A backcountry getaway

It’s been a rough year to be an outdoor enthusiast. Alyeska is a rock-ridden sheet of ice, the flu dashed my hopes of climbing Matanuska glacier, my winter camping class was dead on arrival due to low enrollment, and the one time I got to go on a proper adventure it nearly ended with five corpses frozen in Lake Louise.

Needless to say, this year has been less than ideal.

Generally by this point in the semester I’m blowing off my Wednesday and Friday classes to make an early morning Girdwood run for snowboarding. But not this year.

This year I consider myself lucky if I only bust my ass once a day on the slowly melting heap of ice in front of my apartment. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was to discover that my backcountry skiing course had a large enough enrollment to help me break the monotony of this poor excuse for a winter.

The class kicked off with the waivers and disclaimers inherent to outdoor courses. Though one might reasonably assume that a class teaching avalanche safety might occasionally take students into avalanche territory, I suppose it’s still best to document that understanding in writing.

When you hear backcountry skiing in an academic context, I’m sure a certain stereotype of bearded, beanie-wearing twenty-something’s itching to “shred the gnar” comes to mind. While I can’t completely refute that assertion — particularly given that my beanie is pulled down to my beard and I’ve once or twice used the word “gnar” in a semi-serious context — this class is far more than hurtling down a mountain with a GoPro to document your final moments. A huge portion of the course is avalanche safety and awareness, and upon completion all of us will have earned a level one avalanche certification and more than a handful of reasons not to get complacent in the backcountry.

Our first field day took us up to Tin Can in Turnagain Pass, a fairly well-traveled run to get acquainted with the basics and practice some basic avalanche companion rescues. The avalanche portion lasted the first three hours or so and taught the basics of acquiring the signal from the victims transceiver, the proper technique to locate the victim, and how to probe for (and dig out) a potentially injured partner without ineffectively smashing him or her with a shovel during the attempt. It was far from an ordinary day in class, to say the least.

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After establishing that we could do more than frantically scream in the event of an avalanche, we headed up the side of the mountain for a trek reminiscent of one of the longer travel scenes from the Lord of the Rings. The ascent was complicated for a couple of reasons, but primarily due to the fact that I don’t ski. While the skiers were able to attach “skins” to the bottom of their skis (allowing them to travel up inclines without the risk of back-sliding), and those lucky enough to have a split-board were able to do the same, I was not so lucky. Having (for some long-forgotten reason) decided to volunteer to use my own board due to the lack of split-boards, I had to strap my own gear to my back and venture up in snowshoes.

If that sounds easy to you, then try to visualize climbing a mountain on your toes with 30-40 pounds on your back, and then politely apologize for that assumption. While there’s nothing I’d rather have been doing with my day, you can bet your last dollar that I found a way to fill my CamelBak with some Deschutes porter for a therapeutic (yet startlingly convenient) “recovery bath” once I got home from the trip that night.

However, when we finally broke out of the trees and looked out over the entire pass, the burning sensation in my legs gave way to unadulterated euphoria as we strapped in for the quick run down the mountain. While the skiers effortlessly ripped the mountain to shreds, I opted to perfect the controlled fall and managed to make it down without appearing completely incompetent. There may not have been the best powder in the world, and we certainly weren’t going to end up featured in a Red Bull video, but it was easily the best day I’ve had all semester.

At the risk of exposing my granola side, that class was exactly the fuel I needed to muscle through this semester, because the monotony of finishing an economics degree isn’t so bad as long as I’m working toward my Wilderness First Responder certification and getting to spend my weekends high up in the backcountry. With a full weekend in Turnagain Pass looming, I can only pity all the people who missed out on signing up this semester — don’t make the same mistake next spring semester.