“You are drinking from my body.”
I immediately unclenched my teeth from a bite valve, connected to a hydration hose, connected to my touring partner. We had just finished a summit skin to a Utah peak, but I ran out of water halfway into the hike. So when we reached the top, I asked my friend if he had any water to share. With a smirk, he offered the business-end of his pack’s water line. I hesitated due to the connotation of sucking on my male-friend’s hose, but I was thirsty and drank deep. Upon my second round of suckling, he looked me deadpan in the face and said it again: “You are drinking from my body.”
Unable to control my laughter, I spit water onto the snow and skied away. Between chuckles, we enjoyed a perma-smile descent together. Turning down the fall line, I mused about how in the backcountry, we must rely on each other; whether for safety from avalanches, injury, or even sexually suggestive thirst-quenching. I also decided to purchase a bigger water bottle.
Connection to touring partners is key when traveling through mountains. On that day, my buddy’s hydration hose was a tangible connection that saved me from dehydration. But generally speaking, backcountry skiing is a shared experience made possible by connections that are more subtle, and can save us from far worse.
Death. I’m talking about death.
Whether by primal vocalizations, wearing avalanche transceivers, or casting meaningful glances at each other (hopefully not of the “oh shit” variety), when it comes down to living or dying in the mountains, we essentially must be bound to each other in some way.
Beacons are the obvious example to my poorly thought-out connections metaphor. When surrounded by multiple backcountry partners doing signal checks, I visualize strong ropes weaving between us. My signal reaches out and connects to the beacon of everyone in the group, and theirs does the same to mine. When all beacons are in transmit mode, we are bound by an invisible tangle. But I fear that instead of ropes, those threads are actually more like a web of shimmering spider’s silk, fragile enough to dissolve under the weight of morning dew. Or, in the case of my beacon metaphor, the collapse of a slab above facets. Ideally, it’s best not to rely on beacons for that connection, because if you have to use one, it means you’ve already made a humongous mistake.
Communication is the most important connection we can make in the backcountry. All we have to do is use the pipes that nature gave us. When we’re in the skintrack, it’s easy to simply talk to our touring partners to get a read on how they’re feeling. Taking a break to assess the conditions, weather, and everyone’s physical and mental health before continuing on is vital to enjoying a safe powder day. But how do we continue this good communication habit when we are skiing, one at a time, down the mountain? These days, two-way-radios are the ticket. And it seems that nearly every skier in the Wasatch is sprouting a coiled, BCA radio cable from their pack. It’s cool technology, but it can also be freaking annoying.
Cross chatter on the radio is common. Just when you think you’ve found a channel nobody is using, half way through a tour someone at a nearby ski resort inevitably blasts their static, disembodied voice from your unit. It’s usually kids talking to their family about where to meet for lunch, or what run to ski next. Around my touring parts in the Wasatch, this is to be expected since several resorts are within range. But one recent tour tested my walkie-talkie patience with a broadcast from the concrete grid of the Salt Lake Valley, 20 miles and thousands of vertical feet below.
I was boot-packing up a steep slope with ice-axe in hand and crampons on my Scarpas. As I wavered on the thin edge, kicking steps in ice and worrying about a slide-for-life, in comes a transmission on what I thought was an obscure sub-channel. From what I could glean, it sounded like a young couple driving in separate vehicles down I-15. The wife was in a car, following her husband who was driving a moving van. As I focused on not losing my tenuous grip on the morning’s spring crust, all I could hear was a marital spat about what exit they should take. Too afraid to let go of my axe handle to turn the radio off, I resigned myself to eavesdropping on the incessant back-and-forth of what sounded like the soon-to-be-divorced.
Since then, I often “forget my radio at home” when leaving for a tour. As a result, my amigos and I have reacquainted ourselves with whooping in the woods (not to be confused with whoo-whooing in the woods while skiing powder.) This is our original form of backcountry communication. It is most commonly employed when we no longer have a visual on our partners, usually when tree skiing.
Whooping in the woods communicates only one thing: I’m here, I’m okay, and you better answer me back so I know you’re okay too. What’s amusing about this form of vocal transmission is every skier has their own way of announcing their presence. Like a duck hunter who can tell the difference between a mallard and a merganser just by their quacking, I can pick out individual touring buddies lost among the aspens based solely on their hollering.
There’s the standard whoop, the hey-o, the classic yodele hee hoo, and of the course the primal scream (not recommended on high avy-danger days.) As a skier crippled by social anxiety, my go-to is a cross between an unobtrusive yelp and a heaving babble tinged with a dose of vocal fry. When my kitten-like death rattle fails to announce my presence, I fall back on just clinking my poles together.
The cliché is true – backcountry skiers are a tribe. And while communication and connection has improved thanks to technology, it’s that unique language of the mountains that really makes me feel bonded with my fellow hardshell-clad humans.
And as a fellow member of said tribe, if you ever run out of water on a tour and I present my hydration hose, be prepared for me deadpan that you are drinking from my body.