Beyond the bounds
As the sun moves higher in the sky and the snow changes its chemistry, I too go through a transition of sorts. This time of year marks the date when I pack up my gear and head away from the resorts and into the wilderness. Soon I will be standing on top of some of my biggest lines of the season or guiding people into theirs. I have been following this pattern for the past 25 years, so you think it would be a routine by now, but it’s not. I still get a little antsy while at the same time feeling the fatigue and injuries from the wear and tear of the season.
I know, first-world problems, right?
My progression from the month of December when I’m just getting back on my skis by lapping runs on the same intermediate groomed runs on Vail or Beaver Creek is a pattern that I developed as a young ski racer. I’m dialing in the fundamentals, my equipment and anything else that might feel new or off after the summer break — as well as making sure I can still load or unload a chairlift correctly. (Don’t laugh, I fell as a 6 year old trying to get off the lift!)
In contrast, I’m now preparing to step on and out of helicopters. The consequences are a little different but could be significantly more catastrophic.
From lift to heli
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The progression also comes in stages as I move from the controlled world of a ski resort to the uncontrolled world of the backcountry. I have learned to tiptoe through the season, increasing the challenges, as well as improving my feel for the temperament of the environment surrounding me, such as the snowpack. I have learned to exercise patience and respect the environment. When I don’t, bad things happen.
I feel that during the past several years with the evolution of equipment, everything has become so approachable that we sometimes side step the progression, patience and respect for the environment. I personally have to remind myself that the season is long and perhaps the first storm of the year is not the moment to jump into the backcountry, but just start observing it.
Lessons can be learned from watching the best in their progression. Let’s take Lindsey Vonn’s comeback from her injury this past season. She started off with slow, wide-track stance turns on low angle slopes. She started this progression in late summer and repeated the drills until she was ready to move onto the next steps — skiing lap after lap, drill after drill, on intermediate groomed runs working on the slightest of details. By the time training runs started, she had her foundation and the progression continued. By the end of the World Cup season this year, she had two World Cup globes, a bronze at the World Championships and surpassed the all-time World Cup wins for women. Patience and respect paid off.
I have to say, I’m not sure the quality of skiing has improved at the same rate as the equipment has. It seems in general we as a skiing population have had less patience as well as less respect for our surroundings. One might be blamed for the other. When our grandparents were skiing before snowmaking, they had to wait for winter to start. When it came, they approached on such inferior gear than what we have today that I guarantee they exercised more of a skill set and foundation than most of us do presently.
Recently I was in Italy and saw photos hanging on the interior walls of a classic mountain refugio circa the 1940s. The men and women in the photos were skiing the high alpine glaciers surrounding us. The women were in leather boots and skirts reaching to their ankles. They were on edgeless wooden skis and leather or maybe cable bindings. The photos were taken long before trams were built up, so they must have manually ascended. Not only must it have taken great effort to get there, but I was dazzled by how aggressively they were skiing. I have had a brief encounter skiing on gear that was developed in 1944 and let me tell you, my skills as an alpinist went out the window. The men and women in these photos would have schooled me, skirts and all.
I had tremendous respect for the people in the photos as my thoughts wondered about the type of personalities they were to be living high up in the mountain valleys and build the equipment needed to trek from the valley villages to the glaciers above. I realized that in a few weeks I will be stepping out of a helicopter on peaks in Alaska that I can reach within minutes of my comfy bed. In the 1940s, it would have taken weeks to reach just one of these peaks.
On the Hourglass
My point is sometimes we move so fast that we pass by the basics. Last season in Alaska, I ignored the progression for a moment, as well as my inner voice. The result was scary but became a teachable and unforgettable moment.
It was near the end of the day. I was with a film crew as one of the athletes. I had the strangest feeling we were in a zone that might have some issues. Everywhere I looked, negative energy flowed over me. I had nothing but bad feelings. I was torn between whether I was being a wimp or if this was real. When I began to bring up my doubts, I was basically told I was being negative, and to zip-it. So I did. Next thing I knew, I was standing alone on top of a ridge above an aspect I would have never picked out for myself. But somehow in the rush, I just ended up there. Luckily I did snap a quick photo of where I was being put before we landed.
I ended up on top of a line called the “Hourglass” as that is exactly what it looked like. It was at least a 50-degree slope, west facing, that funneled into a choke. I’m guessing there was perhaps 800 feet vertical if not more.
I have to admit, the location and the moment was beautiful and, if nothing else, spiritual. I was still celebrating a line I got to ski first just prior to this landing and I was able to put my father’s ashes on. Later I got to name the line after my dad since it had not been skied yet.
So here I was standing above this new line, and I felt my father was looking over me as he had all season.
While the other two athletes were being placed on their lines, I proceeded to gear up so I could scout my line before dropping in. The moment I stepped out onto the slope, every sense in my being went into high alert. Something was not right. The line I was standing on gave me every indication the second I would drop into it would be the moment I would regret.
Despite all of this, my pride kept me from getting on the radio to the crew and letting them know how I felt, as I did not want to be that negative guy. One of the other athletes had been set up on a similar aspect farther to the south, but with two angles and hence an out, unlike me.
All of sudden, the countdown over the radio started, and the first skier dropped in with the helicopter hovering above her. Immediately I could tell something was going wrong, more from the way the helicopter was moving than the chatter on the radio. Sure enough the slope let loose on her, not just behind her, but in front of her. She did everything right and got herself out of it.
A few moments of silence took place. It’s as if the wind came to a stop as well. I waited and then more chatter on the radio filled the air. The helicopter set down and the next thing I heard was, “Chris, we are coming to get you. Be ready for a pick up. You will not be skiing this.”
I looked up at the heavens and smiled.
Is there a moral to this story? There might be a few. Mainly I just wanted to share it with you.