The calendar says it’s winter, but like much of the country you find yourself wondering if that’s true this year. Here in Pacific Northwest Montana, and points beyond, the cold months typically bring with them cold temps, moisture in the form of snow and rime, and that creates snow ghosts. These rime covered trees look like spirits in the often cloud-enshrouded mountains. The mountains aren’t feeling very haunted this winter.
I’ve felt like a snow ghost myself lately. Less a frequent and physical presence in the backcountry, but more an apparition that occasionally materializes briefly before vanishing again. Changes in my life have affected my access to the mountains in the winter. Between moving, finding new ski partners and having a little girl, you happily make sacrifices to the life you used to live. Having access to a ski resort via a 15 minutes bus ride that picks up 6 blocks from my house has served as quite the distraction as well.
After little more than a couple hut trips and a handfull of tours in the last two winters, I was feeling the need to reappear into the hills and have an adventure. I had this realization at 8:45pm on a Saturday night. Not helpful. Fortunately a well placed text message was well received and by 9pm the group had plans for coffee and departure the following morning.
The next morning we meet, caffeinate, pick a highway East and drive. We have half an hour to decide on a destination still. Maps and the day’s avalanche forecast on-hand for where ever we end up.
I’m often anxious on backcountry tours to get to the top and start skiing. I don’t always appreciate the climb. Heading toward Rescue Creek this day, I thought nothing of it. I was just happy to stretch the legs and chat with friends. The service road and forest trail were behind us in no time, a thousand feet of alder bushes barely phased me. I was just happy with where I’d materialized this day. I was starting to feel grounded here.
This is when I started to feel like a ghost again.
You see, here in Southern “Canada,” on the Eastern border of the Pacific Northwest we have what a Coloradan would call “gray.” This neutral color is known to encompass the entire sky, and often comes down chicken little-style to engulf entire mountains and the valleys surrounding them.
As if to spite the sunglasses we had so hopefully packed, the sky descended, and we began to walk in a white orb. Noah would disappear just 30 yards ahead of me. Erin, Dylan and I hunkered back like Velma, Shaggy and the Scoob. W-w-what was that?!
In all honesty, there were things hiding in the gray to be scared of. We had a couple thousand feet of mountain hanging above us. My brain said natural avalanches were unlikely, but my gut always doubts my brain…and I appreciate that. In the end we rose to the safety of the ridge line saddle.
A short ridge climb further and we reached our objective. Some less exposed trees with well anchored snow. A little exploring in the fog and a pit later showed us what we’d hoped for, a green light to ski. One at a time we pushed off and disappeared, not into overhead blower, but into the gray room. Surfing turns through the trees that faded into and out of view I found a safe spot and radioed for the next person to drop in. I could hear turns being made, that type of snow that almost sounds like sand, but skis like powder. Waiting for a visual I saw a shadow move just 20 yards out. Then nothing. Then the clouds opened a bit and Noah was just below me. This continued. All of us drifting in and out of each others consciousness. Floating through a fine moment in existence.
Another lap, a ski lost and found in the clouds and some surprisingly good willow skiing has us back at the trail. A quick luge run and coast down the service road had us driving back to civilization for burgers and drink leaving the gray behind, until my next visitation…
(Guest blogger profile: Dave Downing, his wife Jessica and daughter Lucy live in Whitefish, MT, where he is a freelance designer and owner of Ovid Nine Graphics Lab. Dave has been told that there is nothing to see in Montana, so please move along.)