backcountry skiing and the risk/reward calculus that comes with it. Plenty of thought lately has led me to the conclusion that I’ve been punting on that question for the most part, and need to get back in amongst it to have a more informed opinion. In this case, the tallest mountain in the Bob Marshall proper made it easy on me. The Rocky Mountain Front isn’t reknowned for great skiing, mainly because the wind moves snow with haste and vigor. But the mountains are steep and immediate, and in this case gave me a 35-40 degree chute with a nicely windbuffed surface and feet of well compacted, stable snow. Not a weak layer or inversion to be found. As can be seen in the video, not classic ripping conditions, nor an especially difficult line, but I was well beyond pleased to find both predictable surfaces and good stability for my biggest backcountry line to date.
I’m not entirely sure what the next few years of my backcountry career is going to look like, at least outside of hunting and figuring out how to backpack with a newborn and 3 year old. But we’re in Montana for the foreseeable future, and when you get a winter like this one, that means skiing.