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Breaking trail

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



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Back at the yurt, a round, 20-foot cocoon of warm canvas and wood, my friends and ski partners Simon Peterson and Lance Riek mix drinks and tell jokes while my dad reclines in front of the singing woodstove. His face glows with warmth and windburn. He looks the part of a skier. Until this trip, I don’t know that my dad ever really understood this part of my life, but now he’s in it. Whether he likes it or not.

Outside, a storm is picking up and flakes fall fast past the window, heaping on pine boughs.

Occasionally the roof sheds its load with a startling swoosh of snow sliding on canvas. It’s dusk, but I can just make out the impressive 1,800-vertical-foot couloirs that rise almost straight up outside the front door. Under normal circumstances they would be my week’s objectives, but my dad isn’t interested in couloirs or the weightless grace of skiing steep powder. He just wants to travel through the mountains again.

Montana Headwall
  • Simon Peterson

In the dry warmth of the yurt, Simon begins to fondly recall the time that he and I were caught in an Alaskan blizzard and had to dig an emergency snow cave, spending the night shoulder to shoulder in an icy tomb. I counter with the story about how we once spent 10 days freezing in the Yukon, but quickly change the subject when I consider how it might sound to my dad. I assure him that nothing of the sort will happen on this trip, but he isn’t intimidated. He seems to relish the story, and what it means. “I know you’ve got everything under control,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise. You know what you’re doing.” And while he’s not wrong, I am reminded of my responsibility, and once again surprised by the suddenness of age.

To be fair, my dad’s in great shape. He’s not frail, he’s not sick, he’s not nursing old injuries. He’s strong, for his age. He’s fit, for his age. He rides motorcycles and refinishes furniture and does a fair bit of physical work, for his age. But there it is: his age. Perhaps because he’s in good shape and active and as full of life as ever, I’ve never considered a day when he might not be. It’s a strange thought.

In my dad’s hand is a book I brought, an old, wormy account of the rough mining camps where men once pulled gold from the Tobacco Roots—nearby places like Alder Gulch, Mammoth and Pony. He clutches it absently, like a minister clutches a Bible, alternately flipping through its pages, waving it to make a point, getting lost in a passage, then slapping it against his thigh for emphasis in a story. It’s fitting that he has a book in his hand, even here. In my earliest memories of my father, he is reading to me. As a lifelong scholar and educator, he and my equally scholarly mother taught countless students to love and appreciate the gift of reading. It was almost inevitable that I should become a writer. My words are as much their legacy as mine.

Montana Headwall
  • Simon Peterson

Dinner is spicy elk and pasta with garlic bread and Caesar salad, served by soft lantern light. The woodstove pops and hums and climbing skins steam on a drying line. The snow is still falling outside, and by now Lance, Simon and I are giddy with predictions of face-shots. Dad listens to our self-indulgent banter, weighing the pleasure of his meal against our ritual of eager anticipation. “It’s going to be beautiful, that’s all I know,” he concludes.

After too many mountain margaritas—powdered mix shaken with tequila and fresh snow—we stoke the fire and tuck into our sleeping bags. Tomorrow will be a powder day, and I wonder if my dad feels it: the wonder and possibility and uncertainty and delight. I hope, as I drift to sleep, that he does.

Bacon is sizzling on the stove when I wake—Simon is raring to go. The window is bright, but snow is still falling like it might never stop. “This is it, Dad,” I tell him. “This is just about as good as it gets: bacon, coffee and 18 inches of powder.” He grins in agreement, and I get the sense that maybe he’s starting to understand. It seems silly, but I want him to approve of the choices I’ve made and the life I’ve built in the mountains. “We’ll see how it goes,” he jokes. “At least when I crash it’ll be a soft landing.”

With packs loaded and jackets zipped, we push open the door into a new world. Trees lean under the load. Landmarks are gone. The very topography has changed. The forest is closer, pushed inward by its bulging whiteness. Hard lines of rock are softened and smeared like oil paints beneath the thumb of an artist.

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