Thursday, January 28, 2010

School is in session

I have been saying since July that this year, instead of training for a crazy difficult Iditarod cycling race, I wanted to spend the winter learning more about the ins and outs of winter backcountry travel - that is, beyond the established snowmobile and ski routes where I've ridden my bicycle and hiked in years past. It's not that I've all of the sudden become crazy about skiing - if anything, it's just the opposite. I'm starting to realize more and more that sliding down mountains (yes, even through sweet powder stashes) doesn't really thrill me all that much. I'm perfectly happy to put aside my mediocre snowboard skills to clomp into tougher, less accessible terrain with snowshoes and crampons, with which I have more control and maneuverability. Just like I am at my core as a cyclist, I am an unapologetic tourist. I am all about the traveling aspect of outdoor recreation. My turn-ons are exploration, distance, and mule-like physical labor. In other words, I'm an endorphin junkie; I have little use for adrenaline.

But I recognize that skiing is still the most efficient way to travel through the backcountry, both up and down, so I'm willing to give it a try. I'm horrible at being a beginner. I want to do things NOW and I want to go where I want to go, so I've avoided learning how to ski. But that's partly what my Banff trip is about. Learning new things.

Today, my first day in Banff, was not a ski day. I have two good friends here who are patient and understanding and willing to teach me the way I want to be taught. So instead of dragging me up bunny slopes at the ski hill (there will be some of that this week, but only some), they are taking me to more enjoyable, nontechnical places in the backcountry. And before we do any backcountry skiing, I have to learn backcountry safety. So today (which was a spectacular, beautiful, minus-10-Celsius day), my friend Keith and I went snowshoeing and he taught me the basics about scoping out avalanche danger.

We hiked up Observation Mountain, and I was thrilled that my sea-level lungs felt fine at 8,000 feet elevation. We made a quick trip up to the ridge, and because it was so comfortable out, spent a while up high gazing across the valley and picking out different avalanche scenarios and safety zones. Keith even gave me pop quizzes. I think I passed. Keith happens to be an avid skier and continued to emphasize that he must "really love" me, because the skiing conditions were ideal and he was stuck on snowshoes.

We stopped and dug a snow pit, conducting different tests so he could help me see the difference between weak and strong layers. Avalanche danger today was quite low for this region. Banff hasn't had a recent big snow or wind event, and many of the area's typical "death zones" were littered with ski tracks.

The bottom 30" (out of about 38" total) was completely solid. Keith said, "You never see this in the Rockies, never."

But you can't beat just being out on a day like today in a place like Banff. That's what I'm about. Keith said he could tell I was in my "happy place."

We took advantage of that nearly full moon to go for a night hike up Telephone Mountain just outside town. I know this isn't a great picture, but keep in mind all I have for a camera is a point-and-shoot - this is how clear and bright it was outside. Great first day on vacation.