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When they shut down the lifts, it’s time to fire up your quads.
“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot, in a line so famous that May through March are still jealous. But just when you think Eliot will lash out at ski resorts that close before Easter even though their bases are 100 inches deep, he starts acting like the 1920s poet he was. He follows the word “month” with the phrase “breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” Yeah, whatever, dude.
April’s a bee-yatch because skiers suddenly have to hike for their turns. For every Mammoth or A-Basin remaining open till June, there are 10 mountains that greet late April with thick blankets of snow and silent bull wheels.
This brings me—and anyone who wants to ski the beefy snowpacks of late spring—to the backcountry. The word “backcountry” is sometimes used interchangeably with “off-piste” or “out of bounds.” Yet whereas the latter two terms can describe routes accessed by a chairlift, “backcountry” usually means you hiked or skinned up. Oh, heli-skiers, snowcat riders, sledheads, and car shuttlers sometimes call their turns “backcountry skiing.” Purists, however, know that backcountry means ascending without credit cards or ignition switches.
It’s such an old-school pursuit it ought to be spelled “olde.” To enlist skis for travel is to act like the ancient Norwegians known as the Birkebeiners (so-called for their protective birch bark leggings) who became the first backcountry devotees when they skied through Norway’s treacherous Osterdalen Valley during the winter of 1206, smuggling the illegitimate son of King Sverresson and Inga of Vartieg to safety. The boy later became King Hakon Hakonsson IV and is said to have changed northern Europe with his benevolent reign. And lest we forget, northern Europe has supplied us with history’s finest beer, chocolate, and blonds. But that’s not important right now. What matters is that the story and the famous painting of the Birkebeiners’ flight kept cross-country and backcountry skiing relevant for 800 years.
Weighted down by 50-pound moose-pelt coats, pushing P-Tex-less boards across sticky snow, the Birkies must have perspired like offensive linemen and bitched like Whitney Houston. Their demeanor on the Birkebeiner painting is indeed grim. Still, one detects a certain gleam beneath their wooly beards, as though the Birkies had just discovered the freedom that comes from skis and snow.
Alas, backcountry enthusiasts remain a tiny subset of total skiers. The number of us who think like the Birkies could fit in a single granola factory. Lots of us don’t believe in non-motorized skiing at all. Aside from that awkward-ass fixed-heel herringbone used to reach lifts and lodges, most of us have never skied uphill. Let’s face it, dawdling sluggards make up the bulk of skiing’s 50 million participants.
Sloth rules the day, and that’s why so few of us ski in April. We like our athletics manageable. According to a recent article in Sports Illustrated, whining athletes have caused all sorts of sporting demands to be softened. Baseball fields move in their fences, golf courses shrink bunkers, and bowling alleys slather the pine with oils that have helped the number of perfect games jump from 5,000 in 1980 to 42,000 in 2001. “The lesson for athletes is clear,” writes the article’s author, Steve Rushin. “Why rise to meet a challenge when the challenge will stoop to meet you?”
Backcountry skiing is hopelessly out of date. Say the phrase “earn your turns” to most season-pass holders, and you’ll lose them after “earn.” It’s not fair, they sniffle, that those late-season skiers have to work for their rewards when golfers and bowlers don’t.
If the ski universe rid itself of lifts, our ranks would shrink by millions overnight. Which at first seems not so bad, because the quitters would include all the meatheads who snowplow across your skis’ top sheets and take breathers beneath blind rollovers. Were it not for motors, though, the sport of skiing wouldn’t include my family, college buddies, assorted fond acquaintances, and, frankly, me.
I’m a 21st century American, too. I half expect the world to bend to my wants. At a backcountry trailhead, however, our immediate-gratification society is no longer relevant. There you are, surrounded by pillowy snowfields and intoxicating tree slaloms, and you realize you won’t be skiing them for another three or four hours. Maybe there’s a snow staircase kicked into the slope by previous hikers. Due to the enervating properties of altitude and tilted snow, though, the space between the steps is tiny. You’re forced to take pitiful little baby steps, moving at the imperceptible pace of a teenage coffee shop clerk.
Skinning up is usually more efficient than hiking, but hardly fast or enjoyable. Last April, I skinned up a San Juan Mountains peak called San Bernardo. Right from the start, pine boughs tried to rip the hat off my head. In the first 10 minutes, I thrice experienced the always-fun sensation of making what seemed like a reasonable pole plant, only to shear back muscles and tweak vertebrae alignment as the pole got swallowed all the way to the grip. See, skinning up unmanaged snow invariably leads to slapstick worthy of Chevy Chase. If the hairpin switchbacks don’t trip you, the collapsing tree wells will. And since you ascend without the security of a locked heel, stumbles tend to throw you flat on your face.
On San Bernardo, I was working harder than most jocks-kicking a 200-cm fat ski up a trail, laboring to avoid postholing or picking up cat-sized gloms of snow with every stride-and I resented it. While the Birkebeiners considered skis the easiest way to get around, I recognize that ski travel is unspeakably difficult. After all, I belong to a culture of ease so dependent on gas-powered movement, my nation will wage war in the Middle East over it.
I kept breaking trail, sweating profusely, when suddenly the going got easier: An elk had joined the path, compacting the snow, and reducing the effort of skinning by half. Did I appreciate Nature’s providence? Hell, no. I wondered if the elk couldn’t have done a little more. Couldn’t the elk have lined up at the bottom of San Bernardo, waiting to be lassoed for a quick skijor to the top?
Until elk learn the true meaning of sacrifice, backcountry skiing will remain a struggle. Only a scant few of us will bother to ski after March. This means millions of skiers will never know what it’s like to be atop a backcountry peak-the hard labor of gaining a summit and the payoff of picking a sun-softened, untracked line down.
At the apex of San Bernardo, I yanked my skins off, stuffed them in my pack, locked my heels down, and dropped into a slope devoid of crowds, grooming, and fluorescent signs. I savored the pure hedonism of the descent, my radical sidecut fat skis allowing easy turns and delicious flotation.
April is cruel, alright. It’s too damn short.