I feel Rip Van Winkled, as though I went to sleep in late October, and woke up in mid December. My Driver’s License is overdue, and there’s a foot of snow on top of my truck with non-functioning 4wd. Unprepared. Even though my crop is hanging trimmed in the basement, and the garden has been put to bed, the walkways are shoveled and clear with ice melt, the sudden change from from Indian Summer to mid-winter is startling.
Snow in October is nothing new, but here on the valley floor of the Colorado River, it is usually only enough to leave a few spears of yellowed grass sticking through. This storm would have rivaled any of last seasons “big dumps,” leaving behind a blanket thick enough to morph rocks and shrubs from identifiable features to abstract outlines. I know it is not enough to fill in the land mines of downed timber of my usual low-angle haunts, but the the cheatgrass and sagebrush hill behind my house has never looked so inviting.
My head has been in the dirt since February as a trail builder. Aside from a few flickering memories of skinning through crisp winter air in sunlight dappled aspens as relief from the wildfire haze of summer, this is the first my brain has definitively clicked over into analyzing the logistics of ski touring.
Ski bibs have been hanging on a hook all summer, stretching out the elastic, just like I told myself not to do for the past five years. Ski poles hang behind the bibs, base layers are dug out of the recesses of the closet, boots are still sitting on the floor where I left them after the last spring tour, and the ritual begins to feel familiar.
Hand-me-down tele skis with a climbing pattern on the base are an ideal match to the low angles, and low expectations for this mission of exploring the open spaces of sage brush suburbia.
Navigating our terraced hill to the fallen down fence up the hill requires most of my limited bag of uphill skiing tricks: kick turns, side stepping, and duck walking just to gain 40 feet of vertical. Around the elm tree, over the fallen barb wire, traverse the buried water line, and I gain the top of our backyard hill.
Boot-deep powder, unwaxed skis, and bunny slope angles make it a struggle to achieve even two vague turns. But the fact I’m doing it a snow ball throw from our back deck, highlighted against incandescent leaves of fall burning bright as candelabras against the snow is enough to suggest the winters of yore, according to local legend.
The suggestion of a different world, fading and changing even as it becomes visible draws me on, despite the mediocre turns. Exploring, and bushwhacking on two planks is nearly as much of the allure of ski touring to me as powder turns. Since childhood I’ve been crawling through the spaces in the brush barely big enough to fit through, looking for the opening in the branches that isn’t quite there.
Shoulder high sagebrush dumps snow into my unzippered pockets, decaying skeletons of downed cottonwood trees force an ungraceful flailing to avoid the hassle of stepping in and out of bindings. My skis float over the snow that lines the spring tricking out of the hillside, a reminder of the brilliance of winter travel over terrain inaccessible in other seasons.
I connect to the bike path, a welcome respite of level, open ground. Deer tracks and golden cottonwood leaves are the only traces before me on the alabaster carpet, sticking to my unwaxed skis. But it’s only half a mile to the end of the bike path; home is even closer than that. Less than a mile of sub-prime skiing is still worlds better than being housebound.
Through the hallway of cottonwoods, elm, and Russian olive, into the meadow where all division of terrain and trail disappears, except for the path that the deer walk out of habit. Across the meadow, the path joins the paved road — a sheet of black ice. I turn around for the “descent” down the bike path, which rewards me with a handful of glides, and a shallow turn or two.
At the bottom of the hill, I step out of my skis, and begin the always clumsy walk of ski boots on pavement back up to my house. Once home, I shovel snow, enjoying the pragmatism of already being geared up, and warmed up for outside winter chores, while wondering at the magic of this substance that can arrive so quickly, change our world so drastically, then simply evaporate.