My birthday fell on a rather auspicious date this year—1/11/11—and I felt the need to celebrate it in style. I imagine that my idea of a stylish birthday celebration is quite different than most. Some folks wish for a big party in a decorated room and to drink the night away, reminiscing the merriment of moments past until blown-out candles signal age passing on. Others might desire heaps of colorful presents and too-sweet layers of food. My greatest desire, however, was to ski powder. So for my birthday I decided to suffer amongst hibernating bears and frozen squirrels on an overnighter near Hurricane Ridge.
The ranger looked at us skeptically, but when we reasserted our intent he began filling out the paperwork. Our packs were loaded full. It’s amazing how much gear it takes to be comfortable in 20-degree temperatures.
“It looks like you’re going for a week,” one ranger said, “Isn’t winter camping fun!”
With the expectation of clear skies, Freya brought two heavy camera lenses, which meant that I was left carrying all the important stuff. As it turned out, the weather at the trailhead was more akin to café con leche than consommé. It didn’t matter though. We were on an adventure.
Freya strapped her snowboard to her feet while I glided down the trail, skins scuffing the firm surface. A few minutes later, Freya zoomed by me with a woot! and disappeared over a foot-stomped convexity. It must have reminded her of her bike racing days, when she was 14-years-old, weighed 90-pounds, and could jet past boys like they were mallards to her F-15. I knew I would catch up to her when the terrain flattened out.
Trees were marshmallow stacks, seamless, lumpy and pure white. Cornices hung from the ridgeline, dripping flurries onto the wind-loaded slopes beneath. My toes were cold from the beginning and I knew they wouldn’t be warm again until we were in the tent. Hours passed like silent minutes lost in memory.
The skin-track broke into a wide basin below steep slopes. The clouds had meandered towards earth with the sun and a thick fog enveloped the upper ridgelines. It was hard to tell what dangerous terrain might be above the basin. After a few minutes of searching for a safe camp location, we settled on a relatively flat bench next to a stand of trees. If an avalanche comes from above, it will probably filter down the deeper gullies around us. That was my reasoning and I was happy to leave its validity untested for a night.
A surprisingly cozy home can be molded from stuff as malleable as snow. Constructing a luxurious winter camp is a natural builder’s dream. I know an old friend who would love cutting blocks from the 80” base and forming a wall around the tent to protect it from the wind. He would probably also enjoy digging countertops and stadium seating—the ultimate fort—but these things take time and there were powder lines to be had.
The light was already failing as we circumambulated the ridge to the basin edge. I was afraid to lose sight of the tent that late in the day, so we took a few soft laps on the inner slopes of our castle. There was 8”-10” of featherweight powder blanketing a layer of rain-hardened crust. The powder was deep enough for playful turns and rooster-tails, and the crust was uniformly solid, which meant there was great control. We rode until the sun was a burnt-out bulb behind a gossamer lampshade.
Our blaring stove broke the night silence. Freya and I played cards and sipped hot chocolate while the snow boiled. We filled our bottles with the scalding water and cradled them against our stomachs or put them at the foot of our sleeping bags. My toes were finally warm. Then we turned the stove off and we were enveloped with a booming silence. Snow muffled even the largest bird’s melody. Have I ever heard silence like this? Frosty breath faded into fuzzy dreams.
Eerily enough, my 26th began in much the same way as my 25th. I awoke in a freezing cold tent in the middle of nowhere surrounded by snow. Last year, I was on the continent of Antarctica and I was sharing a tent with Dave Hahn. This year, I was near Hurricane Ridge and I was sharing a tent with a much more beautiful and cuddly individual. Needless to say, I was overjoyed to see that my tent-mate was not sporting a shaggy beard.
After a quarter century of life I feel like I have learned a thing or two: how to keep melted snow from having that burnt taste; how to keep the stove from melting a hole into the ice; why flossing is important; why to shave using hot water; how to take my socks off without turning them inside out. Yet after so many years spent suffering cold mornings in a tent, I have still been unable to discover a palatable substitute for instant oatmeal. I absolutely hate the stuff, but I invariably find myself having to eat it, like I did on the morning of my 26th birthday. Like always, it was an experience that I would describe as self-imposed torture. I tried not to scream.
But there are few problems that powder skiing can’t fix. We climbed the ridge to the summit of Hurricane Hill, where a strong wind ripped the sweat from my forehead. One of the best ways to stay warm in the snow is to simply keep moving. Pushing ahead, I hid amongst a stand of trees on the southeast side of the hill. From here, fir-funneled glades emptied into a steep river cut 1000-feet below. I stripped my skins.
Jet-skis turn like we did. I imagined my floating boards made ripples in the snow that bounced against the trees and compiled into an inlaid web of reverberations. The vibrations struck my heart. This time I did scream, but from exhilaration. If only that moment could have lasted forever. Every upward step was worth it. The cold feet, hours of boiling snow, carrying heavy loads was worth it too. Freya and I were paintbrushes dragging along a spotless canvas. The swirls and strokes we left were abstract to the untrained eye, but to the careful observer, our marks told a story. The story was about presents and desires, untouched layers and accepted suffering, a rare silence as the candles were blown out and the cheers that followed. It was a story about a birthday.