Outside, in the early morning dark, the wind is blowing and the street is filling with fine white powder. It's snowing hard in Bozeman, Mont., and I'm a stranger in town. As I wait for some buddies to arrive for a backcountry ski trip in the nearby Beartooth Mountains, I have the rare mountain luxury of a few days to myself.
The green glow-in-the-dark clock radio hovers over my face like a distant planet, announcing the time: 5:45 a.m. I'm tempted to roll over and go back to sleep, but I'm still on Eastern time, and it's the breakfast hour back home in New Hampshire. The glorious snow pelting the window also commands attention. The flakes get me thinking about skiing, naturally¿about ripping through the storied cold smoke up the road at Bridger Bowl, an area I've always wanted to ski. I hop up, wide awake and full of anticipation for a day on the slopes. But then I remember where I am, and I think, "You don't know a soul here. You'll have to ski alone."
Skiing is a social sport, and there's little I'd rather do than spend a day on the slopes with friends or family, reveling in companionship, feeding off each other's energy, pushing each other to ski as well and as hard as we can. Then, after the lifts close, reliving the day's adventures with a few beers, sitting back and soaking up the easy camaraderie. Sharing good times in the mountains is pure bliss. By comparison, the idea of spending a day on the slopes all alone seems bleak. In fact, I rarely make the solo effort. It's as if skiing just isn't worth doing if there's no one to share it with.
I start gathering my gear anyway, but feel my enthusiasm for the day at Bridger waning with each passing minute. Let's be honest: Preparing for a ski day is a lot of work. And without the pressure of letting someone down if you don't show up, it's easy to just say no. As I face the monumental decision between ski coat or town coat, I start rationalizing on why I should take a day off. "Why don't you just relax and take it easy?" I ask myself. "You'll do plenty of skiing in the Beartooth backcountry." The snow is blowing sideways outside. Besides, there's a big football playoff game on the tube this afternoon..."
Today, however, I force myself to leave my warm, comfortable hotel room, get in my car and head up the mountain into the storm. I'm there when the lifts open at 8:45 a.m., and soon I'm swishing sweet arcs through a half-foot of silky-smooth untracked snow. After a few hundred feet, I can feel a big grin spreading across my face. A couple more runs, and I realize how close I came to making a huge mistake by not making the effort. I spend the next few hours moving at my own pace, directing the course of my own day and enjoying the same trail, sometimes even the same line, three times in a row.
Alone, there's no one for me to catch up to, no one to slow down for, no one to compete with. And, for a change, there's no negotiating, no compromising. As I study the unfamiliar trail map and decide where I want to go next¿chute or bowl, bumps or cruiser?¿I wonder why I don't do this more often.
Sometime later, screaming to a halt down in the timber at the bottom of North Bowl, I pull up and catch my sea-level breath. I think to myself: "This has been one of my best ski days ever." In the deep stillness of the pines I can hear wind-driven crystals hissing through the boughs. I lean back and face the stormy sky, feel the cold flakes land on my flushed cheeks, and yell out a euphoric "Yahoo!"
It's the first sound I've made all day.