The odyssey of skinning
There it was, the “You are 3/4 of the way down” sign, which meant I was only 1/4 of the way up. The body charts the shortest distance between two points and the mind wanders. I was skinning up Snowmass to chase off a low-grade case of coronavirus blues. The sun was working. I was energized to go somewhere during this time when there is nowhere to go.
Recreational uphill skiing shouldn’t be competitive, but no sooner had I parked than did I start sizing up the guy a few spaces away clipping his skins onto his skis. I didn’t want to start at the same time, but if it was to be I would have nodded my head, smiled, and put the hammer down. I moved with haste as he putzed around his tailgate, my head up, looking for another skier ahead that I might chase down.
The distance sign marked a good place for a swig of water. The strategic plan came a split second before realizing I forgot my backpack in the car with water, snacks, and a warm fleece to slip on at the top.
My absentmindedness must have been a case of nerves. It’s not the nerves of a game. It’s the kind you get when you are about to challenge your body and mind. It’s the battle of will to overcome thoughts of quitting when fatigue becomes pain. It’s why I used to get nervous at the start of mountain bike races I had zero chance of winning. It’s the anticipation of suffering.
I recalled a 10K run that some college friends provoked me into by insisting ballplayers are fat and out of shape. The morning of the race I missed my ride to the start. They thought I had chickened out. I didn’t have a car so I ran the 5 miles to the venue. I got there as the pistol fired and chased down my buddies. Afterwards, I sensed their humiliation. To add salt to the wound, I took off jogging back to campus. As soon as their car was around the corner the adrenaline ebbed, I threw up and walked.
Then there was the run I went to watch and got talked into doing. Something got screwed up in my last-second registration and I ended up getting 2nd place in the women’s over-50 category. The problem was that I was only 45.
The clink-tisch, clink-tisch steps of skinning are mesmerizing. I was back in a 1970s springtime when my dad liked to lead us up Aspen Mountain. We threw our skis over our shoulders and walked up in ski boots. We had the place to ourselves. Nobody had skins. There were no mountaineering stores in Aspen, or anywhere else. Softball was the rage. The owner of Aspen Sports said he sold more baseball gloves than ski boots. In Aspen!
Hot spots started erupting on my heels. It was during the Power of Four ski mountaineering race my teammate and I came up with the term “mole-skinning” to get us through the slog up Midnight Mine Road. Laughing didn’t help us go faster, but it bolstered our endurance.
I got to the halfway sign. Like halftime in a football game, it was time to re-evaluate. I hadn’t skinned up anything since last spring, but felt better than expected. No reason to change the game plan. I could have used some water, but since it was in the car, I reverted back to the advice our football coach gave us — “It gives you cramps,” I could almost hear. “Now, get out there and finish strong!”
I realized you can race somebody who skinned up the route the day before. My pole plants were landing in the marks somebody made yesterday. I sped up and saw that the distance between mine grew and I wasn’t in sync with that unknown skinner anymore. I slowed down and my plants fell behind. It makes perfect simple sense. That’s why I’m convinced it’s a great discovery.
I saw large tracks on the side of the trail. They looked like a big cat’s. I thought about surfing and how sharks see us at the surface splashing and moving slowly and think we are distressed fish. It makes them hungry. I tried not to let fatigue make me appear clumsy as I glanced sideways into Burnt Mountain’s dark woods within a paw’s reach to my left.
I made it to the 4th quarter. Clouds covered the sun. The wind picked up. It’s creepy when you are alone and tired out there, makes you feel the stern lessons wind and cold teach in the mountains that they practice on the seas. It became all about gutting it out, keeping a level head. It is a habit to think I can see the end and go too hard. It’s a mirage in spindrift. The false summit looms. I want to keep my head down and not look, but my weight shifts forward and the skins protest by slipping backwards. I’d quit if I had no pride. Then it’s over. Time to ski back down. Unfortunately, this takes little thought and no time at all.
Roger Marolt will never love skinning, but he certainly appreciates it. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.