(This is a two part blog that I’m writing about my Friday the 17th misadventure. I’m in bed at home with a broken leg and bars sticking out of my femur and tibia bolted together with carbon fiber rods…so i have a lot of time on my hands. It’s in no way related to framebuilding so if you are here for bikes just skip this week. I’ll be catching up on the latest builds and posting details about those until i run out content.)
Happy Winter Solstice!
I live for winter, mostly mountains filled with snow to be more precise. Those blankets of snow that fall and dampen the cacophony of human existence, muting the sounds of cars and highways so you only hear the breeze and your breaths along with any surrounding wildlife. Sliding on snow is my flight and freedom and although I’ve done it since I was 3 years old I didn’t fully realize how much i needed it until I started backcountry skiing in my 20’s. I gravitate towards low-impact human-powered pursuits and skiing in the backcountry perfectly captures that for me. It’s ok to skid; you aren’t gonna hurt the trail or run over anything. It’s peaceful and quiet (except for my hootin and hollering as i descend). It’s also a somewhat difficult sport to get into and it can be dangerous, so you see fewer people out there very far. It’s expensive as you want it to be, but not compared to cycling or resort skiing. Once you get a good setup you can go pretty much anywhere you set your mind on as long as you have the right experience level. Although there are trails the route is totally up to you. Why don’t i splitboard? is a question my friends have asked me since I’m probably still a better snowboarder than skier. In my opinion skis are the best, most efficient tool for touring over variable terrain and snow conditions, that’s why i’ve not jumped into splitboarding even though the technology has vastly improved the basics remain the same. I don’t think anyone has done the Grand Traverse on a splitboard, right? That would just be awful! Full props to the ones out there doing it and making it look easy! I just can’t get myself to do it although I could see it being fun on a straight up and back tour like some of the Cascade volcanoes.
In the gallery below: me geared up after it snowed in Marin in the late 70’s. My dad supporting me as i learn to ski at Sugar Bowl. My dad racing in Deer Valley, side stepping a slope in Utah for some powder laps, and being a bit late to his friend’s wedding because he stayed too long on the slopes. (That last one is my interpretation of the photo he had just passed away when i found his old photos and i never got to ask him about it.)
I never was a great skier as a kid even though I took lessons and my dad tried to teach me what he knew. We’d head to Tahoe a couple times a season for a some skiing with other families, and we even had a yearly ski trip from our middle school. But growing up a skateboarder I wholeheartedly converted to snowboarding in 1987 after learning to ride with my friend TK at Soda Springs on my new Burton Performer Elite 150…my birthday and Christmas present that year! Like happens to a lot of people, i became a much better snowboarder than skier almost immediately. Following the explosion of snowboarding popularity in the 90’s I didn’t put skis on until getting into XC and Telemark skiing in college at CU Boulder. The CU athletic center offered winter survival courses so around 1992 i learned to build a snow cave, start a fire, and winter camp. They also taught bicycle wheel building which is another path that i’m still on today…
At CU i joined the Snowboard club and got to meet and ride with some local Burton sponsored honches and we’d jump around on their trampoline to learn new tricks before trying them out in the halfpipe. We got student season passes to Vail and Eldora (Vail owned the small Eldora at the time), and Copper Mountain for something like $200; we went up as much as possible. I loved boarding with my friends at the resorts, camping in the back of my truck in parking lots to get freshies in the morning before coming back to afternoon classes…we had some great times!
When i started racing mountain bikes in 1993 i met a more eastern US contingent that was made up of more skiers than snowboarders that had grown up ski racing in the northeast, which means they were really good skiers on any snow condition so no matter what I was surrounded by much better skiers than myself, MUCH. I’m pretty sure the first person to take me backcountry skiing was Pete on some skinnyass Tua 200’s with Voile 3-pin tele bindings. This was around 1995? Telemark couldn’t be more different than snowboarding on that early equipment…i sucked immediately but was determined to keep up with the Nor’easters. Heading up to Flattop Mtn in Rocky Mtn National Park on a warm spring day with soft corn snow…well that got me hooked and I dove head first into backcountry skiing. Indian Peaks Wilderness has amazing backcountry spring skiing but it’s not easy access and the wind is atrocious, so you get good at routefinding in bad conditions and finding whatever soft snow you could no matter how long it took you to get there on foot. Somehow i never got hurt i stuck with tele for several years, snowboarding less and less and getting better at tele. The popularity of the sport pushed the myriad improvements in tele boots, bindings and skis (yes they made tele-specific skis). Tele was on fire and it did matter if you tele’d 😉 Alpine Touring (AT) hadn’t become king yet, that would happen a few years later.
Moving from Boulder to Ned in 2000 after quitting racing i was much closer to the snow and took up XC skiing. Our group of friends would go up to Eldora on the weekends and get opening turns before the crowds arrived. We’d do dawn patrol missions on weekdays before work with some skate or XC on the freshly groomed trails, or we’d skin up a close access BC route near town. Winter was a time when the mountain biking took a backseat, out of necessity to some extent, but also because it was nice to have another thing to do when it was cold and windy. Fatbikes weren’t a thing there yet but how i wish they had been! Commuting to work was the adventure for the weekdays if we didn’t ski, heading in to Boulder about 20 miles away and ~3000ft vertical down we got good at torturing our extremities.
I tried to become an expert in winter travel in every way i could. I took AIRES 1 and 2 avalanche classes and practiced how to be safe while out with friends and on solo missions. I bought the needed safety gear and read a bunch of books about staying alive in the backcountry. My skiing skills grew as my avalanche awareness grew. I have always been happy to ski the glades and mellow 25-30 deg slopes are considered relatively safe no matter what the avy danger is that day (assuming your route is safe, there are no terrain traps, etc.). I went exploring as much as possible in the infamously unsafe/unstable Colorado continental snowpack alone which made me hyper aware of the conditions. When you’re not chatting you’re learning about your surroundings, and there are lot less “human factors” do navigate with it’s just you. It’s not always as fun skiing alone but i don’t believe it’s any less safe if you go about it the right way. However, i was also younger and ‘bounced’ more when i fell. I feel lucky to have spent all those days on solo trips to come home with good stories and photos.
Hut trips were the next big thing, a revelation with the incredible 10th Mountain Division and other hut systems throughout the state. Any of you that have not spent a night or three at a 10th Mtn Hut needs to put it on your bucket list immediately. The annual Frozelap hut trip was the highlight of the season and we always found soft snow no matter what the snowpack was like. We had some pretty fit people in the group that were motivated to tour so we did a good job of tracking out the area around the hut as much as possible and finding some secret stashes we’d revisit. Part 2 to follow in a couple of days…for now a photo dump just for fun, and to show some of my favorite photos I’ve squirreled away over the last 30 years (click to enlarge):