Monday, February 26, 2018

It Was Worth It

 There is a scene from a 1982 movie called The Man From Snowy River.  It is about a group of seasoned Australian mountain men who are chasing on horse-back a coveted pack of wild horses called brumbies, free-roaming wild horses.  These skilled men are chasing these horses through rugged terrain and wilderness, trying to be the ones who capture the horses for a large purse.  The brumbies, however, evade the mountain men by jumping off an extremely steep down-slope.  Too steep for the mountain men to follow, the chase comes to a quick and abrupt halt.  Then, suddenly from the back of the group, the main character in the movie, a rookie mountain man trying to establish his place in the mountains, cracks of his whip as he leaps off the steep slope to continue the chase.  Eventually, it is the fledgling who captures of the brumbies.
Craig Dropping into Bowl
On February 13, 2018, six skilled skiers stood looking over the edge of the snowy Commissary Ridge in Wyoming Targhee Mountains, examining an untouched bowl of fresh powder.  They had spent 30 minutes sawing off cornices, in order to determine if the conditions were safe enough to ski without creating an avalanche. Once the conditions were deemed safe, the six men peered over the edge wondering who should go first.   With a crack of a Wahoo!, Craig, the rookie in the group, exuberantly leapt off the ridge, capturing  a one-year dream of backcountry skiing in the deep wilderness.  Everyone on the ridge echoed with Wahoo’s and Yipee’s as 62- year-old Craig carved first tracks.  
His journey to get here had been one of total dedication and commitment.  He made lifestyle changes to improve his physical stamina.  He learned the necessary skills to ski safely in the backcountry.  And he improved his nutrition in order to decrease his body weight so he could be more energetic on the uphill portion of touring.  

I write this commentary hesitantly because to explain the details of Craig’s repetitive efforts would make for a very boring story for most readers.  But, in the story lies the real journey for all those who desire to conquer their own ‘backcountry.’  Day after day after day, there has to be this undeviating commitment to goals and preparation, even overcoming the doubt and wondering if the discomfort will be worth it. It required months of training to be physically prepared for three days of leg-burning, deep powder skiing.  I cannot tell you how proud I am of Craig and his unrelinquishing attitude as he prepared for his KOLIfit adventure.  

The adventure began Sunday afternoon as Craig, Greg, Brandon, and I drove 4 hours to Driggs Idaho.  The time flew by quickly as we introduced ourselves to each other and talked about our past adventure experiences. There were stories of climbing Mount Everest, Alaska crab fishing, traversing ridge lines, and skiing steep n deep narrow canyons.  Indiscreetly, we were sizing each other up to determine how ‘adapted’ each of us was for this adventure.
We pulled into a quiet little Driggs about 9:30 p.m. in frigid conditions.  After we found our trailhead off a shimmering icy Leigh Canyon road,  which made for a fun adventure, we returned to the Korean Restaurant (pretty much the only thing open on a Sunday night) for an amazing family style dinner.  As we ate, we were continually sizing each other up as we shared more stories about our individual adventures and exploits.  

We met the rest of our group and a guide from the Teton Backcountry Guides on Monday morning at 9a.m.  Our group of six, Craig, Greg, Brandon, Brandon, Brandon, and  Aaron (say that 10 times as fast as you can), made our final preparations  with 40-pound packs full of three days of food and gear. Excitement was high as we anticipated our adventure in the National Targhee Wilderness.  
We had a four mile approach to the yurt where we would be staying with a 1,000-foot elevation gain.  As we encountered the trailhead, we noticed that it was well-packed and could be easily traveled in our four-wheel-drive vehicle.  A plan was proposed to haul all the gear 3 miles up the road.  This would save us some time and conserve needed energy that would be needed to ski the fresh powder.  We cleared the plan with our guide who expressed his approval with some excitement because he had another opportunity near the City of Rocks once he guided us to the yurt.  

Greg had read on the Teton Backcountry Guides website that sleeping bags were provided at the yurt for a fee.  This was a courtesy provided by the Teton Backcountry Guides in order to reduce the amount of gear, and consequently weight, to be packed to the yurt.  Greg had assumed that he could obtain the key to the locker at the yurt.  Consequently, he did not bring his sleeping bag.  I think you have figured out the end of this tale.  Yep! No key.  No sleeping bag.  And no way to get one at this point in the trip.  Now, we have a conundrum: six guys and five sleeping bags in sub-zero temperatures at 8,000 feet altitude in the backcountry miles away from any store.  We were all thinking the same thing: “There ain’t no way in h--- I am spooning up in a bag with Greg!” 
Luckily, our guide saw our plight and took pity on us.  Consequently, he called his boss and got us the key to the locker at the yurt, but with a catch.  Someone would have to drive back to Driggs to pick it up.  So, Greg and Brandon #1 got the job.  Meanwhile, Aaron, Craig, and the guide will drive up the road and drop off the rest of the gear.  Craig and the guide would get a head start and meet us at the yurt.  I would drive the vehicle back to the trail head parking lot and wait for Brandon #1 and Greg to get back with the locker key.  Once we got everyone and everything to the yurt, we could start skiing around noon.
We had not driven more than a  ¼ mile down the snow packed road when I started to feel uneasy about the conditions of the road and felt the plan needed to change. The road was less solid and firm the further we drove down it and I could feel the vehicle struggling for traction.  The road, however, was too narrow to turn around.  Now, I was left with the reality of having to drive backwards, by myself, to the parking lot after we dropped off the gear.  My anxiety levels skyrocketed as I imagined myself backing down a narrow snow-covered road.  I went through every “what if” scenario imaginable.  And as I did, my anxiety got worse.  You can imagine what’s going on in my mind as I visualize trying to back down the road, looking in the rearview mirror, in the side mirrors, over my shoulder, bumping long, spinning the tires.
Our guide sensed my uneasiness and he, too, was apprehensive about backing the truck down the road. Craig, however, was all in and encouraged us to continue down the road.  In his mind, this was his ticket to keep from expending energy and have more time to ski the beckoning white powder.  Quickly, the guide and I established a two-man dictatorship and decided to drop the gear at about ⅓ mile from the trailhead, despite Craig’s protests. Consequently, I sent Craig and the guide off to the yurt with their gear and left everyone else’s gear on the side of the road.
However, I still had to drive the truck down the road backwards….by myself.   As I clutched the steering wheel, I could feel the sweat streaming down my face, especially when the truck started to slide.  Despite the fact, there were some anxious moments and a few close calls of sliding off the road, I made it back, safely, to the parking area.  As a footnote, when we returned to the vehicles after our 3-day skiing excursion, there was a sign posted at the trailhead, “No Vehicles Beyond This Point.”  I think our guide must have reported out predicament to someone and they shut down the road.
Grand Teton in the Background
Shortly after I returned from parking the truck, Greg and Brandon #1 returned with the key to open the locker at the yurt for the sleeping bag.  Now, with all our problems resolved and anxieties relieved, we were ready to cut some track and ski!  We had some great conversations on our four mile tour, from “Should they make the Escalante area a National Park” to, well, let’s just say that boys will be boys.  We arrived back at the yurt by 12p.m.  Stoked up the stove with wood, and started boiling water for our Mountain House lunch.  As we sat there, enjoying our lunch, we soaked in the beauty of our surroundings.  There was no way to put into words what our eyes viewed and what our hearts felt as we were immersed in the ambience of brightly lit snow-covered peaks with the aroma of fresh pine all around us.  It was simply one of those things which could not be described.  It had to be experienced.  For me, personally, I was home!  The group kicked back and reminisced like we had all known each other since birth.  However, we came to ski, so like bloodhounds on the scent, we set off.  We had another four hours of daylight left and we did not want to miss a single ray as we sought the best rideable lines to ski.
To our surprise, however, there were a myriad of snowmobile tracks.  And many of the rideable lines we had observed from a distance had been obliterated by skiers and snowmobile tread.  There was a mood of betrayal among us.  We had come to backcountry ski in this remote area, supposing it would be unscathed by man or machine.  We had come to enjoy the silence of the backcountry and hear only the sound our breath as we climbed, searching for those untouched lines.  It was akin to coming to wildlife preserve and finding all the magnificent creatures left dead by poachers.  All the untouched lines had been obliterated by our “poachers” on their snowmobiles as they drove up to the top of Beard Mountain to drop off a skier, and then return for the next one.  They could ski four laps to our one with hardly expending any energy and the price was the destruction of pristine lines.  This was not what we were expecting and it dashed our dreams.  But, we refused to let this setback ruin our trip.  We expended the effort to find an area which was untouched in the trees and skied a couple of lines.  It was so exhilarating that our disappointment quickly turned into our joy as evidenced by the perma grins across our faces.   
After a few runs and the long tour to the yurt, a few in the group were ready to start their days recovery.  They wanted to have plenty of energy for the next day which was Tuesday.  Brandon and Craig wanted to head back to the yurt. But I was in exploration mode, which means rest and sleep are overrated. I can do that when I get home.  I wanted to make my mark and find the goods. So, rather than return to the yurt by the most direct route, the four of us decided to head towards Beards Mountain.  Even with the plethora of tracks, it was too tempting to not go have a look.  It had snowed about a foot of fresh snow over the week.  The temperatures had dropped into single digits, sucking the moisture out of the snow and creating very light powder
Craig Making First Tracks
As we traveled along the Commissary Ridge to find an alternate route to the yurt, we found what we were looking for.  It was difficult not to drool all over ourselves like Pavlov’s dog as we gazed at a north facing bowl unscathed by man or machine.  It was a perfect blanket of snow illuminated by the golden rays of the sun as it began to set.  As we stood there, gazing upon this pristine sight, it was all that we could do not to ski off “into the sunset,” but we knew we would run out of daylight, and the return trip to the yurt could be precarious if not dangerous in the dark.  So, we made mental notes and anxiously anticipated returning tomorrow to this heavenly place.  

We arrived at the yurt around 6:30 p.m., satisfied with our introduction to the Targee Mountains.  It was, now, time to rest our weary bodies in our humble 200 square foot home.  Equipped with just enough to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, e.g. good people , good food, and memorable times.
Now, when I tell my children that vacations are to be savored and that sleep is overrated, I am slightly exaggerating.  Sleep is a wonderful part of life and I value every minute of it.  I have trained myself to live off of about 6 hours of sleep per day.  If it’s not good quality then I need a bit more.   Camping, however, has never provided the highest quality of sleep for me.  Being a side sleeper, I usually toss-and-turn all night long.  I can never get comfortable on a 1-inch pad. Now, add to it a cacophony of snoring for 2 nights, by the time I returned home, I will felt like that I didn’t sleep the whole 72-hour trip.  I am adding one more piece of gear to my equipment---earplugs!  
The lack of sleep, however, did not hold back the excitement we felt as we anticipated skiing the untouched bowl. The whole reason why this trip was planned was because Craig wanted to experience a backcountry ski trip.  He had his shining moment.  Tuesday came and went by with everyone skiing one of the best days of their life.  Everyone made several runs, making their mark on the North Face of Commissary Ridge.  Every time we finished the 700-foot, 37-degree run,  it was instinctive to look up and see your perfect tracks while crumbs of powder would melt and dribble down our faces.  Craig’s hard work had finally become worth every drop of perspiration, every stair stepped, and every leg workout.  It was even worth the sacrificed Mountain Dews.  He realized the benefits of his commitment and hard work.  Before the day was over, he was already talking about and planning next year’s trip.  

It was becoming late afternoon on Tuesday and fatigue was setting in, but we dug deep to ski another run.  And then another.  And then another.  We had come too far and expended too much, in time, money, and preparation, not to capture every moment from our long-awaited adventure.  But, eventually, the mind succumbed to the body’s cry and Craig had to call it a day.  He had exceeded his expectations and experienced his dreams.  He and 2 others went back to the yurt to relish in their accomplishment. 
However, I wasn’t quite ready to go back, yet.  There was still one more thing that I wanted to do.  One of my most favorite peaks is the Grand Teton.  It speaks to my soul every time I see it and it was a stone’s throw away at the top of Beard Mountain. The sky was crystal clear and I wanted a picture of unadulterated view of the Grand Teton.   To acquire this view meant traveling another mile to the summit. But summiting Beard Mountain also meant we could ski the 2000-foot West Face run back to the yurt.  

Brandon, Brandon and I made it to the top of Beard Mountain and enjoyed the view with a pleasing selfie and a soulful chat with the Grand Teton. Then came a surprisingly amazing 2000’ run back to the yurt. Even though it was heavily skied we found untouched lines that gave us a rewarding leg burn. It’s adventures like these that change and reinforce a style of living. Everyone in the group understood the uniqueness of the experience.  It had been totally worth it.

I love the drive home from epic adventures. Bellies are full with burgers and fries from the local cafe. The analytical chatter of sizing each other up shifts to a quiet ride with reminiscent memories causing an occasional low chuckle. There’s the heavy breathing and head bobbing as sleep deprived bodies succumb to a relaxed comatose state. With Craig at the wheel and me in the shotgun seat, we pulled out of Driggs, gave each other that look “man that was worth it” and cranked the tunes and enjoyed the ride home.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

1 comment:

  1. Amazing Aaron! Your well written blog captured and kept my attention. Wishing you many more "Happy trails "in those beautiful pristine places.