Rising to the Challenge - Page 2

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Wednesday was clear and sunny, and we scurried back up 25 Short to Turkey Chute, a challenging couloir on the back side of the mountain that drops into Avalanche Canyon. A dirt and rock entrance dropped into the wind-buffed slot. I edged down and tried to stomp out a platform with my feet. The Styrofoam-like surface refused to give way, and the slope rolled away beneath me. My heart thumped.

I removed my backpack, then my skis, and jammed the tail of one ski into the snow, clicked into the binding, and then attached my second ski. Christian dug a pit to analyze the avalanche danger. Satisfied that the snow had consolidated into a solid mass, he set an anchor, attached a rope, and put us both on belay. Then he rappelled down about 300 feet, side-cutting the slope and stomping to release any potential avalanches. The slope didn't budge. I followed when he beckoned. Rappelling on skis felt unnatural. I wanted to just glide down the 45-degree slope. Turned out, so did he. We allowed ourselves about ten turns when we untied from the rope, but rather than pushing to the couloir's terminus, we stopped two thirds of the way down and pulled out our ice axes.

Boot packing 101 began. At first the snow refused to support our weight. We sank up to our thighs, where the sugary snow pack gave way to the rocky underlayer. We backtracked, found firmer snow, and began climbing again. Christian attached a rope to my harness, and I followed. About halfway up he suggested we head to the rocky outcrop on our left, which he thought was a walkable platform that would be safer and quicker. Ten minutes later, as he pointed out nubby footholds that my clunky ski boots barely recognized, I questioned the "safer" assessment. Hand over hand, foot over foot, he coached me through the climbing. Later, he admitted the ramp he expected hadn't been there. No problem. His direction and my focus made a seemingly impossible task utterly manageable, and soon we reached the top of Turkey Chute.

Fueled on the elation of conquering the chute, feeling refreshed after skiing down, I was ready for anything the next day. But when we reached the car at end of the day, Christian said he wanted to do boot pack drills on lower-elevation slopes the next day to save our legs for Disappointment Peak, the culmination of the five-day lessons.

Like a good student, I didn't protest. And five hours into Thursday, I felt more comfortable on steeps than I ever had. After the first drill, Christian bagged his belay rope. Free of the safety net, I went up and down on my own. Skiing down, I focused on driving with my hips and staying light on my feet. Going up, I broke the task down into small pieces and focused on my steps. Up and down, until the process became second nature.

The top of the Spoon Couloir is about 50 degrees, rolling over to about 55 degrees a few turns in, then mellowing out to a more reasonable 40-degree pitch for about 500 feet before spilling into an apron. Christian went first. Then I slid into the couloir and stomped my legs, feeling the firm, hard slope beneath me. I pointed my skis and added a jump as I turned, fearful that the surface might be crusty. It wasn't. I eased out a few more cautious turns, gained confidence, and added a little speed. It was perfect. Each turn came more easily than the one before it. By the time I hit the apron, my burning thighs welcomed the powder, and I opened it up into wide, sweeping turns.

Like that, it was over. We still had about 2,000 vertical feet to ski down, but the mountaineering part was behind us. All that remained were shaded, mostly north-facing powder. Though skiing the couloir had been thrilling, I couldn't help but feel somewhat anti-climactic.

Together we charged toward the powder. It took only an hour to drop to the valley. As we made our way back to the car, I admitted some minor disappointment that our time together had gone off without a hitch. Christian laughed.

"If we had that epic you were looking for," he said, "I wouldn't have been doing my job."

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