Last Saturday afternoon, I was at the precipice of an abyss. I stood at the top, skis perpendicular to the fall line, the concavity of the thirty-six degree slope dropping off and obscuring my vision of what we’d soon descend, trying to breathe my racing heart back into a steady beat. It only filled my ears like a drum.
There was nothing particularly scary about this terrain except that it was in the backcountry, the Chimney Chute on Berthoud Pass near Winter Park, Colo. Unchecked by ski patrol, backcountry skiing is completely subject to the forces of nature, namely avalanches. My friends and I had all taken the requisite Avalanche Level 1 course, but it’s anything but an exact science. One can never be confident that a slope will be stable, especially one this steep. Most of what they teach you in avalanche courses is that even the most experienced skiers misjudge conditions so gravely that it costs them their lives. I’d actually sworn to myself before never to ski anything this steep in the backcountry, since avoidance is the only foolproof way not to get caught.
The danger according to forecasters was marked as low (in the middle of February in Colorado, it hardly ever is). We dug a snow pit at the top of the chute to check for instabilities in layers, and couldn’t get the snowpack to fail. We’d already seen someone ski the slope we were looking at and come out unscathed. Also, a 400- foot vertical drop full of leftover powder, preserved in the shade, beckoned. We’d hit a rare window of relatively safe and good conditions.
Perhaps I could just attribute it to peer pressure, or the absurdly low amount of sleep I’d gotten the past week, or just the desire to escape my daily routine and do something that was just a little risky. As I waited for my friends to pull into the safe zone at the bottom of the chute one-by-one, my nerves suddenly dissipated. I still felt breathless, my legs were weak and shaky from the climb up, but I was confident: I was not only going to ski this chute, I was going to shred it.
I dropped in to a few of the most exhilarating turns of my life. Skiing steep, untracked powder is akin to a controlled fall through something I can only describe as heavenly fluff. The skiing was beautiful. I thought nothing, only felt the contraction of muscles in my legs and the seamless harmony with the natural world.
Then, suddenly, I was no longer looking down into the chute, but instead at a whirl of snow. For a few moments I was utterly calm, motionless, as if this was exactly what was supposed to happen. Then I realized I had been swept off my feet. Avalanche? No, only my own paranoia—I had just somehow fallen and taken a lot of sluff with me. I tumbled in what seemed like slow-motion.
At some point, it occurred to me that I should self-arrest before I hit the steep cliffs on either side. I turned and dug my poles into the slope. I slowed to a stop. Miraculously, all of my gear was still attached to my body. I sat up, waved my arms to signal that I was okay, skied the rest of the chute and laughed it off.
Skiing in the backcountry requires navigating a difficult line of assessing risk. You have to cultivate an enormous amount of trust in things that can seem utterly untrustworthy: both the uncontrollable forces of nature and your own ability.
It was the latter that had failed me in that moment, and that was a reminder I needed: too often in life we’re consumed with worry about factors beyond ourselves, whether it be avalanche danger or other people’s actions, thoughts and feelings. All of these things certainly affect us but at a certain level, our lives are still in the hands of the choices we make and the responsibility we take for them. I fell due to my own lack of self-awareness. I was lucky enough to have the chance to regain that awareness and mitigate the consequences.
There’s an article on the online blog Adventure Journal entitled “Why Does Skiing Need to Search for Its Soul?” by Steve Casmiro. I read this a couple of years ago and it stuck with me. Skiing is a special niche in the world of outdoor activities because it has been built up around tourism, image, and money more than anything else. Other outdoor realms don’t need to rediscover their souls—the soul of climbing, for example, is evident: it’s gritty and dirt-covered, wrapped in duct tape and embodied in the bone-and-muscle thin shirtless dude cracking open a beer in his van parked by the crag. The soul of backpacking is in its solitude, simplicity, and peaceful rhythm; the soul of trail running is in its grueling physical toll on the human body.
Even without the high-speed chairlifts and the five star resorts, skiing’s a bit different. It’s predicated on high speeds, big drops and adrenaline rushes. It has splintered into a collection of sub-cultures with their own social codes. It usually seems louder, more obvious, more expensive, and more desperate for attention. Maybe it’s something about attaching manufactured planks to your feet and sliding down snow that’s just a bit unnatural and more superfluous than simply walking or climbing up a rock.
I still believe in the soul of skiing. Perhaps the fact that it’s harder to discover makes it even more sacred. For me, it’s in the pause of the constant flow of self-doubt and over-analytic thoughts that usually plague me, but dissipate on the verge of each turn. It’s in the beauty of a perfect line, the S-curve of tracks on a mountain. It’s in the quiet of the winter backcountry and the ecstatic joy of a yelp as I ski through powder. It’s in the feeling of being a kid again, unhampered by practical concerns and consumed only in the immediate. But it’s also in the self-responsibility in the face of uncertainty that’s it taught me over and over. The soul of skiing is falling down the Chimney Chute and getting back up to do it all over again.