Mountain Mumbles

It’s onward and upward, upward, upward for a long solo slog.

The dog wanders out of bed to check on me as I eat breakfast. It’s earlier than usual, and she wags her tail sleepily, wondering what all the fuss is about. I let her out to pee and then gently herd her back to bed.

She’s not invited today. My fat bike is unnaturally heavy as I clunk it out the front door and onto the back of the car. The skis strapped to the frame make it unwieldy, and I’m paranoid that they stick out too far from the sides of the Subaru; that they’re going to catch on a tree as I navigate the potholed road to the trailhead.

I’m a little nervous. I haven’t gone for a long, solo winter walk in years, and back when I adventured alone more regularly I found myself in more unpleasant situations than I liked. I have to calm myself, remind myself that I’ve come a long way from that windy afternoon that I almost fell off the side of Mount Hood. It’s always in the back of my mind, though. The dumb kid, too far up the Pearly Gates to bail, no crampons, no shirt under my camo duck-hunting bibs, my too-long skis catching every errant gust as I shivered and sun burnt, wishing I’d had a partner to tell me to wear a shirt and bring crampons, and wait until the ice softened a little.

This time my objective is a little simpler, though. I’m not trying to summit anything, there’s no mountain I want to stand on top of. I just want to watch the sun rise in the mountains and get tired. Maybe I’ll get a little information on some lines I want to ski later.

I slip my ski boots on and put my headphones in. No music today. I have hours of J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” instead. It’s pitch black other than my headlamp’s beam as I pedal out of the lot. Four miles of flat. An hour of audio book. Maybe I’ll get to the part with the black rider.

It’s still dark when I stash the bike behind the wilderness boundary sign and switch to skis. Two and a half more miles of flat skinning. I pop out of the trees and stow my headlamp. The hobbits are dealing with a carnivorous willow as the first rays of sunlight paint the mountains pink.

I’ve traveled just over 6 miles when I finally have to take my headphones out and pause the audiobook. I made a rule with myself that I won’t wear headphones in anything remotely resembling avalanche terrain. There’s a lot of reasoning behind that, some valid, some imagined. Mostly, though, if I am going to slide to my demise, I’d rather not have the body recovery team find my headphones still in, pumping classic fantasy literature into the snowpack.

I followed an errant deer’s tracks up to this point; now they dive into the deep brush. I stick to the ridge instead, stacking inelegant kick turns, probing for the wind slab I know is lurking. I can see the top when I have to switch to boot packing. The last few hundred yards are just too steep to skin, so I sink waist deep, throwing my skis ahead of me with each step to create and anchor to pull myself up. I work my way from shallow rock outcropping to shallow rock outcropping, grunting and scrambling, ducking into the snow as each gust of wind rips spindrift down on me. Somewhere on Teton Pass my partner is skiing pow, dozens of my friends are skinning and hiking for perfectly reasonable laps that involve plenty of sweet, soft turns, and a minimum of the bushwhacking I’ve been doing.

I’ve been out here for five hours so far, and I’m toiling hard. Not suffering, because suffering isn’t something privileged people do to themselves, but toiling, because toiling is hard work. Frodo suffers because he’s sacrificing himself to save Middle Earth. If you’re skinning so that you can throw the One Ring to Rule Them All in a volcano you get to use the word suffering. Otherwise, suck it up.

Finally I break out the top and the headphones go back in. Tom Bombadil is dancing through the woods in his yellow boots as I skin the plateau to the base of the line I have in mind. It’s not filled in yet, the choke still has a big cliffy section and the wind slab is obviously touchy.

The weather is turning, a dark cloud falls over Gondor and I pivot to ski back to the car. I make 14 turns. I count them. The first two are terrible, firm wind crust. The next 12 are perfect, deep, soft powder. Then it’s time to shuffle the 2 1/2 miles back to the bike, and ride the last 4 back to the car.

The Nordic skiers on the road out are confused, they don’t understand why I have both a bike and skis. I’m too close to bonking to care though, so I compliment them on their cute dogs and toil on.

At home the dog is worried, but she’s always worried about me, even if I just left her to use the bathroom. I’m fried, sore from both the ski and the bike, exhausted and wind burnt. So I flop on the couch. “Lord of the Rings” is on Netflix.

Cy Whitling writes every other week on living and playing in the mountains. Contact him via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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