Check In or Check Out?

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During the past two winter seasons here in Colorado we were situated solidly in the storm track and seemingly every weekend got exponentially better and better for those of us who love skiing powder. It was so consistent and so good that instead of “spring skiing” in May we were still skiing legit powder of the knee deep variety until almost Memorial Day. Well, so far this year our seasonal snowfall has been classified as “average” according to the National Weather Service and other such agencies who track all kinds of fun weather related statistics. After being spoiled for two seasons, average now seems anything but.

It took me all of about about two days of standing in those long lift queues, endlesly waiting to ski the hardpacked piste, surrounded by people more concerned with “checking in” on Facebook, updating their status or checking on their Epic Mix apps than actually skiing, before I started thinking of better ways to spend my time.

From that point, I started spending most of my weekends climbing well before daylight to the high point of my favourite little resort, whereupon I could watch the sun come up then ski back down on empty trails and actually enjoy making turns without fear of other people crashing into me. After that, maybe I’d do a couple of lift assisted runs then head home around mid-morning. Every once in a while I’d get a wild hair and decide it was time to ride lifts all day again…and that fantasy would generally last about two hours.

As slow to come along as it was, the backcountry here in Colorado finally shaped up to a reasonable level. Instead of fighting those crowds (and traffic), I started spending most of my weekends with one or two friends touring quiet valleys and skiing the glades off the surrounding ridges. As usual, besides the lack of crowds and general anxiety, the backcountry has lots of benefits our society sort of forces us to ignore.

My wife has a job which requires, or at least “expects” her to sort of be in communication range about 95% of the day, including late into the evenings sometimes. I guess you could say she finds herself “checking in” quite a bit. While her job does have the benefit of being a rather fairly compensated position, the balance of pay and “time” sometimes gets a little tilted to the negative side and the stresses of it start filtering out the important experiences of life.

The funny thing about employment is we work our entire lives to accumulate money and material things and theoretically, the more we work, the more we have…and I use the word have loosely because those things actually own us! What our app-oriented, faster-is-better society fails to capitalize on is that we were all born with a wealth of currency in the form of time. We are conditioned to work ourselves to death, literally sometimes, frantically climbing the waterfall of accumulating money and material things. And although we know it all too well, we will NEVER be able to keep pace with the materials things we “need” because marketing firms will spare no expense to insure we are always insecure with what we currently have. The sad thing is we will let the balance in our “time account” go bankrupt while we try.

Last weekend Donna and I went out for a backcountry ski day to a place a friend recently turned me onto. She skis very well, but is still rather new to the backcountry and isn’t yet overly comfortable with skiing the oftentimes variable conditions. However, she’s learning quickly and getting more comfortable every time out. That said, we chose this place because it has a relatively mellow tour into a beautiful valley and features some low angle glade skiing as to keep things on the low-anxiety side of things. There is nothing really all that easy about backcountry skiing to begin with, so finding places that are skill appropriate for the people in your group is always the first key to having a good day. It’s also key to maintaining a firm level of marital bliss…just sayin’.

So we set out well before daylight to hopefully get ahead of the I-70 weekend traffic. After 20+ years of living in Colorado, it’s still shocking to me that no matter what time you leave, it’s never a relaxing drive into the mountains around here. Anyhow, we initiated the alpine start and arrived to the trailhead right around daybreak, where much to our delight we found we were the only car there. One car in the parking lot where we were, yet, literally three miles away there were thousands upon thousands of people piling into the expensive pay lots at a major resort…and of course “checking in” on Facebook to make sure everyone knows it.

As I mentioned, the ski tour up this valley is rather mellow. It follows an old mining trail through a dense pine forest before eventually breaking out at tree line into an incredibly beautiful and majestic bowl rimmed with jagged peaks above 13,000 feet. On this day the cloud deck was low and it was snowing lightly so the highest of the peaks were hidden, but there was still no denying the magic of being in a place like that and having it all to ourselves.

About the time we reached tree line, Donna stopped for what I assumed was a little oxygen break given we had been traveling at a little above 11,000 feet for a while. That was partially true, but what made me more happy was I discovered she had stopped to listen to the absolute quiet, something I myself cherish when I’m climbing alone at a resort or skiing the backcountry. You could even hear the light snow as it drifted down onto our nylon packs. We just stood there for a bit and let the energy of the place seep into our soul…and stresses of our everyday lives drain out.

We’ve been out skiing a few times together this year, mostly inbounds, but this was the first time I’ve actually seen her relax and actually take the time to enjoy the experience instead of starting the day anxious about fighting the crowds, the traffic and the general lunacy of what we’ve come to accept as acceptable. I think she clearly saw why I choose to ski in these places despite the hard work it takes to get to them.

Backcountry skiing is hard, especially if you don’t do it often. Regardless, I could see a distinct energy about life in her I don’t see all that often during the work week. She seemed less stressed and was willing (with encouragement) to fight her way up some steeper sections of the skin track to reach a flat spot on the adjacent ridge where we’d start our ski down. It definitely got her out of her comfort zone a little but the positives of being there and experiencing kept nudging her appreciation of life upward as the weight of everyday life lifted. Skiing at a resort seems to congregate and intensify people’s everyday stresses, where skiing in the backcountry seems to give you enough room to dissipate that stuff and see a little more clearly.

Once we reached the high point of our tour, it didn’t take much more than a cursory glance around that cirque to realize just how special it was to be in a place so beautiful and not have another person within miles. Instead of spending our currency of time being surrounded by hordes of oftentimes rude people on a crowded piste, we had invested our time in getting to a place that allowed us to relax and earnestly experience our surroundings and fill our souls…exactly what skiing is supposed to be about. Most importantly, we got to share that investment of time together and make another deposit into our “joint experience account”.When everything is said and done, all we’ll ever have in our lives are our experiences. It’s why I choose my time investments and who I invest them with very carefully these days.

It wasn’t exactly the powder day we hoped for, but we had a wonderful ski down despite the challenging variable conditions. Progress and growth of any kind is oftentimes a process of two steps forward and one step back. Skiing in the backcountry will definitely teach a person patience, humility and how to take broader strokes to the way you see things. You have to work through the tough times, trust the process and keep trudging down that road of self discovery. In the movie 180 Degrees South, Yvon Chouinard spoke of doing anything that involves discovering something spiritual about yourself by saying, “if you shortcut or compromise the process in any way, you’ll be an asshole when you start and you’ll still be an asshole when you finish”.

I saw some more big progress in Donna’s backcountry skiing and I know for sure she built another good layer of confidence in herself to tackle things that aren’t always very straightforward. I think that revelation came after the exhausting part of trying to get up after a fall or two in baseless snow…but it did come. Next time we go out I know she’ll grow yet again…we all do. I can’t help but think every day out there will help her compartmentalize those stressful days in her work life and keep them from filtering the amazing experiences we’ve had and will continue to have.

We didn’t “check in” that day like the thousands of people were doing just a few miles away, but we did manage to “check out” for a little while, which we tend to find a lot more appealing. It’s also nice to enjoy our long time home here in Colorado the way it should be enjoyed. It’s especially enjoyable to share those experiences with the ones you love.

Climb high. Ski hard. Ride long. Live simply.

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