We left long before dawn to experience do some ski touring in Yellowstone. This was my second experience backcountry skiing, my first was characterized as “testing the pain threshold” by one reporter. Perhaps I should have resurrected that article before this adventure.
This was Mark’s first experience on alpine touring skis. I’m not going to lie, we’re not strong skiers. Mark learned to ski when he was thirty and I had to relearn to ski because I switched to snowboarding as a teenager. We’ve been cross country skiing a lot this winter, so I had some false confidence that I would be in shape for the task. Au contraire. This was going to be nothing like the nonchalant shuffling we call skiing.
Five of us packed into the vehicle, me, my husband Mark, and three other super experienced guys. Perfect combo for our inaugural tour. “I haven’t skied this in about ten years.” Dale said. Dale runs Timber Trails, the best local gear shop in southwest Montana. He is a Livingston native, has a huge heart, and is super involved in our community. Our party had two other Livingston powder legends. They both had plenty of experience breaking trail in these sorts of forays. As they told story after story, the jargon alone should have indicated we were in over our heads “This conversation should have subtitles.” Mark joked as we drove on.
We reached the turnout and parked. I took a deep breath and flung the passenger door open. The stiff wind ended the chit chat and our more experienced compadres swiftly donned their equipment. Fortunately we had field tested our beacons in the Mammoth campground parking lot. Mark and I struggled and flailed. Having only tried on my boots once at the shop (Timber Trails rents backcountry skis BTW), getting them on was akin to giving birth, in reverse. It was so bad I needed assistance from one of the other guys. They probably thought I was pro.
Boots, skis and skins finally on, we b-lined for the protection of the forest. Our first leg of this trip was a nice steady climb over a densely wooded ridge. We huffed and puffed, zigzagging around evergreens , glades and powder-entombed boulders. My legs were on fire, then the splitboarder bringing up the rear reminded me of heel risers. Genius! As we reached the edge of an alpine meadow our appendages were warmed up and I felt as if I were in the middle of a good trail run. “I’ve got this.” I thought. This was already registering a strong 9 on my expedition-o-meter.
As we left the protection of the trees, the wind and snow really started to fly. Driving uphill in a ground blizzard, we climbed toward the crest of the next ridge. Our resident pros considered the next play. They ventured a bit farther up the ridge, only to return a few moments later, having been plastered by spindrift. “It’s totally nuking up there.” So we reassessed and peered down the ridge from our current position. This could work.
‘Transition’ time. We were done going up and needed to prepare for descent. Now to remove my skins without dropping them in the snow? We puzzled as our friends somehow did this standing up. I dropped to my knees to transition. Mark fell and flopped on his back like an upside down turtle. Gaper! Dude you’re GAPING!” Phones popped out to capture the magic. Pretty smooth.
For those of you unaware (as I was prior to this day) the top definition of ‘Gaper’ on urbandictionary.com is as follows: gap·er A gaper is a skier or snowboarder who is completely clueless. Usually distinguished by their bright colored clothes and a gaper gap, the gap between goggles and a helmet/hat. Gapers also do the “Gaper Tuck” which is an attempt at being a ski racer by tucking, however, it is done incorrectly with the poles sticking straight up like thunderbolts and lightning, very very frightening! Gapers also sit at the bottom of jumps and try and go big off table tops in the park.
Gaping accomplished, we took our first run. It was sure worth it. Below the baby ridge was a beautiful protected drainage, not too steep and or tight but with plenty of untouched champagne powder.
It was unbelievable. I thought I’d skied in deep stuff before but this was ridiculous. My lower legs vanished in a cloud of fluff and I couldn’t help but laugh. My quads trembled. I wiped out at least twice. As we all reached the bottom, I could barely see through my snow-packed gaper sunglasses. I was covered in snow and consumed in delight.
We put our skins on and started up again. A good ten minutes of huffing and shuffling later, we arrived back at our lunch spot, I was pretty dog-tired. The group circled up. Dale said with enthusiasm, “How many runs do you guys want to do, five?” My brain said “none”, but seeing how magnificent a situation we were in, I decided to ask more of myself. We transitioned again, and again until Mark and I were so wasted with exhaustion we could barely talk.
On the ski out, my legs wrecked, it wasn’t the prettiest form I’ve ever had. But we made it, and it was glorious. We were totally hooked. This might just be our favorite way to ski. Maybe this Mama still can learn some new tricks.