If you ride sticks in the backcountry, sooner or later you gotta break some trail.  Yes, there are popular areas that get hit pretty hard, pretty early, and it can be easy to just follow this skin track or that skin track because, well, generally they are going the right direction, and it’s kind of human nature to travel down (or in this case, up) well-traveled routes.  So too, our busy American lives that are full of jobs and soccer games and emails lend themselves to maximize efficiency, so when there’s a choice between trudging slowly while breaking trail or following an already-broken track…well, it’s pretty easy to follow the existing skinner. But not only does tromping your own way upward through the snow give you a much more acute sense of what the snow is like and leads you to untracked turns, it’s also a great way to contemplate life, because in many ways, breaking trail ISlife.

A big part of breaking trail is navigating hazards safely, much like we do in our normal lives.  Yes, there’s the obvious analogy that working upward through the woods and into intensifying weather or avalanche-prone terrain is like driving your car safely or climbing ladders around your house, but how about the broader issues that keep you securely on the soft slab of life? Where should I live to achieve that perfect elusive balance of work and play? What career path should I take to fulfill my professional aspirations, my financial needs, and my personal time? And where should we put the skin track in to both slay the sweet untracked line and get us to that line safely?  On one hand putting in just another skin track pales in comparison to our large life choices, but considering that something like 25% of avalanche accidents occur while climbing, those seemingly-small decisions we make as we are shuffling through the snow actually may have just as much of an impact on our lives as literally anything, and should not be taken for granted.  And as in life, there are times when other people are relying on us for safe, effective navigation through hazards, and other times when we are relying on our partners for said safe decision-making, both of which also depend on open relationships that allow for honest conversations and constructive criticism.

One of the things I really like about breaking trail is the inherent intimacy you generate with your terrain.  In the summer we mostly follow trails that were cut for us long ago and when running or hiking you’re mostly just  – as one friend describes hiking in general – staring at the ground.  But once the snow has piled up those trails become a distant memory and the thick brush that runs alongside the summer trails is now multiple feet below your skis, so you can goanywhere.  As I break trail I’m always looking ahead trying to ascertain the best path forward:  if I get lured into that nice-looking opening in the trees just ahead, will I get shut down up higher?  I’d like to get to that ridge, but to do so I have to traverse that open slope; is that steep enough to slide?  And thus it is with our lives:  do we take the already-in skinner of life of taking over pop’s business or following the summer trail that all my friends have done, or do I keep my head up, looking for safe passages through the trees but knowing that I may have to take some calculated risks in order to blast down the 38 degree couloir of life?

And then there’s the nature of the track itself.  Here in Utah’s Wasangeles, the presence of many rats in the cage who are trying to git ‘er done in a hurry before everyone else or before going to work makes it seem that folks tend to simply bull their way steeply upwards without regard for the terrain around them or the people who will follow them in a few days after the steep track gets impossibly slippery.  Perhaps that’s the way that those folks go through life:  charging ever-upward rung by rung up the corporate or social ladders, without regards to the subtleties of their relationships with their colleagues, family members, or those trying to follow in their footsteps. A more zen-like trail breaking approach of working the terrain and taking advantages of the flatter tree bases or lumps for rounded turns, working sub-ridges, making longer zigs (and zags) to decrease the number of kick turns to increase efficiency, and keeping the track at a consistent, moderate pitch to enable easier travel and longer days for you and your pards coming behind seems to be more akin to taking the long view of life and not getting too wrapped up in the intensity of the moment. As Shakespeare (may have) said: “Thine skin track borne of elegance endeavors a more pleasurable journey than that of a brutishly cobbled skinner.”

And let’s not forget the simple difficulty of breaking a trail.  Boot deep, knee deep, thigh deep….it all happens, and if we wanna enjoy the down, we gotta go up, and sometimes it’s really damn hard.  But as with life challenges we persevere: pushing our hip flexors to their breaking point, feeling the burn, sweating hard despite the cold temps, and also relying on our partners to help.  Understanding the importance of not just hard work, but also asking and expecting our friends to help us in our endeavors as both advisors and assistants is a valuable skill that serves us as well on the skin track as it does when we struggle through the various deep snowdrifts of everyday life that society throws at us.

Breaking trail – like life – can be a humbling experience.  There have been a few times when I’ve struggled uphill and found myself inexplicably not only not working with the terrain, but actually getting beaten by the terrain.   It’s one thing to go flat for a ways to get around an obstacle or even go downhill a little due to an earlier choice, but I’ve actually fully bailed; ripping my skins for a complete descent or awkwardly dundering too far downward with my skins still on, frustrated and humbled by the natural forest forces that seem to have conspired against me.

But like those times in life when I’ve admitted defeat and recognized that I needed to start over, or I’ve accepted my pards’ advice to zig when I thought I should zag, ultimately I’ve buupward through the hills toachieve my goals of a better run…..and a better life.

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Tom Diegel

What innovation would you (realistically) like to see that might be beneficial to backcountry skiing?

I very much love my thermos of tea (and consider it to be a bit of a safety feature for its warming capabilities), and I think I would also love a “food thermos” so I could enjoy hot snacks and sammies while ogling my nice tracks.

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