Sportlov (part 3): fri skidspar = off trail

Fri skidspar in the French Alps

It is a foggy Saturday morning here in Stockholm and the house is quiet while I drink my coffee. As the days have gotten longer, I have started waking up earlier as I usually do at home. Hopefully this trend won't continue through to June or I will be massively sleep deprived...

The winter here has been, to put it mildly, a stunning disappointment. True, we should have looked more closely at how much snow this city at nearly 60 degrees north latitude actually gets (that is Alaska if you are looking for a North American equivalent), but we figured that the Swedes all ski and so it must be possible to ski conveniently from the largest city in Sweden. Ah, the sweet complexities of geography--if it hadn't been for the ice skating oval, the rock gym, orienteering, and running the reflector trails in the dark, this could have been a long winter.

Anyway, if you follow the blog, you know we just got back from France. While there, we got snow in large quantities. Those large quantities of snow sang their siren song and lured me, for the first time in years, fri skidspar--into the backcountry.

Backcountry skiing is a strange sport. It carries with it requirements for a tremendous amount of specialized gear (if I am being honest, this is a plus in my book, but it is a hassle). It requires a huge amount of knowledge and craft to interpret snow conditions. It carries with it a substantial amount of risk due to avalanche. It is incredibly hard work. To top it off, at the end of a day of backcountry you will have actually taken far fewer turns than if you had paid to ride the chair.

So what is the appeal exactly? When Lara and I were in our twenties, we started telemark skiing so that we could spend more time in the backcountry based on the excessive cost of lift tickets. We did it to spend days outdoors with our friends who are in love with the sport. We did it because it was a challenge. We did it because we could take the dog (Bella charging through snow over her shoulders is a memory I will treasure my whole life). Part of it though is that skiing is a connection with the outdoors. It is a connection with mountains and water, with wind, rock, and tree (less is more with those last three). Those are connections we seek out almost religiously in our lives wherever we are. They are not connections that come easily at a resort.

On the powder days, we had last week I was up early organizing, motivating, pushing--charging ahead to get the family on the chair early enough to catch powder before it all got skied into lumps. Powder days are wild at a resort--there are no friends and hardly even family. Otherwise reasonable people will cut you off in line or on the slopes--there is a madness in the rush to get that one perfect run before it is all gone. Those early turns through freshies are wonderful, but they lack the connection that is possible with more time.

One thing you have lots of when skiing the backcountry is time to consider the snow and mountain and sky and...anything really to catch your breath.

Colter and I got an early start so that (theoretically at least) we could finish at a reasonable time and join up with our families getting a more relaxed start. We rode the bus to the top of the valley with a single employee headed to work. We put our skis on just off the bus and broke tracks up the skin trail (so called because one puts 'skins' on the bottom of your skis to allow you to ascend the slopes off trail. Skins are like petting a horse backwards- they are smooth one way, and rough the other. Today, they are made of synthetic material. Remove the skins at the top and ski down).

Photos in this blog are all credit to Colter Leys!
Working our way up the valley, but still well below the lifts

After the first hour we were just about to the top of the first gondola which was, by now, running periodically to shuttle workers up to jobs at various places on the mountain. After passing the top of the first gondola, we peeled off to the side and headed towards the real backcountry. Colter always leading the way, me always just putting one foot in front of the other and plodding along.

Above the lifts now, but working hard

The fog lifted and the views were amazing

Colter had time for artistic pursuits while waiting for me.

We climbed and climbed using ridges judiciously to keep ourselves out of danger. Some early fog arrived with the sun, then cleared off to reveal a beautiful mountain landscape all our own. After another hour, the lifts down below were operating and the mad rush to catch the night's snowfall was on. Somewhere down there, Lara and the kids were navigating the lines and catching turns. Despite starting well after us, they would ski several runs before we took our first downhill step.

Colter led us to a bowl overlooking the valley with a steep ridge on one side that promised deep powder and relative safety from avalanche. After nearly reaching the top of the bowl, we took off our skins, put on our goggles, and started down.

But those turns....

I can still feel that bounce...

 It was heavenly. Deep, soft snow, floating skis, and blue sky everywhere.
I look really stiff and imposing for someone who is giddy and rubber-legged

One of the responsibilities of skiing in the backcountry above a resort is to do beautiful turns--your track through the snow will be visible to thousands of people and stand as inspiration. Its evenness and rhythm are a sign of excellence for all to admire. There is an issue of skill that stands in my way for making those even tracks, but there is also the issue of feel. Stephen described skiing in deep powder as akin to bouncing on a soft trampoline. When I have the chance to take real powder turns, I am not good enough to make them completely even, but I also want to savor them. I want each bounce on the magic surface to float me up as long as it can; I want my descent to last as long as possible. My signature on the mountain is as awful as my handwriting, but it felt so so good.
These actually look better than I remember them

The comparison here is more what I remember. Note our skin track to the left

After our first glorious earned pitch, Colter and I navigated around to the second phase of our descent. His first, and familiar, option did not look good, so we traversed around to a slot that dropped through a narrow chute and then opened up into a gradual open descent that would take us all the way to the base of the mountain. This bit was safe by backcountry standards, but contained an element of risk and technical difficulty sufficient to raise my heart rate considerably. Colter let me go first, and with turns made as lightly as possible, I dropped through the narrow place and out into the glorious slope beneath.

That's me (small figure in the left of the photo). Heart rate 185

As above with the big glorious bowl, this chute offered the connection that we seek in the backcountry. Risk is a part of that. Not necessarily because of the thrill it offers, but because part of being in the backcountry is that things are not controlled and not constrained. Risk focuses our attention on the landscape and on our actions, it demands respect and it offers rewards. These are notably different from the rewards earned by a hard charge through the crowds. The snow is the same, the skiing is the same, but the connection is different.

Adrenaline still pumping, time to cruise down
This description all feels a bit overblown in retrospect. Compared to the tours Colter normally does, this was some seriously tame stuff. We were always in sight of the lifts, the weather was perfect, and Colter had taken Annie and the kids most of the way up the same route a couple of weeks earlier. This was, quite literally, something a ten year old had done. Nevertheless, it was a glorious morning for me and a wonderful way to cap off our week of winter. Huge thanks to Colter for providing the motivation, the guiding, and all the photos (I was generally too out of breath or too amped to get my camera out). Time to start scheming about the next chances to get off the beaten track.

Colter & Chris after Lara and Elizabeth managed to find them again (Lara's photo)