Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Chairlift: Uphill travel

Whitefish Pilot | April 10, 2024 12:00 AM

Often, when the skier beside me on the chairlift sees people hiking up, aka skinning, the mountain, they will say, “What are those folks doing? Why would someone do that?”

Sometimes, I’ll just shrug if it seems they are submitting the question to the universe and other times, I’ll find myself explaining how hiking the mountain is a meditative workout and how it is another way to enjoy the backcountry.

Invariably, they shake their heads with a sort of bewilderment.

“You should give it a try,” I frequently add. 

It seems uphill skiing is like cilantro – people either like it or they do not like it one bit, even though they have never tried it. Usually, like with the herb, the anti crowd is the more vocal of the two. 

Last Saturday, for the first time this season, I skinned the Benny Up Trail and was quickly overtaken by a man ascending for his ninth time of the day. He warned me about the high winds at the summit and the icy conditions.

I slowly continued uphill and as I passed the Tree of Deception,* the powerful winds warranted a neck gaiter. Previously, I had just been burying my face in my coat collar.

Once on the flat, I dropped my poles and one glove in preparation of removing my backpack to search for my gaiter which was, I soon remembered, in my coat pocket. As that realization occurred to me, a gale caught my glove and sent it tumbling a few feet downhill. 

As I watched over my left shoulder, it rolled farther downhill and appeared to be waving good-bye. Just then, my body and mind had an argument.

My body had just worked arduously to get to where it stood, facing uphill in the buffeting wind. My mind saw a belonging drifting away and wanted to retrieve it immediately. 

“But,” my body said, unwilling to relinquish any ground, “we’ll have to recover all those steps. Besides,” it added, “With skins on, I'm not very quick or nimble when skiing downhill.”

“But,” my mind shot back, "That's our newest glove. You’ve only worn it a few times. You like those gloves. Also, we’re littering the mountain,” it mumbled, in an appeal to my environmental bent. 

Apparently, my mind speaks to my body in short, easy-to-understand sentences. 

In the end, my body won out and we, well, I, continued uphill and made it to the summit. What’s more impressive is that I made it back down with my lightweight, ancient, three-pin setup in challenging conditions that featured icy slopes with blown-powder speed bumps, all blanketed with poor visibility.

The gloves were made for cyclists to use in cold weather but I found the padded palms helpful for pushing off the tops of my poles on especially steep parts of the trail. The mountain has had more snow and wind in the past week so my attempts, thus far, to find my black and blue, right-hand glove have been unsuccessful. 

I will return and I will find it, eventually. At least that’s what my mind says.

My effort on Saturday was for the 5th annual DREAM Adaptive Recreation’s SHRED-A-THON, one of their major fundraising events. 

While I only managed the one lap, Jeff Brown and James Pike hiked the Benny Up trail 10 times. At last year’s event, Brown, Chance Cooke and Janelle Smiley each completed 11 laps in 10 hours. 

Go ahead. Read those sentences again.

I can just hear all those heads shaking.

* The Tree of Deception is an infamous tree that appears, from below, to mark the end of the longest and, for some, most grueling pitch of the trail, but once a skier has reached the Tree of Deception, she finds there is still a sizeable stretch to go before the slope flattens and gives some relief.