Whenever us gear junkies acquire a new toy we are always extremely excited to use it. Our eagerness can outweigh such influential factors as weather and commonsense. I once knew a hiker who wore a Patagonia rain jacket while approaching a desert tower in the heat of summer. I’ve known mountaineers who brought their ice axes on a rock climb. I even knew a rock climber who carried his new #5 Camalot on a sport route. These people, myself included, suffer from an obsession that might easily be described as pathetic, but there is actually a very tangible reason for this obsession.
Freya recently made the most expensive gear purchase of her life in acquiring a Prior Brandywine splitboard. Her justification was valid: she needed the board for a backcountry ski expedition to Mount Anderson. She also reasoned that using the board, as opposed to cumbersome snowshoes, would allow her to carry more camera equipment and move faster on the slopes, thus making it possible to capture better images and further her career as a photographer. It’s hard to argue with that. Still, none of these excuses were sufficient in explaining her overwhelming desire to try out the new board, no matter the conditions.
The Olympic Mountains had been free of storms for weeks and the thin snow that remained was as hard as tile flooring. Both Freya and I had been watching the weather report like seagulls trailing a fishing boat and we had spotted nothing but too-warm temperatures and annoying rain, so when a cold front dusted the slopes with a few inches of soft stuff Freya loaded the car. The first thing in the trunk was her splitboard.
We drove on stomachs full of six-grain cereal and dodged retirement homers out for their morning coffee. It was obvious that a storm had passed because the nearby hills were stained white; the snowline was close and low. We stopped at the visitor center in Port Angeles. She asked the rangers about new snow. They said 2”-4” and more falling presently. Our tire tracks were the third set on the winding road. Everyone knew the snow would be terrible today. What were we doing here?
Maybe we can find some wind-loaded slopes, ski some slabs like we’d never do on a deep day. Maybe we should just practice with our avalanche beacons. Practice digging in the ice. But Freya was already carrying her two short skis to the roadside gauge where the skin track usually starts. There was no skin track though, which meant there was enough new snow to cover a weeks worth of indentations. I test the fresh layer with my pole and quickly strike ice. Maybe it’s deeper at the top.
“Will you just relax! It’s going to take me a bit longer the first time,” Freya is turning her two short skis into one fat board.
“I know, I know, but it looks good. I just want to ski it,” I say, peering down the seamless slope.
“This is why we are here today, remember? So I can get the hang of this board.”
“Ok…take your time.”
She scowls affectionately at me and continues with her transition. She is right, of course, and she has touched on a possible answer to the question of why gearheads are so obsessed with trying out their new stuff. It’s because they (we) want to learn how to use it. Before embarking on an epic adventure it’s important to trust your gear and the best way to build trust is to perform tests. Believe it or not, tests can be fun.
The snow is like a layer of frosting on a frozen cake. My skis dig through the frosting and grind the hard cake, but the frosting is deep enough to be fun. Freya glides effortlessly on the surface, screaming wahoooo! with delight as she twists her back end across a cornice and sends a brilliant roostertail of powder into the sky; it sparkles in the golden light. There will be no beacon practice today. Today we’re going to run test after test after test.
The only other people we see are people we know: Steve and Kerry from the Wildernest. Aren’t small worlds great! They are snowshoeing, which means the powder lines are for Freya and I alone. We carve the slope like a Thanksgiving turkey. Succulent skin falls away to reveal the moist flesh beneath.
But no matter how much I devour, I’m never satisfied. I guess it’s a good thing. I’ll always want to come back for more. Freya and I return to the parking lot with spent legs and smiles that gleam like the sun setting on the mountains above us.
“Did you like your board?”
“Yeah! I love it!”
“You think it’ll be good for the Anderson trip?”
“Yeah, but I need to run more tests. Can we come back again tomorrow?” she asks, sending a furtive glance at the crystalline facets that glimmer seductively in the twilight.