Photo by Tom Boyd
In backcountry, the antidote to speed
January 27, 2009 —
It was Sunday in the early a.m. when I awoke in darkness from a nightmare. A silent voice was whispering - faster - and I knew I must obey or be left behind.
In the morning Vail reported a fresh pile of wetter-than-usual snow, a blanket borrowed from the coastal Sierras, but it wasn’t because I avoid wet powder that I declined a day on Vail Mountain.
It also wasn’t because I opted for Beaver Creek or some other resort, or because I had some pressing engagement, debilitating illness, or other excuse worthy of skipping a powder day.
It was because I've recently been obsessed with speed - faster writing, faster cars, better phones, quicker internet, world records and streamlined operations. The faster I go the more I need to go faster.
Speed was taking hold of me, and the best way to break its grip was to step into the slow, methodical world of backcountry skiing.
Based on some of the recent comments on this site, readers might get the impression that backcountry skiing is all-ahead-go all the time. When we read about backcountry we read about dudes with helmet cams and goatees who once were boisterous, but now are lamenting their lost friend. We imagine scenes of intense peer pressure, dudes chugging Red Bull and charging, fire-eyed, into a white abyss, sometimes never returning.
The previous national record of 35 was set in 2001-2002, and 13 died in the 2008-2009 season as of Jan. 20.
Five people died in Colorado avalanches last year according to the CAIC, and four had died as of Jan. 20 of 2009 during the 2008-2009 season.
It can be that way. I’ve been there, hurtling through untouched white fields and getting as much of a rush from surviving as from skiing, my hands quivering later on as the adrenaline departs.
But on Sunday it was one slow step after the other as my wife and I aimed uphill, jaggedly, ploddingly, pushing through knee-high snow like north-country tortoises long after any sign of the Deluge Lake trail had disappeared.
For a long time we were totally silent. Renee was on snowshoes choosing the route, breaking trail, and in trade I carried her boots and skis on my back + water etcetera. She aimed in and out of aspen trees, into the pines, where it smelled like Christmas. Then upwards again, tracing the edge of a few pocket meadows, with a traverse here or there.
I think hours went by. It’s hard to know. Trains of thought are not derailed. Long ideas link together like popcorn strings. Agitation creates heat, heat creates fuel, fuel powers the body up the hill. Renee’s skis, sticking upward out of my pack, knocked snow off branches and onto my bare head where it fairly sizzled from the heat. Gloves, sweater, everything had been stripped and when blasts of sub-freezing wind pushed up the mountainside we turned to embrace it.
Besides the wind there was the sound of the highway, the omnipresent I-70, Holy Territory to the Lords of Speed, which faded by increments as we climbed. Trucks slammed on their airbrakes, fearing too much speed. I sympathized. One step forward, one more fraction of a decibel away from the roaring noise of velocity.
I mentioned avalanche danger somewhere along the way, spooking Renee. The California-style snow was heavier than a mop, and it sat atop a sun-baked crust, a vestige from 10 days of sunshine without snow.
Only once, as we crossed the middle of a small, circular opening, did I halfway expect the top layer to slide, not with the rumble of a big avalanche but with the long hush a new mother gives to a sleeping baby. We skied across one-at-a-time, quietly.
But even in the current conditions there is good, safe skiing to be had. We paused under a big tree and sat in snow-thrones drinking water and contemplating a run down through a roomy aspen grove. We began talking again, passing the water back and forth, throwing snowballs for the dog. He leaps for them like an Olympic deer, if deer had Olympics, his ears flopping. The conversation ebbed and flowed for some considerable length, never once touching on the crumbling economy and all the friends we know who have lost, or will lose, their jobs, their careers – their entire way of life.
It was the first time in months we had gone that long without mentioning the world’s bad news.
Rested, cold from evaporating sweat, we piled on sweaters and hats once more, we rigged up the alpine gear, we unsheathed my skis from their skins, and in an instant the pace of the day changed entirely.
Juxtaposed to the hike, the first turns approached at light speed. The body and the brain tend to work in concert, and I felt my mental gears whirring again. I carved once, then again, and the dog chased me, biting at my skis. Ecstatic, feeling brazen, I saw a small ledge ahead, hit it, and discovered it to be a much bigger drop than I thought. I flew through the air and saw out of the corner of my eye the dog, looking immensely startled, hanging in mid-air for longer than he ever intended, paws aloft, moments from powdery impact.
The dog and I arrived at the bottom of the hill in a tumbling snowball and we wrestled for a moment before Renee linked a series of flawless turns down the hillside, and she tumbled along with us. We played in the snow like children for a while, avoiding the knowledge that it was already almost over. In only a few minutes we would ski out the remaining distance to the car, the road, back toward the everyday world with all its troubles and mysteries, victories and defeats – all the hard-won yardage of the day unspooling before us as we glided downhill.
We arrived at the car to find that nothing had changed. The cars still hurled at inhuman speeds over the highway, the crowds still gathered at the base of Vail’s high-speed quads, the phone instantly pinged notification of new messages, and even the planet Earth cruised along at its inconsiderate, breakneck pace, hurtling around the sun at 1785.84 miles per hour, demanding that we keep up with it or get left behind.
I began to worry. I succumbed to speed like weight to gravity. I couldn’t help it. I started the car, plugged in my iPhone, checked my messages, cranked the radio, sent a text, posted a blog, checked the stocks, hit fast forward, revved the engine, drove with my knee, talked with my mouth, typed with my hand, screamed with my mind, and hit the highway, roaring with the noise of velocity.
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