N.B. I’ve made revisions to the original narrative as I had some facts wrong.
Strikethrough is the old stuff, bold italic is the new.**
I’m gasping in the thin air at 8500 feet. My heart is doing its two-step but at a benzedrine-fueled pace. It’s cold and we are exposed to the wind on the ridge line but I’m sweating under my parka and soaking my wool undershirt. Just another day on the High Traverse at Alpine Meadows! A cluster of powder-hungry skiers and boarders are making the trek along the summit of Ward Peak to the “back side” in search of fresh tracks. I’m a bit out of my league as younger and fitter enthusiasts are powering past me. I have to step out of line as I can’t keep pace without stopping to catch my breath. My ski buddy waits patiently for me but I can see he’s chomping at the bit to get to the saddle and cross over to the just-opened and untouched downhill runs. Nearly a foot and a half of snow has fallen here overnight and the Tahoe hordes are out in force to find the freshies. I plod on, side-stepping up the hillside until finally cresting at a rocky ledge. I’ve been too slow and we find ourselves at the end of the line and suddenly alone. We head bravely down to a little knob where we can see better and try to get our bearings.
Our first mistake was mine: I failed to keep up. You don’t want to lose the group when you are off-piste (technically were were within the boundaries so it’s not “backcountry” or “off-piste” but rather “open terrain” skiing) in unknown country. Our second mistake was his: my pal didn’t remember the route as clearly as he’d thought. For a few minutes we contemplate our situation and it’s a little unsettling. We know there’s a way down the mountain but we can’t find it. We think we might have to slog back up to the knife-edge we just left and look for tracks. Just as that unpleasantness sets in a couple of small parties totaling a dozen or so skiers arrive at our spot. We follow them. Thankfully they are locals and know the mountain well. We don’t have time to be relieved and just ski on.
We get to a broad, open bench with an expanse of possibilities below us.
My buddy recognizes a run and we head that way and encounter a red “stop” sign. We can’t take the run my buddy wants because it is posted red for “stop” and so we continue to follow green “go” signs down the hill. Ski parks post areas as “open” or “closed” to guide skiers to places that have been checked by ski patrol. They look mostly for avalanche hazards. All morning dynamite blasting was going on along the really steep faces to remove cornices and get the loose surface layers to move downhill in a more controlled fashion. The “stop” sign had everyone confused as we had just passed two green “go” signs on the way. The locals were confused by why the High Traverse was open and yet one of the main runs down the South Face was closed. Something wasn’t right. They would not have “opened the gate” on the High Traverse and sent us in this direction if the runs were closed. A couple of the obviously more accomplished skiers in the group simply ignored the sign and powered over the edge and into the South Face wilderness below. Nevertheless the rest of the routes down were available and two of the group, obviously strong skiers, went straight down the fall line. The rest turned right and looked for another route. They found it easily and we stayed with them all the way to the bottom.
It was the most incredible skiing I have ever done. I’ve been on better snow—it was a little wet and heavy to be ideal and required a subtle touch. But I’ve never skied in better circumstances. There were multiple lines down the mountain, all untracked, untouched, virgin powder. At one point the whole group was stretched out abreast in synchrony, bobbing and weaving together and laying down matching sinuous tracks. All our earlier consternation vanished as we fell under the spell of the perfect run. Eventually we had to stop as we were out of breath. The length of the run was probably three times the length we were used to from our local small-town ski parks. It was, in powder hound parlance, “epic.” The only bad part was the run out to the Sherwood lift was lengthy and relatively flat. Thank goodness the more intrepid athletes had already cut a track in the deep snow that we could follow. Otherwise we could not have kept our speed up and would have had to hike in the goop to the bottom. When the snow depth is that great you need some slope to keep moving. On the ungroomed portions you can often get stuck and come to a stop. This is the so-called “Sierra cement” that California skiers get more often than not. It’s not the drier, colder “champagne powder” that Utah is famous for. That stuff is so fluffy you can almost blow it out of the way.
When we got to the lift line we noticed it was not moving. The lift operator was attending to some maintenance issues and seemed bewildered by the sudden presence of a pack of skiers. He was even more confused when we told him we had come via the High Traverse. According to his board the High Traverse was marked as “closed.” Apparently we were the last batch to be let through and the “go” signs we found should been turned to “stop.” They had not checked the area we had just skied for avalanche danger and had intended to send everyone that came through on another run to a different lift. At least that’s what we pieced together. In fact it was possible that the person who had “opened the gate” had done so in error. A couple of the guys in line were former employees of the resort and they were shocked and angry at the screw-up, feeling that we had been put, unnecessarily, in a dangerous spot and that we were lucky conditions were as good as they were. In the end, the mountain gods had smiled upon us and spared us from harm and gave us absurdly good skiing.
We stood there for an hour before the lift started loading and our small group took three trips up the Sherwood chair and skied down that face three times before any other skiers at the resort got access. It was like having an entire mountainside to ourselves! All the runs were totally fresh, completely untracked, utterly epic. My buddy and I skied ourselves to exhaustion and then sucked it up and skied some more. I kept thinking I’d quit because I was beat and my legs were sore but then we’d find more beautiful lines in the snow and have to keep going. Eventually the hordes broke through and the runs got increasingly cut up. Snow fell steadily throughout the day however and we worked our way over to another section of the mountain and skied “refills” until we were practically cripples. Finally we had enough and took the beginner run back to the main area of the resort and back to the parking lot where we dumped our gear and got out of our soaking wet boots. Neither of us could move very well but thirst led us to the bar where we rendezvoused with friends and shared a pint of Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA. Man, was it good!
Later that night over dinner and cocktails my friend and I analyzed the perfect storm of events that led to our unique adventure. We made our mistakes, which I mentioned, and fortunately didn’t pay for them. At worst we could have been stuck in avalanche country without anyone knowing we were there. People die doing that shit! The resort compounded our mistakes with their own. One hand didn’t seem to know what the other was doing. Again, good fortune prevailed. I should say that I have great respect for ski park workers and their volunteer ski patrol counterparts. These people are amazing mountaineers and they work hard and put themselves at risk to make the resort safe for the paying customers. They can make mistakes just like anyone else.
My pal is an experienced and aggressive skier. His cockiness on the slopes is balanced by his joyful exuberance which is infectious and pushes me to get better. Every time I go with him I find myself doing things that I never thought I had in me. Sometimes we let our passion for powder get the better of our judgment. I know my limits, but I also know I have to butt up against them now and again or I’ll never get better. Alpine activities are inherently risky in and of themselves. I hurt myself seriously on my mountain bike one fall afternoon a few years back on a intermediate-level trail that I knew intimately. It’s all about balancing the risk with preparation and awareness. We resolved to be more attentive next time. I often let my friend lead the way and thus don’t take enough responsibility for myself. If he were hurt or whatnot I’d be in a heap of trouble on my own, not to mention being of no use to him. That’s my bad and something I can correct. My pal has always looked out for me and we spend a lot of time on the chairlift going over technique and discussing risks and emergency procedures. But I rely too much on his skill and thus don’t develop my own self-reliance and self-confidence. I know I have the ability but I tend to downplay it because my friend is so much more accomplished. I also know I could be a lot more physically fit which would certainly help. He thinks that’s B.S., that I’m plenty fit, I just let my fear of the unknown give me anxiety which elevates my blood pressure and robs me of strength!
It all worked out in the end. Our mission was to hit the Sierra storm and ski the powder and we accomplished that. We were “on the edge” for a moment but fortune favored the bold and we had a most memorable day in a season of great days. Let’s hope we get one more big storm here in the State of Jefferson before we put the skis away.
**All mistakes are mine. I own ’em. I’m happy to be corrected! (T’anks, man.)