This is a story my daughter Rosien wrote about her first ski run beyond the backcountry gate.
by Rosien McKee
“Breathe, just breathe.”
That’s what I kept telling myself. That’s all I could tell myself. I couldn’t believe that I’d let my dad drag me up here. I suppose that things weren’t really as bad as they seemed, but it’s often hard to see the end reward while in the thick of getting to it. Still, my Dad was lucky I was being such a good sport.
Was I really a good sport? Well, not if you asked my Dad. He would be quick to tell you that I complained every step of the way up the mountain. I just wanted to turn around, but we were out of the ski area on a narrow traverse. Turning back was not an option.
It was a rare ski day in Washington. They didn’t get much better than this. The snow was perfect: light, powdery and shimmering like diamond dust when a quick turn of my skis sent it airborne. The sun, burning a bright lemon yellow, had been steadily rising out of the eastern horizon all morning. Now, in the early afternoon, it was a smoldering winter sun. I followed my dad’s lead, unzipping my bulky ski jacket and discarding my heavy sweater. The crisp winter air enveloped my torso and for the first time since leaving my inviting bed all too early that morning, I was comfortable.
We spent the morning hours on warm up runs. I was on new skis, and Dad wanted to be sure that I was comfortable on them before we tried anything really challenging. I couldn’t believe the conditions that day. My silver skis were razor sharp blades, carving up the glistening snow as if it were soft clay. Turning was a nearly effortless task as the powdered sugar snow moved at my every command. We couldn’t have been there on a better day, and Dad knew it. Today was the day he would take me into the backcountry to ski Silver Basin.
I’d heard Dad talk about Silver Basin before. He had wanted to take me up there since I started skiing the expert terrain with him last season. The only catch was that I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. He had shown me the run on a trail map earlier in the season. It was deep in the South Back Country, a wide-open bowl on the east slope of Silver King Peak. It didn’t look like a very difficult run, nothing at all like the steep slopes of choppy snow and ice mixtures I was beginning to conquer. If I could handle the high alpine chair, this should be no problem. It was just a matter of getting to the bowl on the right day. Today was that day.
“Do you think you’re up for a run in the back country, Posie? Silver Basin has got to be amazing today.”
“Absolutely!” I naively returned, my face brightening at the idea. “I’d love to.” Little did I know what those four words had in store for me.
Dad and I were anxious to get up the mountain as we hurried into the lift area. Unfortunately, on such a beautiful Saturday, the lines at Midway Station were long. Ten minutes passed and we finally came to the front of the line. The huge flying couch of a ski lift came in and touched the back of my legs. We sat down and were whisked away, high into the air. A few short minutes and a quick cat-track would take us to the high alpine chair. From there, we were only minutes from the beginning of the trail to Silver Basin.
Dad and I got off Midway and made our way down to Chair Six, which would take us to the alpine zone. It wasn’t until half way up that chair that I realized how amazing the ski conditions were this winter. Last season, the snow level had been a good six feet below the chair. This winter, however, the grooming crews, who never visit the alpine area, had been up to dig out the snow from underneath the chair. Dad and I were a mere eighteen inches off the snow as the chair lift sped up the mountain.
We quickly hopped off the chair and made a sharp left turn into the bowl below. I followed Dad across an expansive snowfield dotted with solid ice moguls, each covered with soft white snow. Dad stopped at the base of a small incline and started to pop out of his bindings.
I pulled up beside him with a puzzled look on my face.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“This is the way up to the run. Get your skis off and follow me,” he answered as he started up the trail.
I glanced up at the incline he was expecting me to hike. It wasn’t that bad for just a hike. It was only 1500 feet or so. But in snow and full ski gear, with a pair of skis as long as I was tall, 1500 feet might as well have been a mile. However, I had no choice. Dad was already 50 feet up the trail. All I could do was pop out of my bindings, throw my skis on my shoulder and follow him up. Dad would stop along the trail, waiting as patiently as he could for me, but it didn’t make the going any easier. At fourteen, I didn’t have the strength to carry my own skis very far. The sharp edges dug into the muscles at my shoulders, leaving tense and painful knots behind. While the soft snow made for amazing skiing conditions, my heavy boots frequently sunk deep into the snowdrifts, making the going even more difficult.
Ten minutes later, I reached the top of the ridge, crimson-faced and breathing heavily. Sweat dripped off my face in spite of the freezing temperature. I was ready for a rest. However, resting was not an option. If I stopped now, it would hold up the line of skiers behind me on the trail. I had to keep going. I kicked the packed snow off the bottom of my boots and stepped into my bindings. A loud ‘click’ muffled by the heavy snow assured me that I was once again anchored to my skis and ready to get moving.
The trail we took seemed no more than six inches wide. Looking to my left, I could see the beautiful expanse of the Cascade Range. The snow covered peaks resembled mounds of soft down feathers against the crystal blue sky. The deep green of the trees provided a startling contrast to the pure white snow, outlining the mountain’s most popular trails. To my right were the same green trees and a beautiful white glacial river. However, it was a far less inviting scene than the one I had just taken in. Only inches from the track on which my skis were running, the mountain gave way to a sheer drop. Looking down, I could almost feel myself falling and complete fear nearly overtook me. I snapped my head forward and focused on the trail.
“Breathe. Just breathe,” I told myself. It was all that I could tell myself. After and eternity of sidestepping, slipping, ducking under small trees and around big rocks on the traverse across the back of the mountain, we finally arrived at the top of Silver Basin. I looked down the run. The entire face of a wide bowl, covered in fresh snow and completely devoid of tracks from yesterday’s skiers, opened before me. The run sloped gently down for a short distance, fell away more steeply in the middle and then leveled out into a cat track leading skiers back to the main resort. It was not at all what I had expected it to be. I had taken a forty-five minute hike, risking body and soul, for a ski run that seemed shorter and easier than the bunny slopes I had conquered years ago. Forty-five minutes of pain and frustration for what looked like a thirty-second run.
“This is it?” I exclaimed. “This is why you made me hike all the way up here? For THIS?”
Dad’s face fell, and his look said it all: ‘Just give it a chance.’ I rolled my eyes. Dad let out a loud, exasperated sigh.
“I’ll meet you at the bottom.” He pushed off, ready to start down the ski hill. I surveyed the run and decided that it didn’t really matter where I went down. I was just getting ready to shove off, when all of the sudden I heard a whoop and a yell. My head jerked up to see what the commotion was.
“Yes!” screamed my dad. “Yes, yes, yes!”
He sounded like a cheap movie. I ducked my head as my ears began to burn, embarrassed by his reaction even though no one else was around to witness his lack of decorum. My only escape from this humiliation was down the hill. Poised at the top of the slope, I bent my knees, leaned forward and shoved off with my poles.
All at once, I went from being on top of the snow to being in the snow. It was the same diamond dust as on all the rest of the runs we had done that day, but now, it was knee deep. I suddenly had an energy that I’d never experienced before. I turned. First left, then right and left again. Each turn sent a plume of powder fine snow high into the crisp air. A light wind whistled by and my ears were filled with the soft ‘swoosh’ of my skis turning and the tinkling of the airborne powder lightly settling back to earth. No more than twenty turns and ninety seconds later, I was standing at the beginning of the cat track leading back to the lodge, staring up at the not so perfect tracks that I had left behind. I heard a light swish, and looking down, I saw that my skis and boots were covered with a light dusting of snow. Dad had just skied up beside me.
“So?” he asked.
“I bet if we hurry, we’ll have enough time to make another run here before they kick us off the mountain. Are you up for it?”
“Are you sure that you’re up for it Posie?” he asked. “After all, it would mean making that long trek again.”
“Absolutely, Dad. It’s more than worth it