There is no snow at the trailhead. In fact, there is no snow for the first 3 miles—only ice and slush—so we have to carry our skis and boots. Strapped to the sides of my pack, tips meeting above my head, the skis make an awkward load. Joss and I are already tall, but the skis make us taller; they catch on high branches as we hike. A particularly robust limb nearly tosses me to the ground when I try to force the skis through it. Leverage overpowers my legs. I crawl beneath the branch, cursing under my breath. I hope the skiing is worth all this trouble.
The snow gets deep about two miles from Marmot Pass. My skins are brand new and they produce excellent traction. We leave magic carpet tracks in the powder. Our tracks are the only human sign in miles of wilderness and I know why: these slopes are too remote. Hours of driving, miles of hiking, a thousand vertical feet of skinning makes Marmot Pass an improbable day-trip destination. To really enjoy the U-shaped valleys and eggshell basins you must have at least a night or two at your disposal. We only have a few more hours. We have worked our asses off getting this far. My baselayer is soaked with sweat and my thighs are throbbing with every heartbeat. We better climb this hill and find one amazing run. We only have time for one amazing run.
Switchbacking through trees up steep terrain to the base of crumbly basalt, we find our line. An open gulley filled with fresh flakes, a bowl like one giant halfpipe runs 600-feet before it crosses our carpet tracks. There are no rocks, no trees, no obstacles in the gulley. There is only deep, untouched Northwest powder. Of course, the powder itself is the most dangerous obstacle of all.
Joss and I carry one shovel between us. We have neither beacons, nor probes, nor avalungs. We have almost no backcountry ski experience and the little experience we do have is on spring slopes. This heavy powder is something entirely different and I am feeling a bit apprehensive when we traverse to the top of the gulley and look down. Honestly, I am more than apprehensive; I am actually quite scared. I know that there are many ways this could go wrong. I know that we are far from any help and that if one of us gets buried in an avalanche, we are pretty much screwed. Still, the snow seems stable. There haven’t been any heavy snowfalls in the last week, which has given the powder a chance to settle. Besides, as Joss reminds me, there is only one way down.
He wants the first tracks, which is fine with me since I feel more like digging than getting dug out. I stand with skis, poles and shovel ready on the edge of the gulley. He points downhill and carves out the first rewarding turns of our tiresome day. Nothing fractures; nothing cascades; there are no avalanches. He stops halfway down the gulley and waits for me on the edge.
I follow his line into the open snow and then find my own fresh turns. I feel like I am floating. The snow is soft yet it is also dense; it holds me up, letting me glide and ricochet through corners without effort. As I am skiing, everything else disappears behind a veil of cold flakes. I forget the hours of driving and miles of hiking. I forget my fears. I release this baggage and it falls off me into the snow, where I leave it buried.
Unfortunately, the moment lasts only for a few seconds. I slide horizontal and meet our carpet tracks. The run is over and now there is more hiking and driving ahead of us.
Do I think it was worth it for one short run? To ask, Was it worth it? is to imply a prerequisite hardship, an obstacle to overcome before enjoyment can be attained. I realize that I can look at things differently. On the path to enjoyment there are challenges that add depth and power to the experience itself. The driving, hiking and apprehension have made those few beautiful turns so much sweeter. Instead of asking, Was it worth it? I should be asking, Wasn’t that single run the most memorable you’ve ever had? And I can say with honesty that it is.