A Trip With the Pros

 

Photos by Chris Brown

 

There are some who dream of winning the lottery. The surplus of money is enticing, and people imagine buying the life experiences they might have lacked. Last April I won a type of lottery too; it started with a text message invite, and the big win of my winter began to line up.

It was an invitation for my husband and me to join a group at a yurt in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.  And I understand because the location of the yurt requires the ability to assess avalanche conditions, terrain, and changing weather conditions. With a single AIARE 1 class, my knowledge was not what the group needed. My husband, Chris is an avalanche educator and backcountry ski guide who has far more insight and ability to offer in a backcountry yurt setting. I initially mentioned the invite in passing, already anticipating that he would say no. To my surprise, upon the first mention of the yurt location, he was an adamant yes.

Several factors played into the creation of a once in a lifetime experience for the group and myself. The first piece being the group dynamic, there were nine of us, and six individuals worked as avalanche forecasters, educators, or backcountry ski guides. Access to steep couloirs and enormous mountainous terrain surround the yurt location. Where we stayed in the Sawtooths, we found freedom from the looming persistent slab problem that cursed the Wasatch last winter and received a blessing of fresh snow almost daily. Finally, the luxurious accommodations of the backcountry yurt provided a space for rejuvenation that was warm and comfortable.

Going on a vacation with pros is a spectacular opportunity. The group of well-versed avalanche forecasters and avalanche educators conducted lengthy and frequent conversations about changing snow conditions, weather, aspects that were safe, and where to find the best snow. I had little or nothing to add to the in-depth, science-based conversations. I would listen, try to understand, and smile and nod at times. From the discussions, it was apparent that the professionals in the group felt comfortable navigating these conditions. I took the backseat. Probably what it feels like to be a client at a swanky backcountry yurt. I need not question the well-informed decisions of the group. When the consensus came to where riding was safe, I didn’t doubt.

Beyond being professionals in the backcountry field, the group dynamic was infectious confidence and general psych! Each member of the group had assurance in their skills and approached the steep and intimidating terrain with a well-informed and almost casual air. It was understood the couloirs, and steep slopes we were riding were no fall zones. To say we didn’t take it seriously would be false. The faith in riding skills, terrain management ability, and group dynamic gave me a sense of courage.

The first day we hiked some five miles in and gained nearly 3,000 vertical feet, which was not much for the pros but was an already enormous amount for me. After we settled into the yurt, the group decided to take a walk up the hill above the yurt that leads to all sorts of terrain access. The mountain is an additional 1,500 vert, and I was last in the ascent and exhausted. At the top of the “access hill” a ridge is gained, and from either side of the ridge there are steep, high consequence runs that reach into two basins crowned with gullies, couloirs, and slopes. The only mellow way down “access hill” is back out the skin track. It would have been easy for me to let butterflies and uncertainty bring me back down the skin path. Peer pressure at its finest. The group accepted and knew that we were riding areas that you don’t fall in. Each person queued up and took the run of their choice descending with exuberant smiles and uncapped excitement. Chris stayed with me, and we were of the last to descend, while our line was not the gnarliest it was still an intimidating and steep. As I descended the confidence and aspirations for the next four days were set. I made it down, and the team was kind enough to give mecompliments. I gazed up at the line we descended with disbelief. Questioning Chris, “Did we really just ride that?”

The next four days the group organically evolved into a perfect support unit. We would ascend “access hill” as one large group or in smaller parties. On the ridge, discussions would take place, which I often missed due to my much slower uphill pace. Before riding into the basin of choice, Chris would fill me in on the group plan. The huge basins were the bases for a multitude of inviting couloirs and long runs. Sometimes the group would meet in the basin and discuss which of the many runs each smaller party would take. For the professionals in our group riding this type of terrain was more commonplace. For me, I would never dream of approaching runs where in-depth knowledge and tools are necessary on my own. My most exciting riding experiences before the yurt were always with Chris who kindly took me with him and although I despise the “client” role, in a backcountry snow environment I often have about as much to offer as a client. When I backcountry ski with friends who are not professionals my approach is painstakingly cautious.

The amazing thing was I never felt like an outsider or “client” with our Sawtooth group. I was treated as a valuable member, even though I didn’t have much to offer in the realm of instigating safe travel and assessing safe snow. What I received was access to life-changing runs.

During the ascent and at the top of various couloirs and runs I was gripped with fear. Not so much about the skiing, but about the transitions. Moving from skinning to ski crampons, ski crampons to boot crampons and ice ax, and finally the significant change from skis to a snowboard. Each switch the severity of keeping my gear from sliding away was oppressive. The run where I sobbed tears of joy at the bottom was the scariest transition. At the top Chris provided emotional support and there were a few thin branches to give me physical support as I turned my skis into a snowboard. One slip would have been disastrous for there was no possible way I could walk down the slope. There was no possibility I would descend with my board in split mode. The moment my snowboard was on my feet, and my backpack was on my back the slope was inviting. The 2,000-foot run delivered some of the best snow and adrenaline I have ever experienced.

Adrenaline pumping, whoop extracting, phenomenal runs became the norm. For five days thanks to my friends, I pushed my limits with the highest amount of vert and mileage on my backcountry ski resume. I wasn’t the only one pushing boundaries. One member of our party skied back to town to skin up with beer replenishments only after riding an iconic line that requires almost a full day to access and ski. We were all exploring new possibilities and pushing physical limits in our own ways. The fatigue and need for recovery each evening made the yurt an incredible luxury.

The yurts included thick sleeping pads, down booties, cleaning supplies and of highest extravagance a wood-burning sauna. The two yurts equipped with wood-fired stoves allowed for effortless snow melting to make water and dry our clothes out each evening. The kitchen was warm and fully furnished with a gas stove, cutlery, utensils, and pots and pans. We divided meals into small groups so that each person was part of a team responsible for one breakfast and one dinner. Cumulatively we paid for three separate porter loads of 50 pounds. Thanks to the painstaking work of the porters, cold beer and gourmet hot meals were a part of everyday yurt living.

Luckily our unit had no significant injuries. I obtained a multitude of blisters on sensitive scar tissue from a series of surgeries when I was 16 and 17. While the reconstruction of my tibia and fibula via a bone graft, muscle graft, and skin graft have left me with the ability to walk, snowboard, rock climb, and partake in a slew of exciting activities the scar from my old accident remains. The scar tissue covers about eight square inches on my right shin, and during the initial skin to the yurt, blisters began to form. Despite using duct tape, medical tape, and a series of first aid supplies the blisters on the delicate scar tissue continued to get deeper, redder, and more intimidating. The yurt gave me a protected place to doctor up the blisters and the group provided moral support, medical advice, and genuine concern, which allowed me to continue to ride and play despite the pain. I believe the accommodations of the yurt with access to warmth and hot water prevented the situation from becoming dire in the wilderness.

My account of life-changing backcountry riding is a thank you to the people who were at the Sawtooth Yurt. You treated me like a friend and not a client. I could not have dreamed of riding the type of terrain and couloirs that we did together. I would not have known how to navigate the vast mountains in a safe and well-informed way. I did not have the confidence to ascend and descend the intimating slopes on my own. For me, this yurt trip will always remain a treasure of memories. I can think back to riding and trigger the same sense of adrenaline, pure joy, and comradeship. I hope that we can ride together again!

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