Paul Andersen: Taking shelter in the storm
The mercury showed 15 below zero when I stepped out onto the deck, my boots squeaking on the cold fresh snow. My breath came out in white plumes as I scanned the horizon of distant mountain peaks and snow-covered basins.
The sun’s rays glanced off the snow with blinding brilliance, and the sky was as blue as it ever gets. It looked almost black against the snow-crusted spruce trees surrounding the hut, which now and then shed their mantles of snow with a deep woompf!
The night before, a winter storm had laid down 8 inches of downy Colorado powder atop a 4-foot base. When the dawn came, the sky had cleared. Sunrise was colored in hues of deep purple and bright pink. The air was calm and bitingly cold.
MT and I skinned to the top of the ridge, then floated down virgin powder slopes through an impromptu slalom course of tall spruce trees. The dry, cold snow fluffed up around our waists, every turn a front page of Skiing Magazine. Back at the hut, our fellow hut trippers were gone.
Randy had cleared out at first light. He had stoked the wood stove, noshed a sticky bun, slung on his pack and headed out the door. He left a note on my scotch flask, typically brief, scrawled on a paper towel.
For Randy, 15 below and breaking trail is a rare privilege and has been for 30 years. A few hours of solitude in the cold heart of winter are essential to pondering, and there is no finer time or place for opening the mind than tracking through the forest primeval, alone.
Thoughts come clear without static. Leave that baggage at the trailhead with the car, the street clothes, the appointment book, the palm pilot, the cell phone. Cut the cultural umbilical cord and go into the woods like Thoreau. Stretch the muscles and pry open the mind.
Skiing up to the hut during the storm was like drawing a curtain around me, a curtain woven from the unrestrained forces of wild nature. The wind howled, the trees bent, the snow stung my face, the cold numbed my fingers. I hadn’t felt so alive in weeks.
Under the weight of the pack, sweating out the last switchbacks up to the hut, I found the kind of focus that pushes everything else out. There is nothing like a physical purge to delete the small stuff and set you in the present, where you belong.
Banished was the Internet, the constant barrage of current events, the bizarre images of the world and the way they represent the scandalous human condition. Gone was the open conduit of e-mail and the assault of endless solicitations for penis enlargements.
Gone were Saddam, Bush, Malvo, Michael Jackson, the war in Iraq, terrorism, corporate greed, environmental degradation, the stock market. Alone, I heard the voice of the wind, the groan of a leaning tree, the pelting of snow against parka, the chirp of a nuthatch, the cackle of a raven.
The more I push myself, the better I feel. The more alone time, the deeper my thoughts. The harder the conditions, the more acute my senses. The more exhausted, the better my appetite and sleep. John Muir perched himself in huge trees during violent storms to hear this powerful voice.
Sheltered in the storm in a log cabin atop a mountain ridge at over 11,000 feet, the perspective shift is enormous. It fills the senses with the raw elements of nature. Your job is to distill them into the pure essence of living.
But it has to end, and soon I’m making telemark turns down a densely wooded slope with a 40-pound pack, then rocketing across sun-kissed meadows. Now I know the bliss the Norsemen must have felt when they invented skis thousands of years ago.
Swooping down a mountain, leaving a crystalline cloud in my wake ” this is a dance that ends too soon. It leaves me longing for the next refrain, the hope of another storm, the scent of a warm hut, my cherished connection with the real world.
Paul Andersen has a doctor’s prescription for hut trips. His column appears every Monday.
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