Andersen: When skiing is not about the turns
Enough of politics! Enough of tax preparation! Enough of industrial lift skiing! Time for quiet reflection — on skis — in a deep evergreen forest, way off the beaten track.
It starts, as most remote tours do, with a thrash through a tangle of willows, alders and mountain maples, the gatekeepers of a rarely traveled drainage. The logs for summer stream crossings are covered 4 feet high with snow, impossible to cross.
But there are ways around obstacles in the winter, even through the thickest timber and over the deepest watercourses. Deep snow is forgiving in that way, but not in other ways. Tree wells, for instance, are like ant traps. They can suck you in like black holes.
The amazing thing about a forest tour is that hardly anyone does it anymore. That’s because most backcountry skiers today seek out vertical that suits their gear and their mindsets. They skin up to high vantages over grand mountain landscapes and, with downhill gear, gloriously ski down.
Turns are the currency and vertical is the accounting, which is done in feet. The descent is where the currency is spent, ideally on a respectable pitch in blower snow. If you survive long enough in this game, you acquire legendary status that allows you to tell stories that exalt your well-earned prowess and what, honestly, they must admit is damned good luck.
Skiing for turns is usually risky because of avalanches, and part of the experience is having your heart race with adrenalin. A forest tour is different. It has dangers, but of a different kind. One danger is the temptation to go alone. This is not recommended, but it’s highly gratifying.
A forest trail can be hard to find and hard to keep. Trail breaking is a given. And overhead, huge clumps of snow can drop from weighted limbs without warning, heavy enough to break your neck.
But a forest tour isn’t about danger. A forest tour is quiet, intimate and beautiful in a calming, plodding sort of way. Your skis swish over the snow and your senses are awake as you absorb what the Japanese call “Shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing,” a medical prescription for overworked, overstressed, over-industrialized people, of which there are hundreds of millions in the world today.
I won’t say where I went last week because that would spoil it for anyone who prefers to find their own routes; at least for those few readers who might even consider touring up a forested valley just for the sake of being there. What you find is a rare esthetic of towering trees flocked with powder puffs, open glades where the sun beams through, patches of blue sky and clouds, and a small stream murmuring gently beneath a mantle of deep snow and ice that weaves through it all.
There may be a few tracks from rabbits and squirrels, perhaps a fox or coyote, sometimes elk or moose. Last week, in the bitter cold, I stood in an opening in the trees, miles from the nearest person, listening to the high chirps of nuthatches as they flitted from branch to branch with a flutter of tiny wings.
Wind is pronounced in the forest where it speaks through the trees. It starts with a low hush far down the valley, a rising murmur, a louder rush, and suddenly it is shaking the trees around you. Wind is seen before it’s heard, visible with mists of snow carried skyward, later to filter down in shimmers and glitters like fairy dust.
Sitting on the flats of my skis against a huge, snow-hummock boulder, I gazed about with contentment, soaking in the sunshine. My ski track wandered out from the trees into a sizable glade that in summer is a field of boulders, now completely covered and smoothed.
How pleasant it was to have this entire valley to myself, a true elitist sentiment, but not based on exclusion. I just happened to be the only one who enjoyed it on a beautiful Sunday — a day of my own, a gift to myself, a visit to a sanctuary as holy as anything I have ever known.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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