Nothing about a winter at the local ski hill has prepared me for the gut-twisting prospect of launching into thin air off a ridge in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. "Ridge" doesn't even do it justice—it's more like the cutting edge of a granite ax. As we nervously remove gear from our packs, Clark Corey, our guide, nods at the exposed face plummeting away behind us and says, "Don't drop anything down there or it's going 3,000 feet." Anxiety drowns our chuckles. Skiing that face would actually be the easy way down. Instead, I've climbed here with four other skiers and snowboarders to descend a couloir called Resurrection, a snow gully that plunges like an elevator shaft between rock cliffs. Couloirs are prized by ski mountaineers, and until three days ago I'd never skied one. In fact, this thin sliver of snow is worlds steeper than anything I've ever skied before, and falling here would mean a long and violent tumble. Which, it turns out, is precisely where I'm headed.
A four-day ski-mountaineering camp had seemed like such a great idea. Learn new skills! Ski beautiful mountains! I had grown up Nordic skiing in Minnesota—a nice, safe sport in a nice, safe place—and hadn't discovered backwoods skiing on alpine-style skis until recently. Backcountry skis (essentially light downhill skis with a binding that allows the heel to be freed for climbing and locked down for descending) were a revelation. Skiing off wild ridgelines in my hometown Bitterroot Mountains or threading through old-growth forest in Montana's Glacier National Park, I quickly realized, is one of the most thrilling outdoor adventures a person can have.
Unfortunately it can also kill you—a problem that I was committed to avoiding. Which is partially why I signed up for this camp: If I was going to ski big and steep things, I needed to learn to do it safely. But by the time camp rolled around at the end of April, I was starting to worry whether I, a 39-year-old father of two, could hang with 25-year-old, super-ripper ski bros. Had I seriously, even tragically, overreached?
This is the beginning of my latest story for Sierra magazine. To read the rest, head over to their website here: http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/201111/skiing.aspx
A few more images from the camp are posted below. To see a photo gallery from the ski mountaineering camp, click here: http://bit.ly/tCGxVT