My heart rate is somewhere around 160 beats per minute. Respirations, probably 30. I can actually feel the balls in my hip sockets straining to lift my skis. And there are at least 1,000 vertical feet of Downing Mountain still looming above me.
The lengths I’ll go to in pursuit of a ghost.
The skin trail snakes up through the pines, zigging one way then zagging the other. The going is steep, the turns sharp. I wonder if our guide, the inexhaustible John Lehrman, is even human. Despite a thorough waxing back at Downing Mountain Lodge, the cushy HQ for Lehrman’s family-run backcountry ski operation, the skins stretched across the bottoms of my Volkls continually accumulate snow. It’s like walking up a staircase with weights on each ankle and a basketball clutched between my knees. Hips just weren’t meant to move this way. I stop, breathe deeply, and mutter a quiet thank you to whatever genius invented the chairlift.
We’ve been at it for what seems like hours. I fight the urge to check my watch and glance back to see Matt Gibson materialize from a clump of pines. We’re high enough now to get a good view of the Bitterroot Valley: Stevensville, Hamilton, and the snow-covered Sapphire range across the way. The mountains stretch north toward Missoula and south toward Darby. A hawk wheels in the air beyond the ridge. For a moment, I almost forget the pain spreading down my quads. My breathing slows.
The view isn’t what I came for, though. Matt is quick to remind me of that.
“Just set a good pace and keep moving,” he coaches, skinning up behind me. “We have a ways to go yet.”
I get it. I’m usually very conscious about setting a pace I can maintain for long distances. It’s the only way to travel efficiently on, say, a seven-day wilderness canoe outing in Ontario or a three-day pack trip in North Dakota’s Badlands. This feels different. I’ve been a ski junkie since age six. I’ve been to camps, skied the Alps, even joined the National Ski Patrol. I’ve skied my fair share of backcountry terrain in Montana. But I haven’t skinned, at least not enough to make it count.
I came to Downing Mountain to descend, specifically down the vast gladed fields of virgin Bitterroot powder that Lehrman’s outfit promises intrepid backcountry skiers all season long. What I’m getting is a lesson in how to climb. And as with scores of past lessons learned in the outdoors, I get the distinct impression that I’m in over my head.
My first taste of off-piste skiing came in the fourth grade, on the sledding hill at the Tom O’Leary Golf Course near my parents’ house in Bismarck. North Dakota got hammered by blizzards in the winter of ’96. Huff Hills, the ski hill south of town, was hopping. Local sports shops couldn’t restock ski inventory fast enough. The white stuff stirred something deep inside people. Everyone wanted to shred.
My buddy Cole got this thing called a “snowboard” for Christmas, and with the weekdays between ski weekends growing painfully long, our crew decided to sniff out in-town alternatives to Huff Hills after school. We took turns on Cole’s snowboard, speeding down an out-of-the-way slope near the sledding hill. We even built a jump. I lugged my skis along once or twice. It was a blast, until Cole broke his arm.
That same winter, driven by a new desire to ski what others weren’t, I set my sights on what seems to be the only patch of snowy backcountry in North Dakota. The knoll above Huff Hills called out every time I rode the lift, a snow-kissed promontory amid a sea of crowd-choked runs. Curiosity turned to lust, and lust to obsession. For weeks I watched as the snow got deeper, pictured myself charging down a perfect line between cottonwood groves. No one else was trying it. I told myself I had to be the first.