Skiing By Instinct



“Nature presides in all her dignity, permitting us the study and the use of such her forces as we may understand. It is when we presume to intimacy, having been granted only tolerance, that the harsh stick falls across our impudent knuckles and we rub the pain, staring upward startled by our ignorance.” –Beryl Markham


We stood staring up the skirt of a harsh morning chute. Her stick was raised, poised to strike our knuckles, to teach us a lifelong lesson. It was a lesson that could have ended our lives. Dawn had hardly broken and one thousand vertical feet of ice and ball bearings loomed overhead. My own skis were strapped to my bag, though it lay impotently on the ice, while Jack and I debated our ascent. I paced in my mind. My desire to ski this particular chute was guttural. I was hungry to check another line off of my list. A recent freeze-thaw cycle had transformed our line into a 40-grit ice rink but I was becoming heedless with two months of consecutive ski days and my over-confidence was about to be checked by the cruel dignity of nature. I was committed and I was blind.


Our debate continued. Up or down? Up into danger or down to another line. The scales of fate weighed and wavered. We still had hours of daylight and from our position in Little Cottonwood the options were abundant. Jack had a good point but my hubris wouldn’t let me leave this one undone. This is, of course, a decision that we face everyday as skiers and snowboarders: stoke versus danger, and some days it’s a tough call. On paper it seems so clear but in the moment ego and reason conflict and the victor is often unjust and perilous. This was a lesson in instinct. Jack’s hesitation was meditated and tangible and in my gut I knew that to press on would be dangerous and the reward not worth the risk of a thousand foot slide. I knew there wouldn’t be another shot at the line this season but I took a step back, pondered the consequences and let it go. As I unstrapped my skis from by pack a duo approached from below. They held ice axes in their hands and wore crampons over their boots. I looked at my own boots, naked without metal spikes. We were out of our element and we didn’t even know it. The sight of those crampons made me realize the potential danger in our ascent and how close to the edge we actually were.

Jack B&H Apron

We skied to the car on ice and chalk with our skins hanging from the shell of our packs and the sun about to crest the south ridge and the cramponed duo kicking their way through the rock choke above. Jack championed his van in ski boots the rest of the way up the canyon and parked beneath Flagstaff. We could already see a dozen little ants as they marched up toward Superior’s south face but the rest of the ridge was empty.


The ice chute before dawn had us eager and warm and plan B sounded fun. We breezed up the face of Flagstaff with only minor ice and dug in to the best the Cottonwoods have to offer. The snow was chalky and firm and our legs chattered as we bounced our way down the first chute. At the bottom we panted and whooped as our rock-restricted turns banked high and wide past the bottleneck. Excitement burst out of us. It was another beautiful bluebird day in the middle of nowhere and there was not a soul around. After a high five and the inevitable look back up at the line, we started to scheme the rest of the day. “You want to find Benson and Hedges? I know it’s over here somewhere.” The description for B&H reads like a map to buried treasure but we were up for the hunt.


Through the woods we set off with the sun approaching its zenith and Jack and I quickly did what we’ve been doing for well over a decade: we got lost. Our skis left a spiral of tracks in the snow as we craned our necks up at the ridge from the basin bottom in search of the chute. There was still a lot of time before the sun went down and we ogled each cut in the rock and the snow that filled those cuts and the trees that grew from the rocks and the birds that flitted between those trees and the snow that melted and dripped from their branches. It was bliss compared to the gut-wrenching, white-knuckle morning that threatened on the ice sheet down canyon and I was grateful to have listened to Jack’s instinct and put aside my own pride for reason.


Suddenly it was afternoon. The sun began to sink and made steady progress toward the horizon. We had a long slog out and we still hadn’t found Benson and Hedges. As the sun set its westerly course we devised a plan to bail in time to catch last chair at Solitude, cut out of the resort through the backcountry gate and arrive back at the van in time for sunset. Our time to beat was 2 o’clock. We knew we were close to the chute. Well, we thought we were close. There are only so many chutes that run top to bottom in this part of the canyon and we began to make good time as we hustled from one to the next.


We had an hour left until our curfew when we discovered the open-mouthed apron behind a stand of pines. It was inevitable that we wouldn’t make the top of the chute by our turn-around time and Jack and I both knew it but we skinned up toward the narrow gulch anyway. We pressed on and zig-zagged our way up the apron as seconds ticked into the future. The moment finally came when we had to turn around as I shouldered my skis for the second time that day. “Two o’clock was just a guideline, right? When do you think we’ll be back here again?” My desire to ski Benson and Hedges was trumped only by my want to rip down the first chute we were denied. The stakes were also significantly lower on this objective and if we missed last chair at Solitude there was nothing to do but hitch down-canyon and then back up to the van. We continued our ascent.


Sun-baked corn slopped beneath our skis. The sun was still high, though it’s downward progress pressed us to hustle our boot-pack. Above, shade began to creep over the snow but the chute had seen so little sun throughout the winter that the snow was still soft. Everything steepened at the top and we kicked more furiously into the ladder.


We panted and stepped our way through the shade, past a hulking conifer and onto the ridge between Days Fork and Cardiff. After nine hours of near-constant movement we stood atop an unlikely objective, our premier goal all but forgotten behind the cutting line of Benson and Hedges. The view and the climax of the tour and the remote place where we stood silenced us before we had to buckle down and actualize our goal. We had come to a place that neither of us had ever been but it felt like somewhere we had always known. Perhaps it was hatched in a dream or some far-fetched fantasy while we pored over The Chuting Gallery, or perhaps our fatigue created an intimacy with nature that reached back to our roots as mountain people and tickled that instinctual nerve that draws us into the wilderness. But this intimacy must be checked. Our line was steep and, even though it was mellower than the morning retreat, the reality of the wilderness was still raw before us. Her stick was poised, once again, above our knuckles in wait for one of us to slip up.


We had to move fast. Our final hope to catch lift-serve had vanished and even though our lungs burst from the hike and our legs shook in our boots, the ever-ebbing sun led us on once more. It beckoned for us to commit to the line once and for all and to pour our weary souls into this final moment with Benson and Hedges. We knew not when we would return and under what circumstance but in that moment with all of our wind-sucking, knee-buckling energy we gave in and dropped and skied it in the true “giddy with fatigue” style.


There’s no way to tell which way our morning might have gone if we topped out the original chute. The skiing could have been some of the best of the season and the line may have been our proudest yet, though I have my doubts. More likely it would have been an intense walk along the edge and might have cost us the ultimate price. Instead, we followed our instinct, although veiled, and were rewarded with one of the best days in the hills I’ve had to date.

3 Responses to “Skiing By Instinct”

  1. How lucky you are to be able to have these wonderful winter adventures, and survive to tell the tale!

    Love, Nana

  2. Great adventure impeccably told that sings off the page like a pitch perfect song. Thanks for the ride James!

  3. I don’t ski but your essay made me understand why Well done

Leave a Reply