It didn’t take long to figure out that turns taste sweeter when you earn them. After all, the more you pay for something the better it is supposed to be, even if you have to trick yourself into believing that to justify the cost difference. On the whole though, a product cannot sustain a higher price than its competitors unless the consumer recognizes a difference in the value.
Earning turns is no different, and even though the out of pocket expense might seem less, in reality the cost is higher because it involves a personal investment in time. Thus, it was easy to recognize that turns earned with sweat were better than turns burned beneath a chair, even if that were just a mind game played to justify the investment. What came as a surprise was the realization that it wasn’t so much about the turn as the tour taken to make fresh tracks.
It didn’t really hit me until I’d been backcountry skiing for at least a decade, and even then it took awhile to truly accept what was going on. A quick rerun through my most vivid memories of backcountry skiing turned out to be surprising short on turns and exceedingly long on pivotal moments during tours, or what would be more accurately labeled the ongoing saga of close calls.
The seductive moments of floating down through deep powder or cruising corn snow, while sweet, tend to blend with each other blurring any distinction over time. Oh sure, there’s a few standout fall line moments but mostly it’s the events surrounding the turn that are etched deep enough to survive senioritis.
Like the first time a relative stranger, Pete and I, were caught in a whiteout atop Mt. Baldy. We knew we were walking into a cloud, but the view behind us was clear. By the time skins were shed and skis back on our feet we couldn’t tell which way was which. The slope gathers pitch slowly off the top and by the time we realized we were probably in the wrong drainage, well, I just didn’t have enough experience or confidence to convince my partner at the time the safest way out and in any case, we agreed, continued down canyon would eventually lead to a road. The last 1000 vertical feet were spent skiing through mushy avalanche debris at the bottom of the canyon that was piled 20 or more feet deep. It was fresh and we knew it and we convinced ourselves we weren’t in danger since it had clearly already avalanched, never mind that with three feet of fresh it could again.
We stumbled onto the road hours after sunset, 4 miles downstream from where we started that morning. We didn’t have cell phones back then to let his wife know he was okay so I hydroplaned 60 miles through the streets of LA to Pete’s home in Huntington Beach, then back to my home, and rose early the next day to let my friends in the Baldy Hut know we were okay and not statistics. The skies were bluebird that day but to tell you the truth I don’t remember any blue sky turns, just the ones I couldn’t see the day before.
The first time down San Jacinto’s 9,000-foot north face, Snow Creek, the snow ran out at the top of a 70-foot cliff. We rappelled to the stream below as dusk enveloped the skies. We stumbled by starlight down a path that wasn’t any more visible in daylight two years later, with burnt out headlamps. When my skis hit a low hanging branch for the zillionth time I reached up with a self-arrest grip to rip it down. In doing so the branch broke, sending me down the slope doing backwards cartwheels while a boulder I must’ve dislodged at the same time chased me down the slope. On the third cartwheel it glanced off my leg as I landed safely on my hands and knees.
There are less trying moments too, like skinning straight up Baldy’s 35-degree slopes of SoCal corn just to see how steep I could go with Ramer super-climber heel posts, or a few years ago, doing that again on day four of the Sierra High route, for 2500 feet sustained, just to prove I still could.
You’ve heard it said, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, and hopefully, wiser. These are just a few, and I could bore you to death recounting others and you’ll notice, not a word about the turn. Even if you could, how often do words do the turn justice? Better to stick with what can be described.
Even though I continue to head into the backcountry, it isn’t the prospect of repeating these close encounters of the fatal kind that I seek. Nowadays, it’s about meandering along a slightly different path each time I head to a fave local run, just to learn the local topography better. Those forays either confirm why the fave run deserves its reputation, or add a new variation to the local repertoire.
It’s ironic, I know the tour is the meat of the experience, the place from which adventure springs, and yet I continue to head out seeking the promise of untracked turns and convince partners of their value even though we both know full well it’s about the tour, essay writing service for students not the turn.