Friday, January 23, 2009

Ski each day like it's your last

I had only skied one day this week; new snow was less likely than a Circuit City dividend thanks to a high pressure system parked over the Wasatch. I escaped the smog on Wednesday for a morning of icy turns at Alta. It was my first day out since the monster backcountry tour of Kessler on Saturday. The snow conditions at were less than desirable: crunchy moguls, groomers that challenged your edges and an occasional good patch of corduroy. My day count coming into the week was 21, well above any pace I've ever had in a season, so it was with little regret that I made skiing a low priority during a week when the quality of skiing was so low.

That's why Thursday, when I packed my backcountry gear into the Xterra, I was also packing low expectations. Jared and I were heading to “Powder Park”, a secluded bowl near Desolation Lake in Big Cottonwood. As we stepped up the dirt and exhaust stained snowbank near the Mill D trailhead, the smell of pine, chirping birds and occasional raindrops made us feel like we were skiing in March as opposed to January. Past 8,500', we were still on an icy skin track and surrounded by glades of sun crust. An overcast sky made the hope for good corn skiing highly unlikely. I began to think there was no way this tour would be worth it. I had already skied a lot this season, all of them better days than this. Could I have done something better with my morning?

Jared thought he had been to Powder Park before, but when we checked the map at the Dog Lake/Desolation Lake fork, he realized where we wanted to go was further back than he thought. After reaching a clearing in the aspens, we saw a rocky ridge with an eastern face that looked like it might have a decent stash of snow in a narrow swath of evergreens-- that was Powder Park. I used the motivation of reaching the summit and occasional improvements to the snow quality to distract me from the crust that my poles were poking through. Textures in the snow were so sporadic that you'd feel your right pole sink peacefully into some inviting, soothing snow, and within the same stride, your left pole would crack into a harsh, glassy glaze.

Once we gained the bottom of the ridge, we lost a definitive skin track and had to make our own; first through a steep talus with snow cover so light that there was still sage and rock poking through, then on a punchy soft ridgeline where both of us had trouble pulling our skis up the sharp incline thanks to mashed potatoes that our skins couldn't grip and heavy snow clinging to the top sheet or our skis. Around us, a flurries of snow began to fall and I thought the shot of Jagr I poured for Ullr the night before was paying off. Tough going, but we wanted to make the top. To our right was Kessler, and further up the road, Greens Basin and Solitude. To our left, just over a ridge, was The Canyons. I told Jared it's amazing how small these canyons get once you start touring in them.

At the summit, we quickly became immersed in a flurry of flakes and winds; a frantic push for winter to try and take hold of the canyon once more. After a 15 minute break to eat and rest, we realized we wouldn't have time for a second lap up to the shoulder before heading back so I could be at REI on time for work. That was the theme of most of our tours, “one and done”. Most of the way up, I didn't care that it would be a quick morning, but as we realized how good the snow was in this little spot, I felt my skepticism drowned in the never ending joy that is skiing in Utah. We turned down the velvety, moist snow that was just reaching the apex of ripeness. Even in some congested trees, there was a confidence in my turns once I felt in sync with the snow. Skiing involves some trust in snow, which is easy then it's thick, fresh powder, but requires a little more faith on days like this. Ullr wasn't letting me down. The snow gave just enough for me to carve a sharp turn around the saplings and rocks that speckled the hillside.

The ski out was brutal, mostly flat and slow as we tried to hold the reigns on that icy skin track. While we the snow flurries changed back into rain as we dropped in elevation, I was reminded how quickly ski season passes. Sure this warm spell will soon be distant memory as the next front moves through the Wasatch, but I have to make the most of any day, good or bad, while I can. Like a kid who thinks summer vacation is way too short, I always find myself looking at my skis in April, watching rain and long days push the snow line further and further away wondering if I could have done more skiing? I'm like a powder addicted Oscar Schindler. Even on piss poor days, like I thought it would be that morning as Jared and I sweated along Mill D, winter can change hope to despair in such lightning fast transitions. Here it is January, and I'm already feeling the regret of not skiing more. That's when I realized the purpose of today's tour was a slap in the face from Ullr not to get complacent, not to take winter for granted, because you will always be rewarded with a great time whenever you strap the planks to your feet.

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