The Difference of Near and Distant
Words and Photos by Steve Aliberti
Three backcountry skiers deviate from the path in Central Oregon.
My phone swims into focus as I silence the alarm. The plan of the day rushes back, filling me with excitement, anxiety, and doubt. So many things to do, so far to go. Will it be worth it? Could it end up like Mt. McLoughlin last spring, a frustrating failure after so much effort? Shoving aside the doubt and uncertainty, I force myself out of my warm bed.
Laying out the day’s clothes, keys, wallet, and equipment the night before makes early starts easier. A fact I’m frustratingly aware of as I stumble around in the dark finding socks, long johns, and my keys. It’s still early for the sharp aroma of coffee. I hit the road, running the list of items I’ve forgotten in the past through my head. It’s easy to forget sunglasses when it’s still dark in the car.
In a few short hours, Dutchman Sno-Park will be over-filled with snowmobiles, skiers, and tourists. As we pull in, the lot sits silent and empty under fading stars. With frozen fingers, I quickly pack my bag by headlight. I’m grateful for the thermos of hot coffee (and the frigid outhouse). We do a beacon check and head out into the darkness as the first faint twilight brushes the eastern sky.
Breathing deeply in the cold air, a light sweat builds as we take turns breaking trail. The snowy mountains elicit a primal feeling of connectedness. We pass lichen-soaked trees, rising resolutely through the deep snowpack. My mind wanders to the millions of small coffee farms in South America, or the rubber tree plantations of Southeast Asia; the myriad of ways we are connected directly and indirectly. How each—and countless others—contributed to my ability to experience this hyper-real environment. I’m reminded of the First Law of Geography: "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” Seeing the connections is easy once you start looking.
Avalanche instructors, anthropologists, and geographers alike advocate a critical observation of the world around you. Understand its systems, the connections small and large. Notice the little indicators of wider trends. The snow starting to drop from the trees is indicative of rising temperatures. Wind scouring creates beautiful texture in the snow. It also creates wind slabs on lee slopes; cornices and wind lips in between.
The sense of euphoria builds as we climb, overwhelming any twinges of anxiety and doubt. The sky glows pink, and the mountains around us are painted in alpenglow. We gain the summit just as the sun breaks the horizon. Thin clouds waft over us, breaking up and rebuilding, catching the incredible golden light. We hoot and holler, feeling alive, embracing the magic of a dream, realized.
We lost sight of him but could still shout back and forth. He’d gone too far right to make the bench.
“I think I can make it if I traverse hard left,” he shouts.
“You won’t make it, you have to hike back up here!” I yell back.
Silence. We tried shouting more to no avail. Cory must have continued riding, unknowingly forcing us to follow. Chip calls his phone. No answer, so he calls again.
“Stop now, stop where you are! Stop where you are!” Chip looked up from the phone. “He hung up.”
Without another word, Chip and I ride down to his track and follow it. We cannot risk splitting up and meeting him below, however much we want to ride the other line. When you’re in the avalanche terrain, the group must do everything possible to remain in sight of each other.
Ducking and weaving between trees, I’m aware of how phenomenal the snow is. Unfortunately, we’re squandering some of the best of it to chase down Cory. While I’m sure he’s fine, thoughts of worst case scenarios—tree wells, terrain traps, avalanches—still flash through my head. We follow the lone track through the snow hard left for what seems like too long. I grow nervous and upset that he’s willingly ridden this far from us in such terrain. I see the same in Chip’s face as we yoyo past each other, careful to never quite lose sight of the other.
When we finally reach Cory, he’s relieved to see we followed him, and apologizes for his rash decision to continue without us. Apologies accepted, the thudding emotional turmoil calms like ripples on a pond. We consult the map, and find that although we missed the upper pitch, we did traverse enough to correct our trajectory.
Below us, a thousand vertical feet of perfect snow in old growth mountain hemlock beckons. Hooting and hollering in excitement, we each draw our own line through the smooth, fresh snow. Popping off rollers and slashing wind lips, flowing through the trees, we are free. At the bottom, our souls overflowing with gratitude, we trade high fives and shit-eating grins.
The day seems almost too easy. The snow isn’t often fresh, stable and unaffected by sun, wind, rain, or other skiers. Those rare moments when the sun peeks through the mist, when you look across at your friends ripping fresh powder with you under the blue sky. They are elusive; sometimes even unexpected. Venture into the mountains often, undiscouraged by mediocrity and failure, and see what you find.