February 17, 2017

The Art of Backcountry Skiing

Outdoor athlete Caroline Gleich shares how backcountry skiing helps her reflect on the little things in life that often matter most.

When I began backcountry skiing, it wasn’t love at first skin track. It was a love/hate relationship with admittedly more hate than love. I found it mentally and physically exhausting. I would look up the mountain and think there was no way I could get up there. Doing multiple laps seemed even more impossible. My gear was heavy and prone to failure. Bindings were always getting iced up and my skins would get covered on both sides with snow, rendering them useless.

Caroline Gleich skis near forest

It took me years to dial in my gear and my systems, to complete levels 1 and 2 of my avalanche courses, and to slowly develop my mountain sense to the point where I felt comfortable and confident in a backcountry environment. I had to learn to quiet my overactive mind and change my attitude from that of a downhill skier to an uphill skier. Instead of thinking about how long it was taking me to get fresh tracks or how much farther I had to go, I had to think one step at a time and find a different mindfulness.

When you commit to a day of backcountry skiing with friends, the goal is not about reaching the summit. It’s not ski mountaineering. It’s about staying safe, making good decisions, and having fun. Good partners will be on the same page.

It’s about starting to notice the little things in life. It’s a chance to reconnect with your body, breath, and overall presence. If you’re anything like me, the first few movements might be tough, but the more I move the more I love the whole thing. After about an hour, I find my steps fall into a graceful rhythm entirely their own.

Caroline Gleich skins up

Backcountry skiing reminds me of my favorite childhood memories of backpacking with my dad and brothers in the great alpine ranges of the American West. Sure, backpacking involves moving across a dirt and rock rather than snow, but it requires the same mindfulness and acceptance in the present moment and a commitment to finding untamed places a step at a time.

When you slow down on an uphill skin track or, even better, when you’re breaking trail, you start to notice the subtleties of nature: a set of wildlife tracks that follow a similar path; a bird chirping and landing in a tree above; the soft sound of snowflakes landing, snow on snow; gentle variations in the terrain; a cluster of old growth trees; the wind whipping across a ridge top.

Caroline Gleich on top of mountain

Backcountry skiing is the embodiment of my lifelong love affair with snow. I rarely feel cold when I’m out there. Instead, when I’m trekking in my layers, it’s as if the snow is a comforting blanket and a canvas on which to paint my passions. It’s the perfect activity to blend my dedication to snow science and mountain sense. I highly recommend you start taking those first few steps. You may not love it right away, but be patient. Give it some time. Find a few local backyard tours and give yourself a chance to connect to a simpler pace and the great outdoors. If nothing else, you’ll cherish the pleasures that come at the end of a day spent walking uphill in the snow, like hot chocolate, an extra cookie or the quiet reflection upon a hill that once stood in your way.

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