November 21, 2006

First Ascent

Well, ski season is here again. Of course, we've been anxiously awaiting the snowfall while trying not to take for granted the charm of autumn. Early snowfalls have draped a decorative blanket on Park City's ridgeline that pacifies us each morning through our commute. Annual rituals mark the locals' shared sense of anticipation: the Warren Miller film, Off The Grid, played to a sold out crowd at Park City High School's Eccles Center; The Park City Ski Swap took over the High School as well drawing huge numbers in support of their ski team; friends have been buying gear, collecting ski passes, and comparing notes on which area might have the most rewarding hike-to terrain until the resorts open fully.

Last weekend I was baptized into the world of backcountry touring. Sarah's father, Gary had been making an almost daily trek up Alta's in-bound territory to get in shape for the upcoming season. Last Sunday looked to be an epic affair as the base was just starting to build up enough to ski comfortably and the forecast called for a few fresh inches on top. Gary invited me to join him and I couldn't refuse. Gary let me borrow a set of skins and a pair of Alpine Trekkers to create a makeshift randonee setup. Skins are directional felt straps that fasten to the base of the skis with a layer of adhesive allowing the skier enough friction to walk uphill. Alpine Trekkers are a binding insert that temporarily frees the skier's heel to walk uphill at a more natural angle, effectively converting an alpine binding to a telemark binding.

I hopped in the car at 5am to make it to Gary's house in Sandy. Despite some remaining weather and wind-blown snow on the roads, plus a stop at McDonalds for breakfast, I arrived by 6:30 or so. By 7, we hit the Alta parking lot. There were as many as 6 other cars already there. We hopped out next to Gary's new friend, Dan, a younger hippie kid with dreadlocks and a cheerful disposition, apparently unaffected by the still-rising sun. We fiddled with equipment for a while and headed up from Alta's Goldminer's Daughter Lodge, under the Collins Lift and up the main thoroughfare. Under the hissing snow-guns ice built up a crust on our outer layers, justifying any price paid for waterproof gear. About halfway up, the remaining cast of heavy cloud cover dispersed and the overwhelming but familiar sheen of the surrounding bowl was illuminated under a rich, atmospheric blue. The terrain I knew so well last year was different because I was looking uphill without definition of groomed trails. As far as we could see in all directions was untracked powder, aching to be churned by the most willing participants.

At the top, we encountered a handful of giddy co-conspirators, each praising himself for not sleeping in. This group included Dan, who we hadn't seen since the parking lot, but who was now on his second run. We exchanged friendly banter while adjusting gear and clothing to prepare for the descent. Gary and I munched on celebratory cookies Sarah had baked and packed for us and drank the last of our water. We had taken a less worn route to the top, through a grouping of trees between the top of Collins Lift and the powder field, Ballroom. There we saw such deep socked-in snow and fresh lines that we decided to keep it quiet.

We bid adieu to the other skiers and snuck back into those trees. I let Gary take the first turns and watched him float effortlessly down between the trees and stumps. With deep breath and an even deeper "WHOOHOO", I dropped in, hoping I still remembered how to turn. The plunge could not have been more worth it as I made a few quick moves and gained enough speed in the fall line to start splashing that light, Utah snow all about. We made our way down alongside of some new buddies we met at the top from one favorite stash to the next, each pitch as satisfying as the last.

At the bottom, it became apparent that we had definitely made the right decision to come up early, as there was a swarm of would be adventurers climbing up from the now full parking lot. Gary and I exchanged a high-five and headed down-canyon, still aglow from our victory. Now the resorts are opening and it's time to actually participate in a normal ski day, with lifts and multiple runs, hot chocolate and chili; all in search of that weightless euphoria. But, as with any drug addiction, the first and ultimately best highs are free.