At fifteen below, dealing with equipment is painful. The “rip, rip,” of skins being pulled apart and stuck to skis can be heard echoing through the forest.
You store synthetic mohair, or skins, by sticking the gluey side together to protect it. The glue binds them to your boards. So as much as your cold fingers ache, you gotta’ pull them apart and deal. It’s the most efficient way to climb snow on skis.
This is me, us, our group of seven, in the shadows of a canyon in central Idaho on a barely-plowed back road. It’s New Years Day and we’re preparing to climb 3,200 feet—roughly top-to-bottom at Snowbird or Mammoth.
So one plastic boot in front of the other, we begin our slog up the mountain, slowly, across the flats at first, then the steeps begin, the alternating leader of the pack picking a safe route along the ridge, in the trees when possible, behind rock cliff bands, protecting the group from potential avalanches.
This I’m certain of: you lose a part of yourself climbing a mountain on skis. A part of you dies. The bad part, thankfully. You purge every substance you’ve put in your body for the last week: the craft beer, the gin and sodas, the M&M’s, the half block of brie and the blue cheese-stuffed olives, all of it.
The first thousand feet hurts like hell. The sweat starts to drip from your hairline, running down your forehead and off your nose. Your nostrils were just freezing together at the car and now you have to stop and de-robe, pulling off layers and stuffing them into your backpack, hanging gloves and helmets off straps, stashing water bottles where you can reach them. And that’s just the first hour.
The second hour, and the next thousand feet, you start to bonk. All the sugar from the holiday week is leaving your body. Breakfast is gone, too. My bonk is sort of a dizzy, empty feeling. I try to push through but every one of us is stopping in our own place, at our own pace, filling our faces with sandwiches packed that morning and salami cut from big blocks purchased at Trader Joe’s or Costco. Then you get chilled.
So you move on to the third hour and the next thousand feet. Again, one boot, one ski, sliding rhythmically in front of the other and you’ve found a groove. Now there’s a high from being out here, amongst it, the fresh, untracked snow, the big mountain ridgeline begging you to carve the crap out of it, the emptiness. My bindings sometimes creak with the rhythm and then my brain starts to punish itself—for every time I didn’t listen to someone I should have, or didn’t take a minute to ask how someone’s day was. Could I have spent a few extra moments with my groms? Am I giving them enough? Am I a fucking narcissist? Self-loathing bombs you in the third hour.
And just when it’s hard to comprehend taking another god-damned step, the summit. The view of the Frank Church Wilderness, the glorious, endless blue skies, the relief of putting on a puffy and your shell and your gloves and helmet and strapping your pack to your back and the reward laid out in front of you. Three-thousand feet of untracked, high-speed turns. And some of your best friends to enjoy it with.
It’s everything I lose, and everything I gain, by skinning 3,200 feet.