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Breaking trail

A father-son backcountry ski trip flips the role of responsibility

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He tried to save it. Arms outstretched, legs stiff as lodgepoles, one ski tilted up like a catamaran hull, he tried. My dad growled through gritted teeth as he toppled downhill. At the last minute his scarecrow form came completely undone as he succumbed to gravity and speed. His chest hit first, driven into the snow with nearly mechanical efficiency.

Now he lies crumpled and still, and the subtle tension that built as I watched his long fall ignites into embers of unfamiliar concern. Fear, even. “Get up,” I think. “You’d better get up.”

The essential fact hadn’t hit me until the moment he hit the ground: My dad is getting old. Too old to crash like that, anyway. It was a 65-year-old body that crumpled into the side of the mountain; a 65-year-old neck and collarbone that took the brunt of the impact; a 65-year-old knee that twisted as he fell. My concern is justified—we’re deep in the backcountry, far from help and well out of my dad’s comfort zone—but it’s even bigger than that. When he went down, I realized my responsibility for my father, and the significance of it startles me. If I am responsible for my father, who is responsible for me?

Montana Headwall
  • Simon Peterson

Finally he stirs, awkwardly rolls downhill and gets up groaning, but grinning. Snow is falling lightly, adding to the fluff that already pads the bowl. Above, chutes spill from a sawtooth ridgeline like creamy colonnades flocked by dark vine.

“That was a hard one,” he says, slapping the snow from his hat and collar. “The snow’s soft, but not that soft.”

My sudden fear evaporates, replaced by relief, and I default to my first instinct: to heckle. “You should give up sooner,” I suggest dryly, “instead of hanging on and picking up speed. Your old bones can’t take that kind of abuse.” But I’m impressed. Here he is, trying new things, crashing hard and laughing it off at an age when many of his peers are sipping fruity drinks at an RV park in Florida. Impressed but not surprised; courage is something he taught me long ago.

My dad took me skiing for the first time when I was 7. We used old cross-country gear: ankle-high leather boots, three-pin bindings and waxable skis without edges. He broke trail up the wooded mountains near our home in eastern Washington and I followed. Slowly. Reluctantly. He bribed me with hard candy and hot chocolate from a thermos. He waxed our skis and sometimes got the temperature right. Mostly I remember the climbs. After struggling upward for what felt like a significant percentage of my young life, we would stop to take in the view. My dad loved traveling in the mountains—just being there, with snow in the pines, and cornice-rimmed creeks and fresh cold air filling his lungs like a drug. It seemed entirely like work to me, but even then I could feel the magnetism of exploration—and the fear of the unknown. Before we pointed our long, virtually unturnable skis back downhill, Dad always offered the same calming advice: “If you get going too fast, just fall down. The snow’s soft and it won’t hurt a bit.”

Montana Headwall
  • Simon Peterson

Now, watching him pry snow out from inside his goggles, the memory of his advice from 22 years earlier cracks me up. Much has changed since then. I abandoned cross-country skis in favor of alpine gear. We moved from Washington to Wisconsin (of all places for a skier). I raced for a while. My dad stopped skiing altogether—sliding down icy Midwestern hills didn’t appeal to his aesthetic. I went to college in Montana and became a ski bum. I began writing and traveling and soon was the editor of a magazine devoted to backcountry skiing and ski exploration. The sport has taken me to Europe, the Arctic, South America, mountains no one else has ever skied. The mountains tell me stories that show me how to live. Skiing has become my way of experiencing the world.

And now, I’m trying to share all of this with my dad. We’re at Bell Lake Yurt, in the high folds of the Tobacco Root Mountains near my home in Bozeman. He recently turned 65 and this trip is my gift to him, an adventure celebrating age and new experiences and cold beer. I’m teaching my dad—a Midwesterner who hasn’t skied in years—about the backcountry.

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