Letter From the Editor — 2019 Backcountry Issue

Letter From the Editor — 2019 Backcountry Issue


October 20, 2018

I went ski touring today. An irresistible, primal urge lured me into the Colorado high country and onto my skis during shoulder season. Just a week ago I touched back down in the Rocky Mountains after a ten-day beach trip to Fiji. But as soon as I set foot outside the airport, I felt it.

At curbside pickup, my eyes were drawn to the mountain peaks dusted with powdered sugar, while a noticeably chilled breeze sprang goosebumps from my exposed arms. At home, I threw on a sweatshirt and stood on my back porch, wavering in the unmistakable smell of leaves nearing the end of their annual lease on the trees. And the forecast for that night: snow.

It was time to answer the call, the signal all backcountry skiers know and welcome. It’s an itch that’s existed since the primordial stages of our ski evolution. Since we first felt the wind in our faces and freedom skiing gave us. It’s a need to get out and explore; to see and feel the season develop from the beginning; it’s a need to go.

So I went. I skinned a few miles to the top of Russell Peak in Colorado’s Front Range. It felt good to be gliding, kick-turning and climbing again. I welcomed the familiar burn in my hamstrings and calves and enjoyed the zipping sound of my skins on the snow. The panoramic view of frosted, toothy peaks made my spirit soar. I reveled in the anticipation of the summit. I envisioned the descent.

In the moment, back on the skin track following a summer away, my synapses firing as I traveled through winter in its infancy, I was glad to have made the effort. It was special to be in the mountains wearing their winter coats, after months enjoying their summer dressings.

An hour later, huffing and puffing on a snow-covered jeep road, those fuzzy feelings had fluttered away.

The skiing was bad. The snow was the type that made you question whether you remembered how to ski or not. It was humbling.

I asked myself, “Was it worth it?” All things considered, my answer was a resounding, “Yes.” Reestablishing my backcountry routine; waking up my touring muscles before the season was fully underway; reintroducing myself to the nuances of my gear; it all comes together to form the foundation of my winter. It didn’t matter that the snow was shit, because I was there, and that mattered.

It was a reaffirmation of the loose policy to, “Always go.” Not to be confused with, “Know before you go,” or knowing when to bail on an objective—those are givens. But, it’s a mantra to go see “it” for yourself, whatever “it” may be. After reviewing the contrast between my final backcountry outing of last season and the first of this one, I’ve determined the benefits of going generally outweigh those of not.

Last May, a friend and I planned to climb and ski the Lost Rat Couloir on 14,278-foot Grays Peak. The forecast was iffy, at best. It was pouring rain down low and volatile weather was forecasted up high. Faced with the decision to go or pull the plug, we hesitantly decided on the former.

We drove through pissing rain to meet each other at 3 a.m. at the edge of the Front Range. We were both skeptical as we loaded our gear into his car and saddled up for the ride to the high country. But, an amazing thing happened. As we gained elevation the weather transitioned, first from pouring precipitation to murky fog, and then a brilliant black sky dotted with stars appeared as we exited the highway.
The rest of the day was seamless. Bright blue skies, sunshine and creamed corn-snow highlighted our climb and ski, and we were able to gaze out from the summit at the layer of fog enveloping the lowlands we had started from hours before.

Were we glad we ignored our skepticism and went for it? Damn right.

That’s why, whether there’s sunshine and dreamy spring corn or wretched Styrofoam muck awaiting me, I’m determined to go, because if I don’t, I’ll inevitably ask, “What did I miss?”

This issue of FREESKIER is all about that mindset. It’s an embrace of the call of the wild we all hear from beyond the resort boundaries, resonating from far-off mountaintops and untouched powder gardens. It’s a celebration of the backcountry skier and the wondrous places we travel. And most of all, it’s an invitation.

I encourage you to sit in on an avalanche awareness class and begin building a foundation of snow safety knowledge. Or, pull the trigger on your first touring set-up. Branch out and drive the extra 50 miles to that other zone you’ve always wanted to hit. Be flexible, change your plans to follow the storm of a lifetime. Give yourself the bucket list gift of a heli- or cat-skiing trip. Go for it.

Whatever your motivation, let this be a reminder to go see for yourself—I’ve never been bored by someone with too many stories of adventure to tell.

— Donny O’Neill, Editor-in-Chief

This story originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of FREESKIER (21.3), The Backcountry Issue. Click here to subscribe and receive copies of FREESKIER Magazine delivered right to your doorstep.