Unbuckling the Chastity Belt, or How I lost my Backcountry Innocence

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 23, 2010      

I’ve got a lot of deeply buried content here on Wildsnow. One of my ongoing projects is to port all the good old stuff to blog posts so they index correctly and are wrapped by the blog design rather than dated page templates. Here is one I thought you guys might enjoy. Was published in”Couloir Magazine” way back when, and been hidden away here for a while.

When did you loose your virginity? I’ll tell you my story if you’ll tell me yours….

At 14-years-old, I didn’t know wild snow was in my future any more than when I’d get married, have kids, or file my first tax return. It was the winter of 1966-67, and the previous summer I’d attended a mountaineering summer camp known as the Ashcrofters near Aspen, Colorado. It was there I learned the rudiments of backpacking and climbing – the tinder that kindled a fire that’s seared my life for more than four decades.

Our family lived near Aspen at the time. My father, who’d experienced a short stint with the 10th Mountain Division during WWII, had mounted up an old pair of Army planks for a few sojourns out our back door in the Castle Creek valley. With a bit of hammering and tweaking I’d stuffed my hiking boots in his cable bindings and used nordic wax for rabbit hunting and general exploring in the meadows and forests near our home.

Though a body of knowledge existed for backcountry skiing, I was clueless (or too embarrassed to ask the nordic racing gods in high school). Wax, for example, was a mystery. Gluey klister seemed to work best because of its grip. I overlooked the fact that such wax had the glide of Velcro on Colorado’s mid-winter snow.

One place the Ashcrofters had taken our group of rowdy boys that past summer was Conundrum Hot Springs, a sublime geothermal pool buried deep in the Colorado wilderness. After a few ski trips near my home, something in my soul made me want to go higher, farther – into the mystery mountains of winter. And what other place than Conundrum as a logical destination?

Ignorance was my bliss – or at least a comfortable fuzzy feeling. I didn’t know that Conundrum Valley had about 200 major avalanche chutes aimed at the ski route. Local backcountry skiers considered it a winter death trap, untouchable till the snow melted to spring runoff and ran a safe distance down the Colorado River.

In my Kelty framepack went a small tarp, a cookpot and food, matches, and a warm down sleeping bag. Add a sack of wax and two wool sweaters, and I was ready.

Or so I thought.

Breaking trail with a heavy pack for more than a few miles was desperate for my young untuned body. Naturally I’d waxed the skis with klister, and the plodding pace made it that much easier for huge stilt-like wads of snow to build up on my ski bottoms. My wax worked better as the summer trail led me over a few warm southeasterly slopes; but that route also crossed a number of huge slide paths. I’d heard a little about avalanches, even seen a few springtime gully washers on the mountainside behind our house; but with knowledge as faint as the mountain air my lungs panted for, denial was easy.

The mountain’s big guns held their silence. Through several steep sided gullies I skied, with the mandatory pack-over-the-head hinged toe fall auguring me like a cork in the crease of one ravine. These days, with my fear of snowslides, if I fell in such a place I’d die of fright before an avalanche could take me.

The warm January sun flogged me like a bullwhip. Soon I wore twenty pounds of wet wool. Sweat stung my eyes. I felt like I’d been skiing in a steam room for three hours. Respite came when the trail led back to more wintry climes on the valley floor. But I immediately lost the trail-cut. Dark timber choked with heinous deadfall blocked my way, but something kept me moving forward. Climbing over hundreds of logs, sniffing tree-wells and ducking branches did me in. I threw my pack down, stomped out a place in the snow, and prepared for a night out.

My plan was to melt snow and boil water on a fire. Of course I didn’t have a shovel to dig a decent fire pit down to solid ground…and I didn’t know the trick of fire building on a nest of large logs. Instead, I kindled a few twigs on the snow, placed my pot on the flames, and watched as the fire dug a quick tunnel until I was reaching for it down a small hole the length of my arm. Slurping a pot of lukewarm melted snow, I gave up on that routine. Being alone was getting to me as well. I felt isolated, even fearful of unknown bogeymen and demons. The moon had yet to rise, and the dark forest exuded an unearthly silence that only the winter woods can speak.

I made a sort of half-shelter with my tarp, laid out my bag, and lay wide-eyed in the wilderness. My dad’s new Holubar bag was warm, but I stayed awake in fitful contemplation as my thoughts ranged through the teen-aged angst of my life. As moonglow brightened to the east over Highland Ridge, I dozed, then woke with a glorious orb drilling my eyes. That crisp moon was so beautiful, so sublime, so utterly perfect, that it ordered my thoughts and gentled me into a deep rest till morning. Luckily the weather held.

After a cold breakfast and no water, I flipped my front-throws and turned towards the head of the valley. Finding the summer trail passage through the forest was not even a concept. I plodded over thousands of deadfall trees, all the while lifting my twelve pound snow caked planks like a man walking though a field of dog poop. Scuffing and swearing, every few feet I made a futile attempt to remove the cursed substance. No luck. I wore the lead boots to the end.

An old cabin still exists near the springs, and back in the days of my trip it was in decent shape, replete with a wood-stove, glass windows, a roof that only leaked when it rained. I stumbled in the door just before dark. Kindling the woodstove was easy after I realized that ski wax was flammable. That used most of the wax in my bag; and I was not, after previous experience, a huge fan of the stuff. With the stove glowing red, I held the bases of my skis an inch from the sizzling metal and melted the klister off inch-by-inch. After I used it to sop up all the gooey stuff, my wax bag was the last thing to feed the flame.

Next goal: the hot springs a few hundred yards above the cabin. As I danced out of my damp wool an icy timberline breeze nipped every body part. I slipped into the springs. Ecstasy! What in life could be better than this? Then, as the moon rose over a 14,000-foot peak next to the pool, my destiny was etched in that blissful moment. I’d ski the wild snow. I’d go up the high peaks. I’d get a pair of climbing skins (and leave the klister at home.) And many many years later I’d start paying taxes.



18 Responses to “Unbuckling the Chastity Belt, or How I lost my Backcountry Innocence”

  1. JD in SLC September 23rd, 2010 8:18 am

    Beautiful piece Lou, a real winner for a guy like me who has only recently been introduced to the Wild Snow.
    I will always remember my unstrapping of the chastity belt: a 4:00 AM dawn patrol up Big Cottonwood Canyon, hiking in twilight through aspen groves, breaking open to a huge bowl, and gaining the ridge as the alpenglow lit up the decent.
    Then the turns through deep, fluffy Utah snow were complete euphoria and I was hooked.
    Cheers to you for following your passion, and sharing that enthusiasm with the rest of us!

  2. Patrick Odenbeck September 23rd, 2010 10:30 am


  3. El Jefe September 23rd, 2010 11:13 am

    excellent Lou…. another great read on WS!

  4. Bill September 23rd, 2010 11:53 am

    That’s a very nicely written and fun piece to read. Pull some more out of the archives for us.

  5. Mark W September 23rd, 2010 3:50 pm

    Great tale. I personally encountered klister wax only once. It was once too many.

  6. Paul September 23rd, 2010 6:23 pm

    Loved your tale and all the memories it brought back, including the description of the klister mess. I loved klister though… in the spring. Messy but it sure scooted on crust and nothing gripped and flew on ice like blue klister! I also remember how simple it was to wax in CO in the winter – blue. All I missed from your great description of heating the skis by the stove was the smell of pine tar.
    I saw the pic of your Fischer Europas in Wild Snow. I moved to Fischer Europas and abandoned pine tar in ’73. I still have those skis and my Kelty frame pack and I am kicking myself to this day for selling my Holubar bag! The Europas once fell off my truck and got run over and one was bent almost 90 degrees. I simply bent it back and was good to go. I didn’t have the 77s so there were no metal edges to have to straighten.
    When I moved to the PNW I was forced to abandoned wax and move to metal edge skis and skins.
    It is a miracle of life that most of us survived the mistakes of our youth. I remember when I felt like if I had an avalanche cord trailing behind me I could go anywhere and I’d be OK. Keep the stories coming and I’ll try and shut up and read!

  7. Lou September 23rd, 2010 8:00 pm

    Paul, thanks!

  8. Caleb September 23rd, 2010 10:24 pm

    Enjoyed that Lou. I thought I was reading Jack London for a second.

  9. CDawson September 24th, 2010 10:28 am

    No words here, just memories, brings those days all back into focus.
    Hopefully that is only a small part of the memoirs you are writing!!!

  10. ChrisCee September 24th, 2010 10:58 am

    Hi Lou- Great blog to read as the equinox passes and the snow gets closer. It sounds like we lost our virginity at about the same time– mine was hiking up the side of Ben Lomond in Ogden with my friend (crush:) Jon when I was a senior in high school in 1978. I had never skiied before that year, but on my friend’s suggestion, I had invested my birthday money in the latest in nordic ski technology: Bonna skis with lignastone edges, and Alpha boots with heel locatorsI We had been spending every weekend of the winter taking Jon’s mom’s Volkswagen squareback wagon as far up into the surrounding canyons as we could, high-centering it in the snow, then getting out and touring wherever looked interesting. I didn’t really know how to ski, but I was strong, and I could pretty much hike anywhere. After a couple of months of this, Jon decided it was time to introduce me to to ski mountaineering. So we headed for the south ridge of Ben Lomond, the big peak that sits at the head of Ogden Valley. This peak dominated the view in the window of our math classroom, and we had been watching it accumulate snow, and plotting ski lines down it, all winter. On this particular Saturday morning the sky was clear and full of ice crystals in the wake of a storm the night before. We put our skis on and elected to head up a little bowl towards the ridge. We were on skis, we were on a mountain, we were ski mountaineering! I had never downhill skiied before, but I was strong and I could climb, so how hard could it be to go downhill? As we labored up from the trailhead in ascending zigzags, trying to get our blue wax to stick to the snow (blue was what the wax chart prescribed for that temperature, we just didn’t know that the charts didn’t anticipate climbing straight uphill), we commented about the cracks in the snow that were shooting ahead of our skis, and the odd whumping noise and elevator drop feeling of the snow collapsing under us– completely oblivious to what that meant. When I think back on that day, I’ve often marvelled that the beginning and end of my backcountry career didn’t occur on the same day! We finally got to the ridge, where the sun was warm, the wind was calm, and the Great Salt Lake and the town of Ogden spread out in one direction, and parts of three states spread out in the others. No one was there but us, it was completely silent, and a couple of ravens swooshed along the bowl beneath us, riding the thermals coming up the slope. I was in love. We nibbled on our cheese and Kendall’s mint cake (ordered via mail order from this little hippie-climber co-op place in Seattle called “REI”) then started down for the fun part. Route selection was straightforward– here we are, there’s the slope, and let’s go. The fact that it was one in the afternoon on a west face with new spring snow (along with the shooting cracks)? Not a factor in our consideration– down we went. Whereupon I discovered that yes, there IS a trick to getting back down a hill on skis, but I just didn’t know it yet. I was the girl-who-fell-down-Ben Lomond. After planting myself numerous times head-first downhill, face-down with my pack forcing my upper body deep into the snow, and my outstretched arms and ski poles anchoring me into that position, I finally developed a technique: when you fall, keep on rolling until you’re right side up. THEN stand up and start again. It got me to the bottom, exhausted and dripping with both sweat and melted snow filling my wool clothing from socks to hat. But, in one of those random twists of generosity that fate can occasionally deal out, we were both still alive– that slope never slid. The next year when I went to college, I obtained some downhill skis (with Scott rear-entry boots and Besser Bindings) and took a skiing class. Whereupon I discovered the joys of so many other things, but also discovered that you can’t keep your honors scholarship if you skip school 3 days a week to go ski : ). Now, just after hitting the 50th birthday mark, I am filled with gratitude that I “wasted” so many days of my youth skiing, climbing, biking, and generally being in a fearless (but informed and careful) relationship with the natural world because it means that now I can reap the interest in that investment in time– I can still go out and ski, hike and bike. Maybe not as fast or hard, but old age and experience do count for a lot– I’m still pretty damn efficient at getting up a hill, and being able to flow down like water is the big reward. I’ve been rehabbing from a back injury this summer, with my primary goal being to get strong enough that I can hike myself, my boots and skis, and my pack up to the ridgelines of the Wasatch this winter. I went for a hike last night that was a little discouraging, and I stumbled across your blog post this morning– thanks for the invitation to share my thoughts– it’s the motivation that I needed today. See you in the hills this winter!

  11. Thom Campbell September 24th, 2010 1:10 pm

    I like this idea Lou. For our part, my brother and I headed to the ‘upper 40’ of my father’s 100 or so acres in mid-state NY with 2 WW2 canvas army bags, my brand new Timberline A frame and a very suspect canister stove. Only through my brother’s interventions and inventiveness did we get the fire needed due to the useless paperweight I’d brought for a stove, and my ignorance about keeping gas cannisters warm. I have never used one since, and my brother vowed never to winter camp again, but we were only minutes from home and still chose to stay out the night. My mother still tells the tale, and I still appreciate the memory of my brother getting that fire going, just as I do memories of him sharing the last of his food when we were on short rations later and I’d scarfed the last of my food. Him carving up one small English muffin with pb&j into three parts (there was another miscreant aboard), seated cross-legged on a river bed a dozen miles into the southern drainage of Mt. Marcy in the Adirondacks.

  12. Pete Anzalone September 24th, 2010 1:15 pm

    Great story Lou.
    Too bad about the taxes.

  13. Lou September 24th, 2010 6:10 pm

    Thanks guys. Pete, yeah, bummer.

  14. Lou September 24th, 2010 6:15 pm

    Chris, your post got put in the moderation lineup, sorry about that. I’ll see if I can stick some paragraph breaks in there for you! Or re-write it and post again if you like, and I’ll delete the old one. Remember to write lengthy stuff like that in a word processor then copy/paste as a blog comment. Thanks, Lou

  15. Daniel Dunn September 26th, 2010 8:36 am

    Great story Lou, love your writing, it brought back the innocence or just doing it. Get outside and enjoy! It doesn’t matter the gear you have or the lack of modern luxuries, people have been doing this for a long time and you reminded me of how simple it can really be, Thanks

  16. OMR September 26th, 2010 10:40 pm

    Awesome post Lou. Thanks for sharing.
    I grew up booting and skiing the Wasatch foothills in the mid 70’s, progressivley forced higher and deeper into the range due to development. The higher terrain is still largely untouched by skiers but offering the same world class terrain and snow that the way-over-used tri-canyons posess. Sadly, those foothill runs of my early teen years are now built-out with trophy homes and gated communities. One back yard in this Wally-world slid on me 35 years ago and nearly took me out when I was 13. I wonder if the current owner does control work? I drive the streets periodically to catch views of my old runs that once required hours to access while hiking in my alpine gear, skis on pack. Those home owners ubdoutedly are clueless to the memories held by a few lucky enough to ski those old urban slopes.

  17. Victor September 28th, 2010 11:28 am

    We went skiing on Ptarmigan Pass and Resolution Bowl and just as you had said your Dad was in the 10th Mountain Divisions, that’s near where they train. It was so amazing. When were there last year we stayed in the Bachelor Gulch area at East West Resorts. It was one of the best weeks of my life. Check them out. http://www.eastwestbachelorgulch.com

  18. Dave May 2nd, 2011 2:59 pm

    Love this post! Definitely reminiscent of Jack London. I remember loosing my virginity in a similar fashion when I was Fourteen in a hut behind Crested Butte. This will be my second year going up to Conundrum in the spring for a ski tour. This is the most magical place I have ever visited. I am extremely excited to go back up there next weekend. Check out my post from last year: http://backcountryblogger.blogspot.com/



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  • Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free ski touring news and information here.

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