Illustration by Scott DuBar
I sure do love the sound of a beer can opening on a mountaintop – especially when it’s me that’s opening the beer. Now, I don’t always enjoy a brew on every backcountry ski tour. But if the weather is nice and warm, there’s no foaming-at-the-mouth symptoms from powder fever, and my touring partners abide, then taking in the view with a cold one… well, there’s nothing better. When the can is empty, and its liquid contents are safely stowed in my belly, the proceeding downhill run puts a stupid grin on my face whether it’s blower powder or a shiny rain crust. Teetotalers tell me that drinking and backcountry skiing do not mix. They say it is unsafe. They say I might hit a tree, get buried in an avalanche, or kill myself in some sort of “dude, hold my beer” questionable-judgment scenario. But I say having a summit brew actually makes me a safer skier. I call it “The Beer Factor.”
Being safe in avalanche terrain means having awareness of all the factors. There are snowpack factors, terrain factors, weather factors, and the human factor. The Beer Factor is the opposite of all that. Rather than being a factor that can cause an avalanche, beer keep me out of avalanches. It may seem counterintuitive, but the most important piece of avalanche safety gear I have in my pack is a can of fine, micro-brewed beer, preferably an IPA. But I’m not picky as anything dark or hoppy is tasty enough when quaffing on winter peaks. Now of course the beer itself isn’t some miracle of technology like an airbag pack that will keep me afloat amongst snow blocks careening down a mountain at 80-miles-per-hour. Nor does it impart super powers like beer muscles that will allow me to swim out of a class-five slide. So how does The Beer Factor keep me safe? It’s quite simple, really.
First, the summit brew forces me to slow down and take in my surroundings. I begin by constructing a couch. The seat is fashioned with my upturned skis, skins still attached. The back rest is my pack, placed in such an orientation that I may survey the mountain expanse before me without having to crane my neck too strenuously one way or the other. I withdraw the beer, carefully open it, and begin to sip. Then I pass the can around to my buds. As the brew is making its rounds, I have time to survey adjacent slide paths and bowls for recent signs of avalanche activity. I also look for wind loading, incoming storms, and most importantly, untouched powder that nobody has hit. Most backcountry skiers take pride in their short transition times, going from uphill to downhill mode in under 30 seconds. But to me, such shenanigans leave zero time for terrain observation, which the beer provides in spades.
Second, when the beer is consumed and not a hoppy drop is left at the bottom, I crush the can and stuff it into my pack alongside the avalanche shovel as a token of good luck – kind of like a rabbit’s foot, or the women’s underwear I procured by climbing the panty tree at a nearby resort under the cover of darkness the night before. It’s worked for me so far judging by the amount of old beer cans and lingerie I find in my avalanche tool pocket at season’s end.
Third, I always make an offering to Ullr, or whatever ski god is up there dropping snow on my rapidly balding head. While most skiers pray to Ullr for massive amounts of snow, I like to include a bit at the end of my supplication about keeping me safe and not crushing my puny, mortal body under thousands of tons of said prayed-for snow. Then I pour a healthy dose of my offering onto the ground so Ullr can come lap it up. This act hopefully keeps me safe from avalanches, much like praying to the Bible God protects people from things like car accidents, or mouth herpes contracted from climbing panty trees.
Fourth, the beer counteracts my caffeine high. When in the backcountry, I spend the entire ascent eating chocolate-covered espresso beans. I buy these succulent, brown little nuggets in bulk because they are delicious, crunchy, and give me enough energy to stay ahead of the notoriously heinous skin-track farts of a certain friend. But as soon as I reach the top, I’m so jazzed up that I’m ready to set my DIN to 16 and jump off a massive cornice above exposure despite the wind slab lurking on the slope below. The summit beer brings me back down to an even keel.
Fifth, beer keeps me safe because it makes me lazy. On the way up the skin track, I scope out steep lines on open faces, valiantly point my pole at couloirs like a knight pointing his sword at a dragon, and build up enough courage to slay big lines. But after drinking the beer, I tend to become very relaxed, if not downright slothful. With beer goggles on, I look at descents that require any sort of work (like turning) and say, “Aw screw it, let’s just ski that low-angle meadow and get back to the trailhead.”
Finally, the summit brew also makes me want to ski that low-angle meadow to get back to the trailhead because there is more beer in the car.
So if you run into me atop a peak, as I relax on my ski couch with beer in hand, please don’t judge. Instead, I recommend you saddle up next to me, ignore my espresso-bean breath, and share a frosty cold one. It might just save your life.