Four seasons ago was when I really started to get into backcountry skiing.
I had dabbled a little bit in it when I first moved to Colorado back in 1999. I bought a pair of used rental skis and boots and off I went….falling. A lot.
The skis I bought were at the lighter end of the backcountry touring scale. They were a little wider and shaped than traditional cross-country skis, had metal edges for some of the backcountry terrain and could do moderate climbs. What does that mean? Without boring you with the technical details, it basically means I was regulated to rolling terrain without any steep climbs and mainly day use. They were (are) great skis for beginners.
They were kind to me as I learned how to ski. I took baby steps (glides?). I still tended to use my snowshoes more. I could walk. I could go without falling. But even then, I knew that plodding along on snowshoes was just that..plodding. Hiking put me in a rhythm that felt natural. Snowshoeing? Felt plodding, clumsy, clumping, awkward. The few times I glided along on skis without falling, it felt natural as well. It was not only an efficient way to exploring the backcountry in winter…but it was almost poetry in motion. Something about gliding along in the powder, making the turn just so, hearing only the "Shwissssh" sound as the skis moved along the powder. It was almost flying.
In 2002 and 2003, I learned to ski more. But the snowshoes were still my fallback. I was still plodding more and enjoying the magic and poetry less.
In 2004, for the first time, I spent equal time on skis and snowshoes..but still tended to gravitate towards snowshoes. They were an old friend, accessible…and my girlfriend at the time didn't ski.
In 2005, I vowed to ski more. Learn this skill better and capture the magic more often. I did not want to plod anymore.
I skied. I turned. I learned to love the powder and embrace the rhythm. I was still awkward…but getting better.
A friend asked me to ski up to the Arestua Hut with her. Sure! In my ignorance, I did not check out the route. How hard could it be? I ski..I'm learning..right?
The fishscales did not work on the nearly 2000' gain of steep climbing. It was not pretty as I muscled my way up the trail. The relatively narrow skis and my touring bindings prevented this still newbie skier from any grace. I floundered in the powder. I did not quite make the turns and crashed often. It was not pretty.
Over the past four seasons, I got progressively better. I learned to use wax able skis, bought skis and boots that fit my style of skiing best and have embraced the powder. Make the turns on the narrow backcountry trail. I often feel the magic and poetry in the winter of Colorado.
There was always a little nagging thought though. A small inkling. I have heavier skis and boots for more technical backcountry skiing, but have rarely used them. I've always said I love touring more (and I do), and technical less. I love the lighter gear and the simplicity of gliding along a mountain trail. But truth-be-told, I shied away from more technical skiing because of the memories from four years ago. The thought of being out of control on a steep mountain trail, continuously doing falls so as to not crash into a tree, did not sound appealing.
I've rambled enough. I decided much like four years ago to embrace what I am not comfortable with. To improve my technical skiing. Time to use my tele gear more. To embrace the powder in a different way.
And what better way to do it than to again ski to the hut? To go back where I was not graceful and did not feel the poetry and the magic?
At 9 miles R/T and 2000' gain (and described as steep, difficult ascent/descent), it would be a challenge. But at 11120' and nestled below the Continental Divide, it would be a memorable trip, too.
I joined my friend Mark again today. We met at a local grocery store, drove up and began our climb from the local ski area of Eldora. The USFS trail snaked behind the ski slopes and continued along into the woods.
The day was a stark contrast to last week. Sunny, warm, blue skies. A perfect day.
The route then split off and we made our climb in earnest.
Two hours after starting, we reached the small cabin that had been renovated this past year.
At the cabin. Photo courtesy of Mark Thomas.
A great place to relax…and enjoy the double mocha espressos left behind by another group!
After sitting in the warm-ish hut, enjoying lunch and relaxing, it was time to head back down.
The first few turns were not graceful. I was not used to the stiffer boots and a lack of flex that my lighter, lower and more pliable touring boots have. But I was still flying..it was somehow more fun.
But on one very steep and continuous hill (perhaps over 1 mile along twisty and steep single track), something clicked. I made the turns, I did not lose control. I anticipated, embraced and reveled in that wonderful combination of grace, speed and delight that happens when skiing is just so perfect. The magic was happening. The poetry was felt.
At the end of the hill, I had a big smile on my face. What was a frustrating slog four years was a triumph today. I did not conquer the trail….I found the way to enjoy it. My skiing skills had improved a small bit from four years ago.
We continued along familiar single track. The rolling terrain I love. But today I found a new way to embrace skiing. Something else to add to my repertoire of winter fun.
On the way back, the rolling single track goes along the edge of a run at Eldora. It was too tempting to pass up (and the other ski tracks seems to show OTHER people give into this temptation). Yes. We poached a run.
It was fun. I was in control. And we literally skied from the hut directly to Mark's vehicle. The skis were not even taken off when we reached the parking lot. There was enough snow to do a quick glide to the car. How fun is that?
OK. I had more coffee. Let's get a beer!
Today was simply awesome. I felt as if my ski skills have matured a lot in the past season or two. I want to embrace the winter even more. I love touring. I think I am going to love more technical skiing, too.