Between the frozen pines: Redemption in the backcountry
We left off last week, or at the very least I wrote a thing and emailed it off into the ether never to be seen again, discussing the wet conditions of the first two days of my backcountry class’ three-day excursion. The picture I painted last time may not have been flattering, perhaps even less so than the trip deserved, but by day three our luck had changed.
I had been to Tenderfoot only once via my first backcountry course, and to say that it was unremarkable fails to fully capture the despair of that trip. With such a pitiful snowfall near the highway, we were actually able to drive a mile in the road before we left the bus, whereupon we were forced to climb the initial knoll with skis on our backs as there wasn’t even enough snow to cover the grass.
On that particular trip I’d made a grave miscalculation regarding the snowpack and opted for microspikes rather than snowshoes; a decision that remained functional until I found myself on a 35 degree slope with snow up to my chest, watching the group become smaller and blurrier in the distance. Eventually an instructor had to retreat back to give me another student’s splitboard in an attempt to teach me to ski for the first time halfway up a mountain. Suffice it to say that I’ve never before been that demoralized or sweaty and never wish to be so again.
It was for this reason that our instructors found it amusing to refer to that godforsaken stretch of up-track as “Evan’s Alley”, which thoroughly confused my ego as it both highlighted a monumental failure while appealing to my vanity by naming something inconsequential after myself.
Today however, we had more snow than we knew what to do with. While it had been storming the entire weekend, which had caused the soggy conditions in most areas, a colder front had deposited a softer bit of snow, coating every conceivable surface and weighing down the frozen pines with dense pillows of snow.
Our approach was hindered by the snow somewhat, as we deviated from the traditional skin track due to the slope angle and heavy loading from the storm. Having a general direction in mind we decided to choose a lower angle approach seeking shelter through the tree line, with admittedly mixed results. The area had been bombarded with snow, and as we zigzagged between the thick tree cover we were slowed somewhat by the inevitable simple pleasure of whacking various branches to see tens of pounds of snow drop beside us.
I’m not entirely sure that we didn’t just wander amongst the trees for the better part of forty minutes, only to emerge in the clearing we would have originally aimed for in the first place. However, there is something to be said for taking the scenic route, particularly when you have the luxury of five other people breaking trail for you. When at last we finally reoriented ourselves and gained the ridge there was an electric current of excitement among the group as we hastily packed our gear and strapped in for the best snow most of us had seen in years. Avoiding the wind loaded slopes above us, a number of our group veered off to the left for what may have been the most consistent and exhilarating run I’ve ever had.
I wish only that I were a skilled enough writer to accurately depict the euphoria of the experience, but as the only comparisons that come to mind involve advising you to listen to Dark Side of the Moon in a very altered state, I’d recommend that you just let your imagination wander and run with whatever comes to mind.
Fresh off the mountain high of the first run, half of us again climbed the upper portion of the mountain for a second shot, while the others dug a test pit large enough to house the entirety of the Wu Tang Clan in order to identify the various faceted layers in the snow. After evaluating the relative depth of the weak layer and discussing a safe exit we descended down the mountain, transitioning between excessive speed and the struggle to maintain momentum as the snow once again turned to wet cement below our feet.
We concluded the trip with an impromptu search for buried beacons, practicing the techniques which had formed the foundation for the course; which was remarkably well coordinated and efficient considering that we had just climbed the same mountain twice. As we loaded the bus and set out to return conditions again turned to rain and slush, signaling the end to our narrow window of winter snow for the course.
Following the trip, I tended to my gear and soothed my aching muscles in a time-honored tradition I’ve developed to recover from excursions over the years. That is to say that I filled my CamelBak with the darkest stout I could find, hung it from my shower rod like an absurdly effective IV bag and took a shower bath until I no longer felt the ache of another successful backcountry venture.