For most of my adult life, I’ve enjoyed downhill skiing – the conventional kind that involves chairlifts and groomed trails. But when I was (quite a bit) younger, I tried my hand at backcountry skiing. It takes an investment of time (not to mention good knees) to get in shape, learn the Telemark turn and the basics of winter mountain safety. My biggest adventure was a trip to the Parc National de la Gaspésie, in eastern Québec, where the Appalachian range finally meets the sea. Led by experienced guides, my group stayed in a hut in the Chic Choc Mountains. Each day, we’d practice skiing in a nearby ravine, working our way up to longer day-trips. A few memories of this journey have stayed with me all these years (I won’t say how many), becoming metaphors for something more. I share them with you now:
There comes a time when you need to take the skins off.
To climb the ravine, we had to use climbing skins. In the early days, these were actual animal skins, with the fur trimmed close. Nowadays they’re synthetic, but the principle is the same: you attach them to the bottoms of your skis, to prevent the skis from sliding backward as you walk up the hill. Most of the time this system is pretty secure, and you can even ski forward a little bit when you need to, though clumsily. Eventually, the slope gets so steep that you must decide: shall I keep climbing, or ski down from here?
Before skiing down, you need to remove the climbing skins: set the edge of one ski firmly into the slope, lift up the other ski and rip the skin off. Then do the same with the other ski, and put the skins away in your pack. At this point, it would not be practical or even safe to put them back on. To rip the skins off is necessary, and it can be a bit scary, but very satisfying. Your edges are fully exposed. Now what?
You need to lean forward, not backward
When the slope is very steep, you no longer see ground beneath your feet. Instead you see the sky and the next mountain across the valley several miles away. This takes some getting used to. How will you ski down from here? Your first impulse may be to lean back, away from the abyss, and towards the safety of the hill you’re on. That’s fine, as long as you are resting, and waiting. But it doesn’t work, once you start moving: your skis would likely slip out from under you; or your uphill ski would be stuck to the hillside, unable to turn. You must be willing to lean forward then; and the steeper the slope, the more willing you must be.
Rev. Bruce Taylor