The Making of a Backcountry Ski Bum – Part 1

Dogs in the Snow

The two permanently-delinquent German Shepherds

 

I had been mulling over the decision for weeks. It’s not, after all, a small commitment to make.

The skis are the least of it. All wood and pastels and go-faster stripes, you fork out several hundred bucks for them.

Then come the boots. Great misshapen hunks of plastic adorned with buckles, clips and screws that cost more than my first car.

“Yo. Like wicked in the pow,” said one young salesman as I handled these huge shiny objects at a store. “Great value, man, like a thousand-dollar boot at like half the price.”

I knew enough of the BC Kootenay culture to know that pow was powder, as in light fluffy snow. Still, $500 for boots, even heavily discounted? I asked for cheaper ones.

But in the world of high-tech gear, the bargains just never seem to make sense. No heat-mouldable liners. No hollowed-out lightweight buckle-systems. No easy-fit clip-in feature.

After nearly an hour strutting around the store with these shiny appendages on my feet, Kristin, a genetically patient Nord, finally lost it.

“Do you know how long we’ve been here?” she asked peevishly.

“I have to make sure they fit,” I said, rather pathetically.

Kristin looked at me witheringly and left to attend to more important matters. The staff at the store, clearly frequent witnesses to such gear-induced marital vicissitudes, looked away discreetly.

Once the boots and the skis are in the bag – another $200 or so if you get one of those – there are of course the bindings.

Small but critical little contraptions made of metal and plastic, they connect the ski to the boot, need the hands of Swiss watchmaker to operate, and cost more than a Third World monthly wage.

“Aren’t they included with the skis?” I had whined when I first started checking out newski gear at the beginning of the winter.

The lady in the store looked at me as if I was an alien who had just landed on PlanetSki, which, I suppose, I had. “Like yeah! Sure. Yo. As if. Dude.”

Nor are the bindings the end of the story. There is a high-pitched beacon to find your buddy when he disappears under an avalanche, all-too-frequent occurrences in the mountains of western Canada.

(I was tempted, selfishly, to skip on that one, but realised that if I did nobody would be able to find me either.)

Then you need a fold-down probe to prod your unfortunate friend post-avalanche as he lies in mortal panic under several feet of snow.

“You’ll know when it’s a person you’re prodding,” one friend, who is an experiencedbackcountry warrior, told me matter-of-factly. “It feels different from rock. More squishy.”

Last but not least, you need a shovel to dig the poor bugger out. Best case scenario, you have something under 15 minutes. That is if there is no secondary avalanche. And if he (or she) has survived the avalanche in the first place.

I must admit that after watching a video of a botched avalanche rescue, I nearly gave up on the whole ridiculous idea.

It all seemed a little overwhelming, and when I told Kristin that I was thinking of abandoning the project she seemed pleased for the first time since the whole saga had begun.

I let a couple of weeks slide by. It’s not like I don’t have enough going on already, I told myself.

As well as running the ranch, looking for bears, guiding guests, baby-sitting two permanently-delinquent German Shepherds, and doing the odd stint in the pay of the British government in far-flung places, I hike, bike, and mountaineer (a bit).

On top of that, I’m trying to reactivate my schoolboy French, finish off a book still only half-written, and keep up my flying skills and all the nerdy aviation stuff and paperwork that goes with that.

Furthermore, I already own a perfectly serviceable (if unfashionable) set of hand-me-down skis and boots. They may have been made when Canada was still young, but they work well enough.

But those skis are for downhill. Alpine skis. The stuff of ski resorts where visitors are carefully shepherded to pre-prepared slopes with all the hazards carefully marked off and arrows pointing which way to go.

The bug that had bitten me was of an altogether different beast - backcountry skiing. Out on your own. In the wilds. The preserve of those living on the margins.

“Are you a freedom-addicted, adrenalin-pumped, cowboy-wild outdoors dude?” I asked myself rhetorically. “Or just a keyboard-tapping nerd happy to live the thrills of the mountains vicariously?”

There were, of course, counter-arguments. I have just passed my 46th birthday, my muscles and ligaments have aged (though my brain, Kristin tells me, less so). And I have the skiing skills of the average Canadian toddler.

But no sooner had I framed the question so winningly in my own mind, than the answer was obvious.

And my credit card, which had sat all summer in my wallet as undisturbed as a hibernating bear (retail opportunities are rare in the bush), was in and out like…what’s an appropriate analogy….. a backcountry skier in the trees?

 

NEXT WEEK: A Canadian friend, much overestimating my miserable skiing abilities, takes me on my first foray as a backcountry ski dude.