Acting Your Age at 80 in the Backcountry
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
-George Bernard Shaw
“The secret of a good old age is simply an honorable pact with solitude.”
-Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In 1981 at the age of 42 I embarked on a week-long solo ski tour in California’s Sierra Nevada, a remarkable and beautiful experience which has served me well. This from the essay about that tour in my book The Perfect Turn describes my thoughts at the end of the first solitary day in fine mountains and snow: The last words in my notebook that night: “It is extremely beautiful and peaceful here. How do I get so far away from this feeling when I’m in civilization?”
That question alone is worth the trip.
Another question: What is the answer worth?
Having lived almost as long since that solo ski tour and writing those words as I had before it, I still don’t have a definitive answer but the question has inspired a few observations, reflections and life directions. First of all, alone is not lonesome in the backcountry as it sometimes can be in what is called ‘civilization.’ And, the answer is not worth losing your life, though, as every backcountry skier knows or at least should know, the search for it could and can and, for some, will end lives. That awareness is part of the beauty, peace, wild and wilderness of the backcountry that reminds us, among other things, to be wary of civilization’s hubristic veneer of guarantees. On the 2ndnight of that tour I jotted in my journal: “I haven’t spoken a word since yesterday except a tight-spot grunt and a loud squawk when I fell once. Unlike Don Juan, I haven’t mastered turning off the internal dialogue other than on rare, special times. My mind goes into the past and then jumps ahead to a possible future, and when it stays in the present it enjoys itself. My mind right now is out to enjoy, not necessarily excel, though certain standards will be maintained out of pride. And today I noticed that every decision was not made by me alone. ‘We’ made the decisions. ‘We’ is here. Being alone in this state is never lonely.”
“Colors and lights change continuously. White, grey, blue and then orange and gold. There is wind and an occasional airplane. I keep thinking I hear a large engine or generator, but it must only be the sound of my own head.”
“That night a coyote called for a long time and I woke. Stars filled the black sky and the snow sparkled.”
Nearly 40 years later my moment by moment awareness and pleasure in recent backcountry solo ski experiences has been better than ever (or at least so it seems to my old mind), the standards and pride in excelling have plummeted (how could they not?) and the soloing is no longer a personal choice but is usually my only option if I want to play on skis in the backcountry. Those plummeting physical capabilities inescapably affect the technical standards and capabilities on skis. While I am able to keep up with some backcountry companions on descents, I can only keep up with a few possessing gargantuan amounts of patience, kindness and time on the ascents. For some reason, those few are usually unavailable after one day, sometimes after one run. I don’t blame them, but it limits my options and expands my thinking about beauty and peace—-and ego—-in the backcountry and elsewhere. I am 80 this winter and am forced to contemplate (and deal with) the reality that backcountry experience at my convenience is going to be solo. Something about those decade birthdays encourages serious contemplation of the organic reality only hinted at by the abstract science of mathematics. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: 80 are 80 are 80.
I have skied for 70 years all around the world, the majority of those uncountable miles of pleasure and thrills attained with the aid of ski lifts. That is, I have never been among those ‘earn your turns’ puritans who ridicule the effortless ride up and disdain riders as lower class citizens of the ski world. I have always been an alpine skier who dabbled as a Nordic skier and even a ski jumper in competitive days, while the backcountry, even what is now sometimes called ‘side country,’ was never my first skiing priority. However, I do admit that as a longtime ski instructor (both legally within the system and underground) I had a few wealthy clients who hired me to accompany them helicopter skiing, and after my first week at CMH I determined that if I were wealthy I would spend 10 or 12 weeks a year living there and skiing every day. Alas, I was and am not in that economic bracket. Still, the backcountry, some of it accessed with sno-cats and helicopters, has long been a significant aspect of my skiing life, but I also earned a lot of puritan turns and miles over the ski touring years. In 1970 I was one of a group of six on an early attempt to ski from the summit of Denali. Four of the party reached the summit, but had to leave their skis far below. Doug Tompkins and I were stopped well below the top by severe high altitude sickness (HAPE and HACE), and I consider myself lucky in two ways: I got home alive, and one of my all time best mountain memories is Doug and I retreating off Denali with our skis beneath our feet (if not our tails between our legs) telemarking down the Kahiltna Glacier with 80 lb. packs in beautiful powder snow and clear, cold weather. But in many ways the longest and best was in 1975 when we did a 200 mile tour from the southern end of Wyoming’s Wind River Range to Jackson Hole. There have been lots of tours of various lengths, but it never crossed my mind to compete in any of those torture-fest randonnee uphill/downhill races on a pair of skis. Still, I always felt strong and proficient enough to be confident of getting up and back down anything I chose to ski.
That erroneous (hubristic?) perception changed quickly in 2001 when I was 62. I had a magazine assignment to write about a gathering of fine skiers, including Daron Rahlves, Danielle Crist, Reggie Crist and Zach Crist, to heli-ski in Haines, Alaska which has some of the best skiing and steep extreme lines on earth. Support crew included Pete Patterson, one of America’s great ski racers and mountain man extraordinaire; Roger Crist the father of Reggie, Danielle and Zach; Gerry Moffatt the well-known Scotsman climber/skier/kayaker/writer/photographer/bon vivant/philosopher; and Greg Von Doersten (GVD) a fine skier/climber and mountain photographer. Haines is at sea level on an inlet of the Bering Sea and the combination of northern latitude temperatures, low elevations and sea level atmosphere causes the wet snows of Haines (and other Alaska sites) to stick to cliffs that would not hold snow at lower latitudes or higher elevations more distant from seas. The original plan was to ski bigger mountains away from town at higher elevations and more spectacular scenery, but the weather kept us hunkered down in rainy Haines for several days until time and financial constraints limited our options from plan B to C to D. When weather cleared we went immediately to the close to town cliffs that would not hold snow at higher elevations. My job was to observe, stay out of the way of the cameras, gather material for my story, post daily updates on the magazine’s website and, of course, a few turns of my own. I had been a speed skier and had skied a few steep lines in earlier times, but Haines introduced me to a new concept of steep including new basics…..like making two turns before moving to a new line so the sluffs from the two turns don’t knock you down so you fall rather than control the descent to the bottom of the cliff, and then making two more turns and quickly moving to a new fall line, over and over and over. One morning in the company of Roger Crist, an old friend the same age as me, and Danielle the helicopter dropped us off on the spine of a ridge that dropped more than a thousand feet on both sides of the steepest skiing I have ever seen, imagined, or will ever again ski. The helicopter backed off so the photographers aboard could film the stars and senior guides skiing outrageous lines down beautiful cliffs, and so they did. We—Roger, Danielle and I—were left on top with a guide we later determined was not among the most experienced to make our way down. (Danielle, unlike me and Roger, was completely capable of skiing steep lines with her brothers, but sluffs of chauvinism rolled down the magazine’s pages before they could be turned, burying her skiing skills and depositing her with the two elders.) We dutifully followed the guide a short, steep way to a small ridge between two lines where he stopped. He instructed us to ski the line to the right, one at a time, while he was going to ski the line to the left. He said he’d see us at the bottom and took off.
As a long time climbing guide and ski instructor, I was more than surprised the guide would tell us to ski one line and he another, but we had bigger and more immediate issues to ponder. I had (and have) never stood on skis on a slope so steep and to say that I was scared shitless is an injustice to organic shit. It was bad. Just above the bottom of the thousand feet slope we were to ski was an open crevasse, a covered possible crossing on the left side of it. It seemed a lot further than a thousand feet away. Danielle went first, skiing with elegant care and precision and made it down with no mistakes. Roger went next. He was slow and steady and seemed okay until halfway down he made a mistake and took one of those falls no skier wants and never forgets. He was tumbling (literally) towards the crevasse and managed to stop just before dropping in. He was uninjured if shaken. Then it was my turn. My attention must have been complete as I made it down without mishap, but it was neither enjoyable nor satisfying. It was not a success but only a run of survival. Later that day we watched Zach take a 600 foot fall down the aptly named “Tomahawk” run. He was beat up a bit but had no serious injuries.
I wrote in my journal from the perspective of a 62 year old lifetime skier: “The energy spent on this is enormous, a revealing display of the contrived adventure documentary. These films are not documentaries about adventure; they are adventures conceived, orchestrated and made to fit into the limitations of the film. This is not adventure in the classic sense. It is a business (entertainment business) that is more interesting than being a lawyer or selling paint or stocks. The thought occurs to me that because of its very nature it is more dangerous and prone to bad judgment calls than more traditional adventure situations. Where the focus is fitting the situation into the film instead of making the film conform to the situation many things can go wrong. When the situation is inherently dangerous, this scenario is one that needs constant monitoring.”
I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s astute observation: “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from notaccepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say ‘no.’”
The day after leaving Haines we received word that our friend Hans Saari, one of the finest extreme skiers in the world had been killed after falling down the Gervasutti Couloir in Chamonix. The Haines experience and Hans’ death combined to illuminate ever-present perils of the backcountry and the personal reality of being past 60 and no longer that which I once was, or at least thought I was.
Still, through my sixties I had some fine backcountry ski adventures, including using skis to climb part way up and ski back down both Mt. Kennedy (13,944 feet) and Mt. Steele (16,644 feet) in Canada’s Yukon. There were many fine day and overnight ski tours in the Sierra, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming Argentina and France, including some beautiful solo day trips in which consciously adapting to the day’s feelings of strength and proficiency kept the experiences enjoyable and nutritious.
And then came the 70s, another of the decade birthdays. The first couple of years were not too bad, but by the mid-70s backcountry skiing was just one of many aspects of the physical life that were showing my age. I continued to make backcountry ski excursions without a partner, but more and more of them were in places like History Rock and Mt. Ellis near Bozeman and Durrance Peak and Titus Ridge near Sun Valley where there are always plenty of other skiers within shouting distance. A few true solo tours were as spooky as they were satisfying, and when finished I felt like I’d gotten away with something more than accomplishing anything besides a good workout. That is, alone in the backcountry was starting to feel lonesome. And then last Christmas at the age of 79 I went with my partner Jeannie Wall and our friend Kim Hall for a couple of nights into the Woody Creek Cabin a couple miles outside Cooke City, Montana where there was lots of snow and fine skiing. It is an understatement to say Jeannie and Kim are far stronger and faster than me, and I seldom saw them except in the parking lot and at the cabin.
The track into Woody Creek was well trod and by the time I reached the cabin Jeannie and Kim had the fire going, water melted, cabin warm and hors d’oeuvres prepared. Backcountry luxury at its best. For the next two days we’d get up, build a fire, breakfast and then Jeannie and Kim would leave for a larger adventure and I’d tidy up the cabin and putter around the woods close to the cabin on moderate slopes until I’d had a good workout and enough good turns. On the last morning we agreed on a time to meet at the parking lot and Jeannie and Kim left for a morning’s adventure. I cleaned up the cabin, shoveled the porch (it was snowing 6 to 12 inches each night), chopped enough firewood for the next guests and locked up the cabin. It was minus 10 F which contributed to an instinctive change of plan to just take my time getting to the parking lot instead of a short tour before. The track from Woody Creek to Cooke City is gentle, easy skiing, but I kept skins on my skis in order to slow the descent, acutely aware that a fall and broken ankle in the lonesome woods of the Beartooth Mountains in minus 10 F temperatures could be really ugly. When I reached the parking lot I was far more fatigued than expected and was happy for the feeling of survival and missing that of success.
For my 80thbirthday gift to myself I took solo backcountry ski touring off the list of options, except, maybe, every now and then in places like History Rock or Mt. Ellis.
I am reminded of this from Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Anthem”:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
One needs to pay attention to the crack in everything and then to be able to look into the light.