Wild skiing: from Oregon to Bosnia
- 2 years ago
Backcountry skiing is always demanding and often dangerous, but it’s the only way to really get to know a mountain personally, says Tim Neville
he Cascade Lakes highway runs southwest out of my hometown in Bend,Oregon, for about 20 miles, climbing out of the high desert and into the mountains before it ends rather abruptly at a place where winter begins. The transformation is shocking. It can be a sunny, almost warm day in town and, 3,000ft and 30 minutes later, a raging blizzard. Ponderosa pines give way to hemlocks and spruce. The land buckles into great volcanic welts. The snow on the ground can swell from nothing to a cushion 12ft deep.
I hopped out of my truck at a small parking area at the end of that road. It was still dark out, a little before 6am, and the crisp air felt like needles in my nose. Soon the chairlifts would begin spinning at Mount Bachelor, a ski resort just across the road, but we’d be far away by then. I put climbing skins on the bottom of my skis, clicked in and glided off into the woods.
My friend Ralph Tadday, like me, had moved to this corner of the Pacific Northwest largely to ski, and roads like these mean that if you’re willing to hike off them, there isn’t a month you can’t find snow here. We skied largely in silence, our worlds reduced to the cone of light cast from our headlamps. He was strong, fit from years of playing football in Germany, and pulled ahead of me, inch by inch. In my pack I carried a shovel and a probe while a locator beacon blipped under my jacket: rescue gear in case of an avalanche. Ahead lay our goal, the western flank of Broken Top, an ancient volcano that blotted out the stars on the horizon. If we hustled, we could ski it a few times and be back at the truck by dusk.
What a journey it had been already, just to be here now. I didn’t exactly hate backcountry skiing at first, but I didn’t love it either. I was living in New Mexico, where some friends would get up in the pre-dawn light to skin 1,700ft up the slopes of a local hill in the wind-scoured Sangre de Cristo mountains. My heart exploded on the climbs, which took hours for descents that were over in minutes. My gear was pitiful. It was exercise and a cheap way to ski.
Eventually I bought better skis, better skins, better bindings and better boots. My body adapted and my technique improved. I stepped away from the resorts and into the wilderness, learning how to watch out for avalanches and choose safer routes. I found my own rhythm and climbed at my own pace – a breathe-slide-slide song of call and response – that sent me gliding through the mountains with an efficiency that was right for me. It all became so personal. Instead of leering at a mountain anonymously from a chair, I could run my body over its shoulders, feel it tense up into ridges and relax into bowls. The soft rush of snowflakes settling on to hemlocks isn’t so soft when that is all there is to hear.
Finally there was a woman involved as well. I met Heidi in Montana, where we’d climb high into the backcountry of the Bridger mountains where no ski lifts ran, then bounce back to cold beers through snow that felt slightly thicker than air. She moved to Oregon for a job and I soon followed. Like Ralph, the winter kept us here.
To be sure, backcountry skiing is no lonely man’s sport. Out amid the cornices and the wind slabs is no place to dream, and venturing into the uncontrolled wilds with a friend can mean the difference between six weeks in a cast and someone finding your corpse come spring. An avalanche rescue beacon does no good if no one is around to track it. Besides, friends make the suffering of even a good day fun.
Soon I was travelling around the world looking for places to ski and the people who loved it as much as me. I skied among the blasted-out ruins of Bosnia. I toured with hippies as high as the peaks in Nelson, British Columbia, and laid tracks in Washington with a friend who would later officiate at my wedding. I jetted off to Japan, where I soaked in hot springs after a long tour and watched a fox that slept in the snow. I was halfway up a volcano there, a cone called Big Snow Mountain in Japanese, when Heidi called to say she was pregnant.
My family grew both at home and away. I skied with housewives in Switzerland. In Kosovo I met a family of Serbs who took me in, plied me with booze and led me deep into the folds of the Sharr mountains with their Albanian friends. I met former KLA fighters who’d fashioned their own skis out of trees and lashed them to their boots with leather. Together we found unlimited lines of untracked snow, high-fived at their bases and celebrated our bonds over our differences.
I have more responsibilities than I used to. I’m a father. I have bills. My time is more of a loan than an asset, and backcountry outings demand a lot. Sometimes I still just shell out the cash, ride the lifts and bang out the runs.
Not that day. Ralph and I carried on. The pale winter sun seeped into the sky and we gained a ridge that climbed steadily up the volcano. The Three Sisters – South, Middle and North: all volcanoes that I would climb and ski over the years – loomed around us. In the distance sat a small saddle where in a few years I’d spend days building a modest village of igloos close to my favourite backcountry runs. I’d call it Glooville, my very own private retreat. Antics like that will keep me young, even when I’m old.
Each year I tell myself I’ll spend more time in the woods, on skis, with people like Ralph, Heidi and the Serbs. We’ll slip through the glades like smelly elves and reminisce over the times the powder was so deep it’d well up around our chests. One day I’ll get my daughter out here and she’ll build the ’gloos with me.
For now, there was only the moment at hand. Ralph and I reached the top around 10.30am, tired but energised, too. Below us lay 2,000ft of the creamiest snow in the state. We stripped off our skins. We sorted our packs. And then we disappeared over the edge in a big poof of white.
Flat out: great places for cross-country skiing
Norway Three hours from Oslo, Skeikampen, alongside the Gudbrandsdalen Valley, is family-friendly and known for its cross-country offering. There are more than 600km of routes, including the Peer Gynt Trail. Ibsen claimed that his hero was inspired by a real man who lived in the area. The famous route is relatively flat and gives great views of the Jotunheimen and Rondane mountain ranges. Built in the 1930s, the Thon Hotel Skeikampen is clean and comfortable (thonhotels.com).
Switzerland For a more civilised village-to-village approach than you might get in the roaming wilds of Scandinavia, head to the Alps. The routes are lower, the season is shorter, but there are hundreds of kilometres of linked routes, dotted with agreeable restaurants. If the weather turns there are also spas, and reliable trains. Try Pontresina, the little resort near where Nietzsche used to come to gather his thoughts. The will to powder? Stay at the Grand Hotel Kronenhof (kronenhof.com).
Canada The Laurentians, north of Montreal, contain more than 1,000km of country trails through vast forests and alongside sprawling lakes. There are several excellent resorts, but try Tremblant, which has everything you could want from a modern ski venue: good accommodation, a jaunty nightlife and plenty to do if you don’t fancy skiing. Strap on your skins, however, and you will quickly be in the Canadian wilderness. The Hôtel Quintessence, in Tremblant sur le Lac, is cosy and luxurious (hotelquintessence.com).