Keeping Tracks: Skiing the Backcountry 

Following those who have come before

I'm headed for the Shoulder, a pyramid-shaped, tree-gladed slope on the end of one of the ridges of 13,000-foot-plus Mt. Morgan in the Sierra Nevada. It's a sunny day and it has barely snowed for over a month. Yet the beauty of the Shoulder is that it's north facingĀ­-- I've skied fresh powder up there weeks after a storm.

I'm crossing the Tamarack Bench and there are ski tracks everywhere, traces of a dozen or more skiers traveling the Bench since our last major storm system. Passing over the parallel lines in the snow gets me thinking of who has been here and where they were going. A dozen tracks roll over and drop off the edge toward slopes that I know are lapped by backcountry skiers staying at the lodge. Other ski tracks--some in pairs, some alone--lead off into the trees. I see a set of tracks that I can tell are old, and I wonder if they're mine from early January.

Ski tracks can be a blessing and a curse. I've often worried, as I'm sure countless skiers have over the years, that they'll betray entrance into some secret powder stash that should be kept hidden. But today, ski tracks give me something else.

I'm looking for my friend Todd's tracks because I know he was at the Shoulder a couple of days before me. I know his tracks will lead me straight to where I want to go.

In a clearing where I can see the granite rim and jagged summits of the western edge of Rock Creek Canyon, I find what I'm looking for. I remove my pack and shove my jacket and gloves inside. I'm sure I've found Todd's tracks because he told me this was his approach. But I can tell by the number of ski pole holes alongside the tracks that more than one person traveled this line, and I also know that about a week before, two guests at our lodge skied the Shoulder. I'm sure that this was their route as well.

Even though I'm alone, I almost don't feel like it. Knowing that Todd and the lodge guests gazed upon the same lodgepole pines, heard the same birds calling and maybe paused to take a closer look at the exposed wood core of a tree for the faded lines of a decades-old carving left by Basque sheepherders gives me the feeling that we're traveling side by side rather than at different places in time. I pretend that they're out of sight, a few hundred yards ahead of me. I imagine that I skied with them yesterday or the day before and they're skiing with me today. It makes the skiing more worthwhile because I feel like I'm sharing my day with someone.

And also the darker side of the traces that we're leaving occurs to me: the betrayal that these marks in the snow could lead to after I'm gone. A few years ago, my friend Jeff and I discovered my own favorite stash outside of Bogus Basin by following a faint set of tracks. They led us into a small bowl, maybe only 400 vertical feet, with a rocky face and rock columns enclosing an hourglass chute that gave the feeling of big mountain skiing, although there is no big mountain skiing anywhere around Bogus. It takes a while to get there and a while to get back, but one dry winter month, I was the only one to ski it. I know because I stopped at the bottom each time and counted the tracks and how many times I'd been out there. When the two numbers matched up, I felt thankful they all belonged to me.

Once I skied out there and discovered an unknown set of tracks winding down the chute and I felt hurt, as if a secret had been revealed. Obviously I had no right, considering it's public land and I was leaving my own set of tracks. But I wonder if I felt that I had no way to connect. Unlike heading up to the Shoulder now, where I can put a name and a face and that gives me a shared experience, that day back at Bogus I was unable to piece together any connection.

The skiing on the Shoulder is uninspiring, but the sun feels good so I climb to the ridge and sit where I can see all of Rock Creek Canyon. The most direct way to leave the Shoulder is to descend the Malorn Tree Gully. It's easy to see it from the top of the Shoulder, but once you drop down, it's difficult to find your way. I've discovered that, while standing on top of the Shoulder, I can draw a line of sight from me over the gulch and off to a sub peak across canyon, and if I head toward that peak, it will lead me into the gulch.

But today I have Todd's tracks to follow. I'm still enjoying the sentiment of sharing my day of skiing with Todd and that somehow he is with me. I drop into a shallow bowl along with Todd's tracks and while gliding across, I see a set of withered tracks like the petrified tracks from earlier in the day on the side hill above. I recall staying high like that my last time coming this way, and I also know this was Todd's first trip through here this season. I calculate in my head that those must be my old tracks as I fly along the flats and I keep dropping toward the Malorn Tree Gully. I'm still following Todd's way, but those old tracks stay high like I remember heading a month ago.

It's me following Todd's tracks, which are following my old tracks. Maybe two days earlier while Todd skied down toward home he figured out to whom those tracks belonged. Maybe while he was following my tracks, Todd was feeling the same way I am feeling now.

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