Friday marked the last field day of my backcountry ski course with one final trip to Sunburst, in Turnagain Pass, in hopes of a final spring run before the long summer wait. We weren’t disappointed either, with bluebird conditions and an untouched skin track we had the entire mountain to ourselves for one last hurrah.
With the exception of a spontaneous whiteout at the top of the ridge, which stunted any attempt for a second run, the approach up the slope looked like a Patagonia commercial set against the backdrop of a postcard. Despite the gallon of sweat clinging to my beard acting as makeshift engine coolant I still managed to earn my first sunburn of the year with a grin etched permanently into my face.
Reconvening at the top we evaluated the whiteout, seeing at most eight feet in any direction. Using the tried and true method of “I dunno dude, you wanna just wait and see?” we opted to dig a test pit to check the snowpack and pass the time until the weather moved on. About the time we finished our tests, a window broke in the clouds and we dropped onto the slope one by one ripping into the valley below.
As the elevation dropped so did our speed; with the snow slowly shifting from concrete, to a soft cushion, to something with the consistency of wet peanut butter, and finally petering out into cold puddles of water topped with the last little islands of snowpack struggling to survive just a bit further into spring. And we rode every damn inch of it.
I finally came to a slushy halt in a wet ditch, having ridden my board like a sled in lieu of booting it for the last several hundred feet, while a classmate shot by on a splitboard skittering across the damp grass towards the highway. And just like that the class was over, as if we had somehow made the leap from winter to spring in a single run.
I tend to hike year round, striking a delicate peace treaty with my burgeoning beer gut, and am by most standards in good shape; but this is the class that broke me. Sea-kayaking is easy, backpacking is just walking with more resistance, and ice-climbing is soul crushing but mercifully brief. But tell me to strap a snowboard and twenty to thirty pounds of survival gear to my back and hike straight up a mountain in snowshoes and you’re going to get a response from me that would make Charlo Greene blush.
But for two and a half months this course dragged our tired asses up and down mountains in Turnagain Pass, Summit Lake, Hatcher’s Pass and everywhere in between. I’ve never sweat more, slept harder, or felt more accomplished than after a long day in the backcountry earning our turns.
As a group, there were several lessons we all took away from the experience. One, chairlifts are an invention worthy of the Nobel Prize. Seriously, next time you’re up at Alyeska I want you snag the nearest chairlift operator and buy them a stiff drink after work, because those guys are the unsung heroes of the north.
Second, you never really know a group until you go out in the woods and sweat with them. Every outdoor class I take is filled with people I’d never have the chance to meet in my everyday life, and invariably I end up with a new list of backcountry partners by the end. I don’t know where these people have been hiding the rest of my time at UAA, but they come out of the woodwork en masse whenever the outdoor courses open. It’s worth the uphill struggle just to come away with a trusted group to wander off-grid with from time to time.
As a senior I find myself starring down the barrel of a lot of “lasts”. Last overpriced meal at the Cuddy, last six dollar coffee in the Student Union, and last baseless ticket from Parking Services; however, I’d hate to think that this was my last outdoor class here.
If there’s one takeaway here, and pay attention because I only publish real life lessons once or twice a year, it’s that you have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.
If UAA is cutting WWAMI, dumping the chemistry department, and raising fees and tuition then you can’t afford to put off your underwater basket weaving course with the expectation that it will still be here next year. Next fall you can take backpacking, sea-kayaking, river rafting and rock climbing; and I urge you all to do it. Seriously, go ahead, take a stroll out in the backcountry, snap some pictures, write a story; hell, compete for my job if you have to.
At the end of it all you’re only worth what you know and what you’ve experienced. Here at UAA you’ve got the opportunity to grow in ways you couldn’t imagine, but you’ve got to take that first step out of the classroom. So what are you waiting for?