Max Kagan

     I learned to ski before I learned how to be afraid.
     Maybe that’s not strictly true. But I can’t remember ever being fazed by anything I did while skiing. Maybe there was a time when I was intimidated by the unnatural act of strapping wooden planks to my feet and hurtling down a mountain. But if there ever was such a time it’s now lost forever in the dark forgotten recesses of early childhood.
     A yellowed family photo depicts my first day on skis. I’m staring directly into the camera with a mysterious smile on my face. The photo is dated March 1993; I was not yet two years old. Having only recently mastered the finer points of walking, my dad decided it was time to teach me to ski. We’ll never know what I was thinking that day, because I learned to ski long before I learned to talk.
     As I grew up, I found ways to up the ante. While two-year-old me was content with gently gliding down the bunny slopes, as I grew, skiing became an ongoing quest to push the envelope. I tried freestyle – plowing my way through moguls at bone-crunching speed and hucking myself off fifteen-foot jumps into the wild blue yonder. I switched to racing, enjoying the adrenaline rush I tucked down steep, icy runs, reaching highway speed in a matter of seconds. While there were certainly some dicey moments – and a few toboggan rides courtesy of ski patrol – I never had any doubts in my ability as a skier.
     Until now.
     To be fair, the problem isn’t my skiing ability. I have no doubt I can safely thread my way downhill through the dense forest stretched out below me. The problem I face is much simpler: I have no idea where I am. For the first time in my life, I’m skiing the backcountry.
     A fierce January wind whips my face as I struggle to get my bearings. I awkwardly take off my pack. Without taking off my skis, I bend down and begin rooting through its unfamiliar crevasses and compartments. I uncover a soggy sandwich, a bruised banana, a camcorder, and a jacket, before I eventually find what I’m looking for: a crumpled map of Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest.
     I’m starting to get cold. I’m still sweaty from the climb up, but I can feel the wind robbing my body heat as it penetrates my thin windbreaker and punishes my fingertips. I recall someone once telling me that the worst thing once can do when outside in the winter is to get sweaty. No doubt they would also caution against going out alone in unfamiliar mountains.
     On the map, I can see the Long Trail snaking its way along the spine of the Green Mountains. According to the map, the Catamount Trail runs parallel to it about a half mile to the west. If I point my skis down the hill, I should eventually intersect the Catamount Trail, leading me back to my car, back to civilization, and back to safety.
     The plan seemed straightforward a few hours ago. But the mountain on which I’m standing doesn’t resemble its counterpart on Google Earth. Since leaving the road, I followed a set of snowshoe tracks without hesitation. As I reflect back on the last hour, I realize I never once saw a blaze or sign.
     I survey my surroundings once again. I’m standing on the ledge of a thirty-foot cliff. Behind me is the dense, quiet forest from which I emerged. I spent about an hour slowly meandering through its silent, calm pathways, but it felt like much longer. Travelling through the dim corridors, enshrouded by snow-covered evergreens, I quickly lost track of time and distance.
     Ahead of me, the mountainside drops off. I can see a dirt road in the distance. Was that the road on which I came up? I can make out a farmhouse, but I can’t tell if it’s one I passed on my way up. Directly beneath me, the hill is thickly forested – too thick to ski down. Far off to the south, on my left, I can see another ridge. The hillside below it looks promising; I can see gaps through the trees. From this uncertain distance, it looks wide enough to ski. But as I check the map once more and struggle to estimate distance, I wonder where that hill leads, and question whether it’ll shoot me back anywhere near my car. To the north I can see more clearings in the trees. It doesn’t look as steep, or as promising, but I know if I head that way I’ll eventually intersect the path I took up.
     I check my watch and estimate I have about four hours of daylight left. A quick ski down will only take me about fifteen minutes – if all goes well.
     What was I doing out here sweaty, disoriented, and more than a little scared? I could have easily hopped on a shuttle bus that would have whisked me away from my dorm at idyllic Middlebury College towards the lift-serviced skiing at the Middlebury Snow Bowl.
     The easy answer is that I was doing a school project on backcountry skiing. But the full truth is more complex. I’d spent every winter weekend of my childhood on skis. As my high school racing days waned, I found myself wanting more than endless resort laps on manicured groomers. I missed the camaraderie of competition and the thrill of exploration.
     Backcountry skiing seemed like the antidote. Even the name “backcountry” had an exciting ring to it. Backcountry skiers seemed like members of an elite club. Like ski racers, they had their own jargon that separated them from the average recreationalist. They even had cool toys to play with: lightweight aluminum collapsible shovels, $300 avalanche beacons, and razor-sharp ice saws.
     Admittedly, I was no expert. Most of what I knew about backcountry skiing came from ski movies by Greg Stump and Warren Miller in which freeskiers jumped out of helicopters to a bass-thumping soundtrack. Vermont might not be Chamonix or Alaska, but I figured that if I were willing to put in a little work by climbing uphill, I would be rewarded with uncharted powder skiing. If the movies were any indication, the snow gods would repay me with epic, untracked descents.
     But it wasn’t just the neat toys or the prospect of untouched powder. The backcountry seemed to have a certain authenticity to it that resorts lacked. True skiing was meant to be experienced free from the distractions of electric chairlifts, carefully groomed trails, and fake alpine base villages. When the first the first intrepid Scandinavians strapped wooden boards to their feet thousands of years ago, they weren’t relying on electric contraptions to take them uphill. They experienced the uphill, the downhill, and everything in between.
     So one January day, I loaded up my car and headed out along Vermont’s unfamiliar roads. I had been hoping to go out with someone more experienced. I had a few contacts with skiers at Middlebury who knew Vermont’s backcountry quite well. But time was of the essence; the forecast didn’t look good. A succession of weather reports confirmed my worst suspicions: rain was coming. If I was going to get out into the backcountry, it had to be now. I made a few fruitless phone calls, hoping improbably that someone would drop their work or skip class in order to go out with me. I came up empty; this was going to be a solo excursion.
     I decided to ski Lincoln Gap, an unplowed mountain pass where I’d heard there was easy-to-access backcountry skiing. With lift-serviced skiing, trip planning is almost a non-factor: follow the trail far enough, and you’ll end up back where you started. For the more anxious among us, there are trail maps and signs. Venturing out into the backcountry is not so easy. Skiers zealously guard their secret stashes; woe betide any oblivious interloper who “snakes” someone else’s fresh line of untracked powder. While there are well-known areas and trails, rumors abound of skiers who illegally thin out secret remote passages. Although most of the backcountry is publicly owned, this doesn’t stop die-hard skiers from fervently guarding “their” stashes.
     The rise of the Internet has not negated the backcountry skiing mentality. While there are online forums and blogs on which skiers post trip reports (“TRs”) from the backcountry, these are often littered with oblique references to actual locations: “high in the Green Mountains,” one might say, or “at a classic slide in the Adirondacks.” While a grizzled local might recognize the pictures, a neophyte will have no such luck.
     If the backcountry skiing community has a mantra, it’s unquestionably the idea of “earning your turns.” On a practical level, this means that rather than relying on lifts, backcountry skiers ascend under the own power, using climbing skins. On a more philosophical level, this means that backcountry skiers are expected to pay their dues honing their skills and developing an understanding of their environment before they can enjoy the best lines.
     As I neared my destination, the smooth whomp-whomp-whomp of my snow tires on asphalt gave way to the crunch of frozen gravel. I saw four different ROAD CLOSED signs. In addition to two standard orange road signs, someone had spray-painted a sheet of plywood and nailed it to a tree. Set back from the road, another hand-painted wooden sign read STOP, GROOMED TRAIL. True to its word, the road terminated in a snowbank and become a groomed cross-country trail. The trail steeply rose, obscuring the ridgeline I saw on the approach. To the right, a farmhouse stood silent sentinel over snow-covered fields.
     Feeling self-conscious, I got out of the car. I thrust my skis and poles vertically into the snowbank. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do. The thought what should I be doing now? ran through my head. After emptying and re-filling my pack a number of times, I lay my ski boots down on the frozen mud and slide my left foot into the stiff plastic.
     No sooner did I buckle the boot then I heard the sound of an approaching motor. Another car? The sound is coming from the trail ahead of me, not the road. A goateed man wearing a fur cap sat astride an ATV, barreling down the ski trail at a healthy clip. He slowed a bit as he goes over the snowbank and pulled up alongside my car, killing the motor as he glided to a halt. He straightened his back and languidly swung his head towards me. I could feel him looking me over, perceiving everything: the out of state plates, the maps strewn haphazardly, the GPS unit sitting on the dash (“please drive to highlighted route”), the cookie crumbs littering the console. I imagine I must have cut quite an unimpressive figure: a skinny college kid in ill-fitting ski garb, desperately attempting to appear cool and composed – no easy feat when wearing only one ski boot.
     “How’s it goin’?” he asked. “I’m Jerry.”
     “Max,” I answered.
     I had envisioned a solitary adventure. If I had to come across another living soul, I hoped it would be a chance rendezvous with an expert backcountry skier who would swear me to secrecy and take me to his secret powder stashes. I knew there were Bud-swilling, ATV-riding, Marlboro-smoking Vermonters, but they weren’t supposed to be out here.
     Jerry’s arrival made me profoundly uncomfortable. I began to question myself. I knew I’m completely out of my element.
     “Hey, uh… do you know if the Long Trail runs somewhere near here?” I stammered. I figured even if there was no way Jerry would make me for a local, perhaps I could credibly pretend to be a knowledgeable skier form away. My question is all the opening Jerry needed to unleash a torrent of information.
“Sure,” he responded, his goateed face opening up into an enthusiastic grin. Jerry knew quite a bit about the Long Trail, as luck would have it. Within a minute, I learned that Jerry does a lot in and around Lincoln Gap: he’s the caretaker for the farmhouse, he grooms the trail, he hunts deer, he snowmobiles.
     As Jerry continues to talk about his exploits, I turn away and continue getting dressed. It’s clear that the presence of skiers is nothing unusual for Jerry, who does not notice the slight. Jerry has moved on from snowmobiling to sledding.
     “I’ve got this old, well, uh, what it is, it’s called a jet sled, and what it is, it’s, uh, it’s one of those big black tubs you tow behind your four-wheeler to go ice fishing with, or get your deer, or your wood or whatever, and I bolted one of those kiddy snow racers, you know the little flat ‘uns… I took that and I bolted it inside that front tub and took the fright end right the fuck out of it, and put a mountain bike front end and mounted the handlebars right through that…”
     I’m grateful for Jerry for confirming that I’m indeed in the right place, btu I’m eager to get skiing, not to listen to a detailed description of Jerry’s Franken-sled. I glance at my watch anxiously, regretting the late start and hoping that maybe Jerry will get the hint.
     “… I can get forty miles’n’hour on that,” Jerry concludes, as I start to walk towards the snowbank.
     “Say, d’ya want a ride?” he asks, before I can make a clean getaway. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be easy. Jerry was good-natured and knowledgeable – and he was ruining my afternoon. But despite my irritation, the prospect of an easy ride to the top of the hill was impossible to resist. I take a seat on the luggage rack at the rear of the ATV, taking care to avoid burning my leg on the muffler.
     “I call it my Quad Lift!” Jerry yells, looked back with a wicked grin as we speed forward, clearing the snowbank. “I can take four or five people right up to the top! It’s called the King Quad, so I call it my Quad Lift!” I smile politely as we continue up the trial. Jerry does not stop talking.
     “This mornin’ I walked up with my sled and took a run down!” I’m squinting through the forest to the right, trying to plan my descent. Everything seems flat, densely forested, and unpromising. Jerry points out another unplowed road to the right.
     “That’s the Catamount?” I ask.
     “Yep!” replies Jerry, without missing a beat. We round a corner and I suddenly see why so many people recommended I come to Lincoln Gap. Far above me in the trees, a steep, S-shaped glade is clearly visible beneath a cliff. It’s just wide enough for a single skier, and looks just steep enough to give a thrilling ski down without being too steep to hold snow. It looks almost too good to be true. Certainly, the clearing was too perfect to be the work of Mother Nature alone.
     “How they get there, I dunno,” says Jerry, pointing at the clearing.
     “I’m going to find out,” I yell back, hoping to sound bold, but feeling somewhat stupid.
     “You can either work your way that way, or come back that way” suggests Jerry, pointing at various points along the ridgeline. “I think most people kinda come that way and work their way back onto the road and kinda come this way.” True to Jerry’s word, I can see ski tracks emerging from the woods back onto the road. I’m starting to get excited. Just as I start to enjoy Jerry’s nonstop monologue, he changes topics.
     “Someone had a big party up here,” he laughs, pointing out the remains of a campfire. We round a bend and draw steadily closer to the ridgeline. Jerry has returned to talking about sledding. My mind is filled with the image of Jerry clutching a beer in his left hand as he drives an ATV-load of fat, screaming children to the top of the hill.
     The ride mercifully comes to an end as we crest the ridge. To the right, snowshoe tracks mark the entrance to the Long Trail. The Catamount Trail, snaking off to the left, is wider and more well-tracked. Jerry follows me as I bend down and begin affixing my skins to the bottom of my skis.
     “If you go all the way to Sunset Ledge – it’s a rock that looks out – you can look down and see the cabin. I don’t know where it is that they break off the Long Trail to head down the woods, but I’m sure you’ll see tracks.” He pauses for a moment, then concludes with a joke: “Tell ‘em you took the quad lift to the top!”
     I thank Jerry for the ride up, expecting that our interaction has come to a close. Jerry has more to say though.
     “I’ve made money up here, towing people up the mountain,” he says in a lowered voice, as though he was telling me a secret. “One girl gave me a hundred bucks.” I can’t decide if Jerry is asking me for a tip. Was his infectious storytelling and joking just part a game the whole time? Does Jerry rely on guilt-tripping every lazy backcountry skier who comes through these parts? I remember that my wallet is locked in my glove compartment at the bottom of the hill.
     “Gee, uh, Jerry, do you want anything? I, uh, really appreciate the ride up, and I think I left my wallet back at the car…” I let my voice trail off and make a show of patting down my sides in search of the nonexistent wallet.
     “Oh no, that’s not necessary” Jerry says, with a broad smile. “I’ll take donations any time, though,” he says, more seriously.
     “Well, I’ll definitely be back,” I say.
     “You know, we rent out the farmhouse,” says Jerry, making one last pitch as he walks back to the ATV. “Sleeps ten. Six hundred a weekend.”
I put my skis on and start skinning towards the woods.
     “If you’re not out by dark, I’ll come looking for ya!” says Jerry as he starts the ATV. I wonder if he means it.
     Standing on Sunset Ledge a few hours later, I recall Jerry’s words. Was he being serious? If my car was still sitting parked in front of his house come nightfall, would he actually notice? Or would he be sitting in front of the TV cracking open a Bud? Maybe I should have tipped him, I jokingly think to myself. More seriously, I consider if anyone at Middlebury would notice if I didn’t make it back. I’d mentioned my plans to go out into the backcountry to a few friends, but would they actually notice my absence?
     After a final review of my map, I decide to head back the way I came. I can recall seeing ski tracks branching off the trail. Determined to press on all the way to Sunset Ledge I had ignored them, but now I’m beginning to question my earlier boldness. The tracks have to lead somewhere, I reason.
     There is, of course, another possibility: the person who made the tracks was as lost and disoriented as I am. There was a time when skiing the backcountry was expensive and difficult, and anyone who ventured out was likely to be a grizzled veteran. Yet the proliferation of lightweight, easy-to-use “AT”-type bindings is changing the sport. (AT bindings function as normal alpine ski bindings, but have a releasable tailpiece to enable the skier to ascent in “walk mode.”) On the one hand, skiers appreciate the added convenience of better, cheaper equipment. Yet on the other hand, today’s backcountry skier is just as likely to be a 15-year old kid hopped up on Red Bull as a seasoned expert. I had no way of knowing who had laid the tracks I was about to follow.
     I shoulder my pack and head back into the woods. Although I’m simply re-tracing my steps, I’m amazed at how unfamiliar my surroundings appear. Perhaps it’s simply the effect of travelling in reverse, but I can’t help but think that my anxiety and worry has lent the forest a more sinister quality. After what seemed like an eternity, I made it back to where the trail forked. A single set of ski tracks led through a clearing in the woods. I clambered over a berm and glided away, rounding a bend and leaving the trail behind.
     As I looked back to bid the Long Trail a mournful adieu, the smooth gliding sound of my skis gave gave way to a ragged scraping. I turned my head around just in time to avoid running headlong into a log cabin. I threw my skis sideways and collapsed in a heap, my legs wrapped around a tree. Yet despite the spill, I was ecstatic. I didn’t know what this shelter was – it wasn’t marked on any of my maps – but the fact it was here meant that I was somewhere.
     I untangled myself and scrambled to my feet. Ignoring the sign marked PRIVATE PROPERTY, PLEASE KEEP OUT! I gingerly opened the latch and peeked inside. The cabin was empty and dark, but showed signs of use. For the first time since leaving my room that morning, I felt confident that I was in the right place.
     I took off my skis and began to remove my climbing skins. The climbing skin – a skinny strip of nylon with a tacky base that sticks to the bottom of the ski – may seem simple, but it’s the simple piece of equipment that makes backcountry skiing possible. (Early skins were made from actual seal hides, but manufacturers have embraced synthetic materials as a more effective alternative.) The arrangement of the nylon fibers allows the ski to glide forward, but prevents it from sliding backwards. When the skins properly secured to the tips and tails of the ski, a backcountry skier can climb uphill much faster than a snowshoer or hiker.
     Even for a backcountry neophyte such as myself, climbing using skins is not particularly difficult – the challenge lies in getting the damn things on and off. The gluey underside of the skin sticks to everything – snow, twigs, rocks – and stubbornly resisted all my efforts to keep it clean. Eventually I manage to fold the skins in half, sticking them to themselves so that they do not pick up any more detritus than they already have.
     Moving away from the cabin now, I see a narrow line path lying between a rock face to the right and a line of trees to the left. A single tree lies felled across the path, but other than that the descent looks clean. I tighten my boots, re-attach my ski bindings, and take a deep breath.
     After I side-step my way over the downed tree, I enter tree skiing heaven. For the next few hundred yards, the trees are wide enough apart that I can easily thread my way through them. The pitch is steep enough that I can maintain my momentum, but not so steep I have to worry about impaling myself on a branch. There is enough snow that most of the underbrush is covered, and I can let my skis ride without worrying about bushes or branches. Smiling for the first time in hours, I point my skis down the hill and let gravity do the rest.
     I ski along a streambed, dodging trees as make my way down. I’ve always loved skiing the trees. As a kid who loved to duck, dodge, and dive through the woods, I would always imagine I was Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon through an asteroid belt. I feel the same indescribable, childlike joy now as my skis slice through the knee-deep powder.
     At one point, I unexpectedly find myself suspended in mid-air when the creek bed takes a five-foot drop, but a well-placed cushion of snow saves me on the landing and I keep right on riding. It isn’t the steepest trail I’d ever skied, but the thrill of discovery fills my veins with adrenaline. Branches whip past my head, bouncing off my ski poles and helmet as I narrowly swerve through woods
Yet all good things must come to an end. The streambed grows flatter and flatter and the trees denser and denser. I lose my momentum and start having to thrash my way through saplings and bushes. The familiar worry creeps back in with a vengeance: am I going to make it out? The snow is less deep here, and rather than the smooth crunching of snow my footsteps are rewarded with the clamor of skis sliding across rock.
     Thankfully, my exit was not marked by the sounds of barking rescue dogs or the blinding glare of helicopter searchlights. Instead, I pole my way across shallow slopes until I regain Lincoln Gap Road after about ten minutes. From there, it’s an easy downhill schuss down to my car. When my car’s bulky frame comes into vision, the butterflies in my stomach dissipate and are replaced by fatigue and weariness.
     I check my watch: it’s only been about two hours, but I feel exhausted and eager to return back to civilization. I’m filled with a flood of mixed emotions as I take off my skis. I spent two hours tromping through the woods, getting lost, and freaking myself out. All that for thirty seconds of good – but not great – powder skiing. Was this what backcountry skiing was? Was I doing it wrong? Maybe I had picked the wrong place to descend? I had gotten outside and had a pretty good workout, but I couldn’t help but feel somehow ripped off at the anticlimax. Did I have fun?
     As I drive back, I realize what I’m experiencing. I’d never been able to comprehend the feelings of a first-time skier as they struggle to descent on wobbly legs. What are you worried about? I always want to yell. Their struggles always seemed as absurd to me as a full-grown adult trying to learn how to walk. Now, for the first time, I can sympathize with their plight.
     I thought that I was master of the mountains. I honestly didn’t believe that any mountain better me. Now, I realize that I was living in a world of delusion. Sure, I could ski any trail at any resort, but only because the truly hard work had all already been done for me.
     What does this mean for me and my future as a skier? I can’t say whether I’ve fully embraced the backcountry skiing mentality. If nothing else, this trip – as well as other adventures I’ve had over the past month – has humbled me. Twenty years may seem like a long time, but I now realize that my skiing journey is only just beginning. And just like skiing the backcountry, I can never be fully certain where the trail will lead. All I can say with certainty is this: one week later a friend and I returned to Lincoln Gap, eager to explore the woods and find some new descents.

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