When skiing has something to teach you

Stock photo.

Every time I go skiing I learn something, about myself, about my choices, about the mountain.  Do you listen to what’s happening inside?

Some ski days are better than others and today was a good mix. It was my first ski day of the season and I chose to go skinning with a motley crew of other snow lovers eager to get some of the powder that has blessed Utah this week and still be home in time for lunch to start the real working day.

I have never been afraid of earning my turns and I am lucky to have the choice of chairlift, cat, helicopter, skidoo to complement people power via hiking and skinning each season. I am, however, ashamed to say that I didn’t earn a single turn last ski season, preferring to poach my powder thanks to mechanical engineering. I know, my carbon footprint was not a dainty one.

But backcountry is backcountry, even when inbound. Yes, you read that right. Like many ski resorts, you can skin uphill at Deer Valley Resort until the day the resort opens. Deer Valley opens officially this Saturday and the last week’s storm meant the uphill slopes of the resort had become Main Street.

Either way, the area is not patrolled, the powder is untouched and the roads to access are cut by a cat. So it’s important to approach this style of skiing as you would side or backcountry anyway. Especially in a snow cycle like the one we are currently in, which just screams avalanche after 40 inches of fresh powder.

I may have acted like a rookie by leaving my rented AT boots in the back of my car in freezing conditions overnight (yep, I was the Jerry who had to have them heated by a car heater just to get my foot into them) but I do know my avalanche scenarios. Whenever I am hitting untouched terrain whether by helicopter, cat or by skinning or hiking, whether side country to back country, I always check the avalanche report, as should you, every single time so you know the pitches and directional faces to avoid.

Stock photo.
Stock photo.

Now the truth is I have piled on some serious lard over the past few months. If you knew me last Tuesday you would know me in a fetal position crying into the ski pants that fit me last April but won’t get over my hips this November. With a history of body image issues (symptoms of eating disorders from back in the day) I was already sensitive to my added size and aware of the assumptions people make about weight and fitness  that are not always correct.

But in my defence I have been all sizes from skinny to, as one dear former reader called it, ‘podgy’, and still spent a full day skinning in the Wasatch backcountry with one of the best backcountry Alpine Touring Guides going, Charlie Sturgess, the original founder of White Pine Touring in Utah. I learnt about body heat regulation, the importance of a well paced skinning traverse and how not to ski crud on that day.

I spent another day heli assisted ski touring in Revelstoke with black toes from bad ski boots. Learnt not to ski in bad ski boots. Ever.

I have hiked some seriously in your face steep powder faces in Portillo with the masters Mike Douglas and Chris Davenport just to get the perfect powder turn with a condor flying overhead. Though I broke my leg the next day when my ski binding didn’t release due to a bad ski binding service. Yep, learnt about ski tuning that year.

I even once dragged my body, hiking up a 2.5 hour ascent, in the backcountry of Hakuba before I really even knew how to conquer powder (more fool me) and learnt the importance of carrying sustenance at all times, especially in exposure.

But there is no room for ego, yours or anyone else’s, when skiing in a group because you are what you are that day only, no matter how many names you drop –  and ten minutes in it was clear that I should have started crossfit three months ago not just three weeks ago. I was puffing, a lot, I forgot about pacing myself and the idea of setting a rhythm that worked for me had already gone out the window as my group just picked up speed.

I am big enough and ugly enough to know that unless you pay a fully qualified guide to look out for you, choose your trail, hold your hand and set your pace, that it is you and you alone responsible for your welfare. But when skiing on your own or with no qualified guide then it’s all about the choices you make to minimize your own risk. I had checked the avalanche report, brought my own water and sustenance, had a helmet with me, a battery charger for my phone should it die in the cold.

I was prepared to walk away should anyone make a terrain pitch decision I didn’t agree with, one can be lulled into false security when skinning ‘in bounds’ in a resort that is yet to open. But I also silently handed over the route to whomever happened to be the fastest and I should know better than that.

Traditionally when skiing with others it should be about looking out for the lowest common denominator. We all know the hiker with longer legs who forgets to break snow hiking trail in shorter steps on the steeps for those not so vertically blessed. That’s just plain inconsiderate.

But let’s be realistic, skiers come in a range of experiences. Some are fitter than others, some understand terrain traps more than others, some know how to read snow pack and pitch, others rip up the terrain on the way down, some are motivated by testosterone, others by winning, some by selfies, some do it for the spiritual state of being in nature, others do it for the connection with friends and some just love the silence.

It sucks when it becomes obvious that you are the weakest link. I was that today. Slow like a turtle amongst a crew of fitter folk. When the lead chose an aggressive and steep skin track that just went straight up to the right of a face that had already been cut, so obviously wouldn’t slide, and could easily be traversed in a typical skinning zig zag movement I realized I was the lowest common denominator and I was toast.

You know, the wounded duckling, the one you cut loose to save yourselves. Which really is silly because if you get lost in the woods in the snow and you have to eat one of your own, well I would be providing the most fodder.

So here I stood having to make a choice, do I head straight up dragging from behind, more focused on keeping up (with my crew that were now well out of sight though little did I know they were just over the ridge) than enjoying the ride, or do I traverse at a slower pace and catch up with them later (or not).

Eventually I made the decision to ski back down. I realized that the energy I was exerting on my first day of the season could impact my downhill capability (the best part) and that’s when injuries happen. So with a whole season ahead I clicked back in and skied powder back down.

At the time though  I had to swallow my pride big time but here’s the thing, no one really notices in life when you think you’re failing because they are too busy trying to hide the fact they think they are failing in some way too.

It was then in that thigh deep powder turn that I learned that this was what I had been craving. Those moments alone in the silence at your own pace skiing powder like a butterfly no matter what size ski pants you’re wearing.

This is why I ski and just like that I got excited about skiing again.

Today was a good day.

Post script (women will relate to this): Little did I know that the reason I was truly struggling would not be revealed till later that night when I got my period big time. Something we women rarely factor in or talk about when it comes to skiing yet, for some women, it can seriously reduce our energy levels and play with our backcountry emotions. And just like every other time it comes I was surprised, as if I had forgotten the four weekly visits, and my mountain reaction then made so much more sense as to why I was unable to just suck it up and push through my painful lack of fitness like I normally would.

Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.

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