Sweeney says this is one of the two worst snow seasons he’s seen in 40 years of ski-bumming. Sweeney is utterly reliable about these sorts of assessments. It started out okay, but now I haven’t been Nordic skiing in about three weeks. And I haven’t been at the resort at all. Last year, also a bad snow year, I had been skiing about 25 times by now.
Who knows? Maybe by going light this year I will extend my skiing deeper into the twilight years. Could be a good thing. Besides, last year I skied well into June, so potentially there is a lot of skiing ahead of us.
Usually I read ski magazines before the ski season, or after. Usually not in February, like now. I’m looking at Powder from December '13. There’s an incredible shot of Mount Barille in the Ruth Gorge by Garrett Grove. It looks enormous through his lens, but when you’re actually there it’s just about the smallest peak around. His photo shows the northern side of the mountain and it looks pretty broken up by crevasses right about at the spot we were trying to ascend the thing back in 2001. It wasn’t crevasses that turned us back though—it was the deep sugary snow that we’d sink into as soon as we took our skis off. It was like that everywhere we went in the Ruth and the trip turned into an exotic ski tour. I wonder if I’ll get back there; the flight in has more than doubled in price in the decade plus since. What a glorious place. I mis-typed place as palace, and yes, that’s good, too: a glorious palace.
There’s a short Neil Stebbins piece about hearing riding a chairlift and hearing a mother and daughter four or five chairs ahead singing Waltzing Matilda out there in a whiteout, in The Church of the Ascension. And I remember one time very early in my climbing life when John and I were attempting Mt Washington on a col cold winter day. We stopped for the night in a hut and we were cold to the brink of fear. We began singing Waltzing Matilda, god knows why. We were singing to hold off the cold. It goes without saying that we were utterly alone. We turned back the next morning. A couple days later I soloed Mt Lafayette, the summit of which, decades later, Guy Waterman would choose for his final breaths on the planet—a deeply sad and moving story (see Chip Brown’s excellent Good Morning, Midnight for a well-wrought bio of this complex man).
Then, still the same issue of Powder, there is Porter Fox’s excerpt from his book on the future of snow. One of the pictures is of the classic north face of the Tour Ronde above Chamonix and I remember the summer of 1980 when I first climbed there. A roped party had fallen high on the face and flossed off another party. Six fatalities, as I recall. After a weak attempt on the Brenva Route on Mt Blanc, John and I found ourselves on the ridge to the summit of the Tour Ronde. After after tagging it we trudged back down and then back up to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi to catch the last telepherique down to Chamonix. One of the longest days ever: full value.
Further in to the same issue I am reading about Arne Backstrom’s fall on skis on Pisco in the Cordillera Blanca. When I climbed it, in 1984 with Jim Pinter-Lucke, we were just going up the west ridge as a warm-up climb. We had gained the ridge from the north. I never laid eyes on the south face, and can’t really even picture it. In fact, most of our summit day was lost in a whiteout, although the summit was unmistakable. I am saddened to think of Arne’s death in such a lonely place, but also, glad once again for my good fortune in the mountains.
It’s getting on toward 30 days without snow, unless you count the half-inch we got last week, which I don’t. At least it’s cold again. And we’re still getting up into the Chugach, but we’re hiking up in crampons and walking down boiler-plated snow, glare ice, and rock (that photo is the snowless summit of Flattop in the photo from yesterday 2/09/14). And, there’s Sweeney leaving text messages: he still knows where there’s still a skiable line.