Sometime between eating croissants and biking up mountains in Spain last summer, Ross, Anne, and I decided that we should all go backcountry skiing together. Often, these are the kind of plans that evaporate as soon as the words are out, but in this case I got an email a few months later saying that the trip was being booked and I should be there.
I’ve never backcountry skied. I haven’t camped in years. I’ve never hiked with more than a day pack. And yet I signed up for this multi-day adventure almost without a second thought. For the past few years I’ve been trying to make an effort to see more of the country: Montana, San Francisco, Colorado, places that tend to get overlooked for Spain, Italy, and England. This trip would give me the opportunity to visit some new places, and provide me with a new physical challenge. Why not?
The first thing I did was email Anne and ask what kind of backpack she had. Then I went to Sierra Trading Post and bought the same one. I started wearing it to my Wednesday workouts at Harvard Stadium, filling it with big cookbooks, quarts of water, and cast iron frying pans. People thought I was badass, but I just didn’t want to be the one in our ski group who held everyone back.
Backcountry skiing is like regular skiing in that you occasionally ski down a mountain. But that’s where the similarities end. Rather than riding a cozy gondola, or chair to the top of the mountain, you climb it. In your skis and boots. At altitude. There are no lodges to buy hot chocolate at, no fires to warm up by. Instead, you carry a thermos, hand warmers, and everything else you need for the day. With no ski patrol to rely on, you prepare for the worst, wearing an avalanche beacon, and carrying a shovel and probe just in case. All of this you carry on your back.
Day 1: en route to the yurts with gear
We assembled on Day 1 and met the rest of our group. There were 10 of us in all, plus two guides and a porter. Anne and I were the only girls. After doing a beacon check (to make sure everyone’s beacon can find everyone else’s beacon in the event of an avalanche), we set off for camp, a small cluster of yurts set in the midst of the McCully Basin, a four mile climb that rose 1,800 feet. Our home for the trip was a 16-foot yurt outfitted with cots, sleeping bags, and a wood stove.
Despite the primitive conditions, we were almost always warm and toasty. Kettles set on top of the wood stove in the cook yurt meant coffee, tea and cocoa were easily accessible and layers made it easy to adjust body temperature. Pretty much the only time I was chilly was a) using the bathroom and b) in the middle of the night when the fire needed to be stoked.
Yurt life was kind of interesting. Cohabitating with strangers in the middle of the wilderness instills a kind of kinship that you don’t get in the outside world. There’s no TV or gadgets to get lost in. Each night we’d sit around the fire, eating supper and telling stories. Those who could would strum a small guitar, and the rest of us would listen appreciatively. Being far away from anything else, we had to trust one another in a way that you don’t in normal life. If there had been an avalanche, or some other kind of emergency, we’d rely on each other to survive. One guy who I was sure was a jerk was the first one to offer help when I started getting blisters from my ski boots. He sat with me for 30 minutes one morning, cutting moleskin and offering advice on how best to patch them up. Despite being with eight guys, there was no talk of sports, unless you count skiing. I cracked up while they compared notes on where they bought their raw milk and how best to “grow chickens.” Welcome to the west, I suppose.
Why go through all this trouble? First, we were in the midst of some of the most gorgeous mountains I’ve ever seen. I kept joking that I felt like I was in a Coors commercial.
Seriously, these were the mountains of my dreams. Snow covered, jagged peaks that make you feel like a tiny speck of dust. Every vista seemed more beautiful than the one before, and we had this whole area practically to ourselves.
The second thing that made it worth it was the snow. There was six-foot base of snow on the ground, and about six inches of fresh powder fell our first night there. It was like movie snow, so fluffy and light. Having grown up skiing on the East Coast where ice and hard pack rule, skiing here was a fantasy world. We’d climb an area and ski down, then move to another area for fresh snow. We never skied the same thing twice, and our tracks were always the only ones on the mountain. Pretty sweet.
The other thing that was great about all this climbing was that we had to eat almost constantly. You burn though so many calories moving and trying to stay warm, it’s almost impossible to overeat. With my food fears in full-on panic mode, I made sure to bring lots and lots of snacks: a King-sized Reese’s, two Toblerones, a package of beef jerky, half a dozen Kind bars, a package of smoked almonds, and a batch of chunky granola. I think I added 10 pound to my pack, but it was worth it to know that I wouldn’t starve.
I’ve been working on my granola recipe for the past few months, and after several failures and much tweaking, I think I’ve found a winning recipe. Granola can be finicky stuff; depending on the recipe it can come out of the oven bitter, the texture of loose gravel, or simply bland. Yet I like the idea of making it, being able to customize it to your own tastes and preferences- good granola can be heavenly. I prefer mine chunky, with raisins and a variety of nuts and seeds. While many will tell you the secret to chunky granola is adding fat, I wince at the idea of adding a stick or more of butter to mine. Instead, I use a bit of butter and then add a couple of eggs to act as a binder. Works like a charm. Also, I happen to love a really maple-y, slightly salted granola, so I use Grade B syrup, which has a stronger flavor, as well as a bit of maple extract to punch things up.
I’ve found granola to be a great crowd pleaser, and with a little effort the homemade stuff is generally about ten times better than what you find in the bulk bins at the natural food store. I’d encourage you to use this recipe as a base, but feel free to substitute different varieties of nuts and extracts, depending on your favorites.
4 cups/14 oz rolled oats (not instant)
1.5 cups/ 6 oz walnuts or other nuts/seeds
1 cup/ 2 oz shredded coconut (I’ve used sweetened and unsweetened, both are good)
1/3 cup/3 oz brown sugar
2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup raisins
1/3 cup grade B maple syrup
1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
1 Tb water
4 tsp vanilla or maple extract (or almond might be nice)
1 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp Vietnamese cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
Pre-heat oven to 325. Combine the above ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir until well-combined. Pour onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and spread into an even layer, pushing the mixture down with the back of a spoon (this helps create clumps). Bake 40 to 45 minutes until lightly browned. Let cool completely before breaking into chunks.