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Vail Backcountry Turns: Slower skiing connects with wildness

Ryland Gardner
Backcountry Turns
Vail, CO Colorado
Ryland Gardner is a senior guide for Paragon Guides as well as a NOLS Outdoor Leadership instructor and WMI Wilderness First Aid instructor. His passion for the natural world has been inspired through work with Prescott College and the Gore Range and Teton Natural Science Schools.
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As I embark on another hut trip – skiing from Turqoise Lake northwest of Leadville to the Skinner Hut and then on to the Betty Bear Hut before descending into the Frying Pan drainage above Basalt- I am thinking of how psyched I am to be heading into the magic of winter for the next five days.

Sure, the skiing will be fantastic and the fun with old clients will be festive, but the thing that I look forward to on the highest level is being immersed in the wilds of the Sawatch Range. It will also provide the opportunity for all of us to leave behind the day-to-day travails of the human world and to move within a place where the natural rhythms of the planet have a better chance of finding that deeply immersed rhythm that exists in each of us.

During the next five days I will have the opportunity to open up to these mountains and this particular place, to notice the “grand show” going on around and, perhaps, within me. The trick is to allow this to happen.



The trick is not to bring the frenetic pace of the human world with me onto the trail. Rather, I strive to remember that my work here is to embrace mountain rhythm in a way that serves me best. For me, that means slowing down and being intentional about experiencing this wildness.

The peace of this place is the foundation for the rest of what I will observe. I will see what unfolds around me as I ski along. I will notice the thin, cold air and how the snow lingers on the branches of the aspens; how the light casts shadows of gray on the bright white snow; and how the breeze moves the limbs of the trees in a dance as old as time. And I will notice the animal tracks, those telling remembrances of the many critters with whom I will share this place over the length of my journey.



As I ski along, my tracks will share the snow with the footsteps of many of the wild critters of the subalpine: red squirrel, ermine, snowshoe hare, coyote, field mouse, vole and, hopefully, Canada lynx. Each will leave a distinctive pattern or some other kind of clue that may help me to determine which animals have been here before me and which animals are part of this amazing place. The tracks I will look for are specific to different types of animals with varying ways of moving through the snow.

I think about how this experience feeds me. I think about what it is that pulls at my being as I glide along among the critters and these majestic mountains. I believe it is something that we all yearn for on so many levels – a connection with the wildness from which we originated and to connect with that relationship with the natural world that our ancestors knew intimately.

Yes, I will relate to it very tangibly as I ski the untracked powder, but I also need to slow down and let it find me as I move along the trail. This is what will tip the ends of my smile up for the next several weeks.


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