Today I went ski touring for the first time of the 2012/2013 winter. It’s no secret that it has been a slow start to the winter here in Colorado. I’ve been hesitating on making the effort to ski because there has been literally no snow close to home, and because the mountain biking has been so good around here. In the last few years for me, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering have taken a back seat to bike riding and racing. At first that bothered me, but I understand that if I am going to commit to racing bikes at the highest level, other things will have to go on the shelf for a while. They will still be there when I return.
I have been a skier my entire life, starting with Nordic in Minnesota when I was very young, and entering the Colorado backcountry at the age of eighteen. Some of my very earliest memories were on skis, shuffling along behind my Dad as he trained for his Nordic racing, and riding in a pack on his back when I got tired (or when he got tired of going at a four year old’s pace). One of my most vivid early memories was looking down from my Dad’s back as he slid along, noticing the skis on my feet swinging along his sides in rhythm with his long strides through the snow. When I was seventeen I packed up my tiny life in my tiny car and moved to Colorado knowing nothing of it, with only the allure of big mountains pulling at me. I spent my first nine years here skiing nonstop from October through June. It was my life.
Although most of my time this winter will still be spent on my bike, it’s finally snowed enough that up here in Nederland all of the trails are covered. Knowing I’m going to have a short ski season anyways because I go on the road to race mountain bikes in March, I have been really feeling the urge to slide on snow.
So off we go, my boyfriend and I; and knowing how thin the coverage has been, we are fully prepared to not even make any turns. We make the tentative plan to skin up to an alpine lake in a cirque and then slide back down the skintrack if it felt too sketchy. We pull into the parking lot, which is a twenty minute drive from our house, to find the wind howling and pelting our faces with stinging pellets of snow. I shiver and pull down my hood as I quickly put on my pack and skis. We waste no time in heading for the cover of the woods, and it doesn’t take long before I start to remember why I love this so much. The woods are like a cocoon, dark and comforting, shielding us from the storm raging overhead. The snowflakes gently drift down, slowly at first, like tiny circling paragliders who can’t quite make up their minds on where to land; and then falling thicker and with quiet intensity as we climb higher.
I fall back from Donny’s ski tails after a while, taking in the sights and smells of the sleepy forest alone. It has been so long since I last slid silently through the woods in winter; nearly a year since I have had skis on my feet. We acknowledge each other a bit cautiously at first, like long lost friends meeting again for the first time in ages. A huge grin spreads across my face as I start to recognize that nothing has really changed and I am still just as much at home here as ever. I begin to take in the details of the landscape as I walk along: the foamy green lichen hanging from all the pines; the intricacy of which looks like a brittle spider’s web when closely examined; the soft light hitting the snow where the sun has managed to shine through a filter of grey clouds; the huge crystals of surface hoar the size of eggs hiding in places where the snow is sheltered from the wind. These are the reasons I come to the mountains in winter. Time slows down, and I experience nature in ways I simply can’t when I’m on my bike. I stop, holding my breath so as not to miss anything. The silence envelops me like a womb, and I am content.