A Bad Backcountry Day

by Alan Stark on February 21, 2012

COMMENTARY: Writing about backcountry experiences flips the Liar Switch in my brain. The Liar Switch allows me to write stuff that might give you the impression I know what I’m doing in the backcountry, or make you chuckle, or at least slow you down enough to actually read what I’ve written.

I have to work hard to write the absolute truth. This piece on a bad day of backcountry skiing was written without the benefit of the Liar Switch.

Somewhat.

By the way, the Liar Switch is in the same general area of the brain as the Fool Button. But there is a real difference between the Liar Switch and the Fool Button. I know when I’ve flipped the Liar Switch — not so much when I push the Fool Button.

I lined up my left boot in the binding, bent over and locked down. Next, I lined up my right boot in the binding, bent over, lost my balance as the ski slid away and fell sideways cursing into crusty snow.

This wasn’t an unusual way for me to start a day of backcountry skiing. I seem to have a proclivity for falling over while putting on skis, or forgetting to unclip my shoes after a long road bike ride and ending up lying on the ground still attached to my bike. But my favorite stunt is watching my coffee mug tumble down the windshield of my truck as I back out of the garage in the morning.

This was just the beginning of a bad day. It started with new skis. (That’s sort of a lie already and I have just started writing this piece — I don’t own many pieces of new gear.) The new skis are used 190 cm Fischers, with a waxable base, steel edges and slight sidecut. My old backcountry skis are waxless 210s that are great for climbing but useless for skiing downhill.

I haven’t waxed for the backcountry for years, so I didn’t know what I was doing with the wax, and worse yet, I forgot my skins that I also haven’t had to use for years.

The route is up the road to Left Hand Reservoir and starts south of the winter gate on the Brainard Lake Road. The route is uphill for about a mile. The wax job was imperfect. So I found myself puffing uphill doing herring bones on the steeps and pitching over right or left into the crusty snow. So I maybe fell over 300 times.

“What did you say?”
“Fracking, frunking flatlander wax job!”
“Skin-up”
“Forgot ’em.”
“Dumb Bear. You got water? Food? Extra clothing…”
“Shut up.”

COMMENTARY: So now it’s time to check and see if the Liar Switch is still in the “off” position. Well, actually no, it isn’t in the “off” position. I probably only fell over ten or eleven times. I need to also note that I had a quick conversation with an unknown person. That’s obviously made-up. None of my friends would ask if I had the ten essentials, or even know what they are. And if anyone falls more than twice in backcountry, he just gets left behind as hopeless … sort of sporting natural selection.

So the gang was waiting up where the trail cuts over to the lake on Little Raven. Water and snacks had been consumed. I went to pull off my pack, shifted my weight a tad too much, and tumbled over into the crusty snow, coming half out of the pack straps and flailing.

Okay, I have to admit that at that point I was a tad bit spooked. I’ve had unnumbered wonderful days on snow where I was skiing as if I had been born to it, the weather was good and the gear suited to the terrain and conditions.

Not on this day.

Once sorted out and hydrated, I followed the gang on the narrow, downhill trail to the lake. Within minutes, they were out of sight. Fine with me, lots of testosterone/estrogen poisoning symptoms evident.

Cruising a narrow tree-lined winter trail is sort of the vision I have of what Heaven may be like, supposing, of course, that (1) there is a Heaven, (2) I believe in a Heaven and, (3) I would want to go to Heaven when none of my friends were there.

There is a magic to the sound of skis whisping across the snow, the muffled punctuation of the pole planting, the low hum of your body fluidly kicking and gliding, the vision of snow dusting the trees and Mount Audubon peaking above the tree tops.

It was during this sort of reverie that I did the first face-plant.

As face-plants go, it was not anything spectacular or even unusual. I was simply cruising along, one with the snow, and then I buried my head in it. While the trail was hard-pack, the sides of the trail held a good two feet of powder.

So here was the drill. First, I sputtered and said bad words. Second, I paused and figured out how I was going to get up on my skis. Third, I began the laborious process of moving my skis around to a place where I could clamber back up on them. Fourth, with the help a tree limb, I pulled myself back up on my skis. Fifth, I gathered up my gear, said some positive things to myself, and skied off.

Little Raven Trail is about a mile-and-a-half long. I fell four more times before I reached the intersection with CMC South Ski Trail.

COMMENTARY: It appears that, since the last commentary, there has been some truthfulness. However, the testosterone/estrogen crack was gratuitous. The rift on Heaven was just an excuse to use on old joke (3). And the thing about saying something positive to myself is an outright lie.

The gang waited for me at the intersection, having finished their lunch. The better-bred of the group expressed some concern about my situation and suggested any number of solutions, from a new wax job to taking the easy way back on the Brainard Lake Road.

I gobbled some food, got some water and we were off down the CMC South Trail. There is no doubt that I was absolutely psyched out. I couldn’t get the skis to do anything and was regularly bashing into the ice or flailing in the powder.

There are a number of informal backcountry rules. (1) You get killed in the backcountry by a string of small mistakes, not one grand faux pas. (2) You can psych yourself positively or negatively; a good deal of your individual success in backcountry activities depends on your mindset. (3) If you are having a really bad day in the backcountry, sit down and wait it out, or walk out and come back another day.

Clearly, I was in no danger of getting killed, but I could look at a string of small mistakes that had made me miserable. I was using new equipment on moderately rough terrain, I’d forgotten my skins and I hadn’t waxed properly.

You can do just about anything in the backcountry if you are in somewhat good condition, if you are well trained, if you have decent equipment and particularly if you have your head screwed on correctly. I clearly did not have my head screwed on carefully that day.

With my ex-hiking partner (an entirely different story) breaking trail, I split off from the CMC South and headed north to the Brainard Lake Trail. Did you ever do Bierstadt through the dreaded willows where every other step sank down six inches in cold water? My ex-hiking partner might weigh 130 pounds wet. I weigh 215 dry. Where he could cruise over the snow, I started breaking through the crust. When I wasn’t breaking through the crust, I was getting tangled in the willows. At one point my skis were so tangled in the willows that I had to take them off. And when I stepped out of the binding and put my boot down. Yup, you guessed it, I post-holed and kept post-holing for about forty feet until I got in some crusty stuff that would support my weight if I crawled.

I had to laugh at what this all looked like. It is ignoble to have to crawl across snow dragging your skis as you look for a stable place where you can get back into your bindings.

We reached the Brainard Lake Road, which was windblown and hardpack. I’d had enough. I took off my skis and walked back to the winter gate.

This bad day was a kind of first for me. Over the years, I’ve seen a number of people having backcountry bad days and I felt sorry for them. I have had some days that were bad enough to lie about, but I’ve never had a day where I came out of the backcountry looking like the retreat from Moscow.

The lesson is simple: If you are having a bad day in the backcountry, bail and come back another day. Don’t make things worse by staying out there. Or you too, may end up crawling across windpack dragging your skis behind you.

COMMENTARY: Nailed it. There’s not one lie in the last set of paragraphs. Well, maybe the part about post-holing, but then, maybe that’s true too, or at least truthy.


A passage is about movement, motion and traveling. I have a mantra that has kept me alive in the worst of times, both in the mountains, when everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and in my head, where my fear of impending doom can simply shut me down. It is just this: “Keep Moving … Keep Moving … Keep Moving.”

Alan Stark is a very slow trail runner, has a road bike with a number of miles on it and has led three sea-kayaking trips off Vancouver Island and usually returned with the same number of people he left with. He is a partner in Boulder Bookworks and shares a home with this blue-eyed person.

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