Teachable moments

Today my friend B and I went for a last-minute excursion in the Seymour backcountry. When we got to the parking lot the sky was a dome of perfect blue and the peaks in the distance were gleaming white with snow. We took the access trail up to Brockton Point, handling the steeper climbs and downhill stretches much better than our last outing on the same trail when we were both brand-new to skins and AT bindings.

Shortly after passing through the Brockton gate we left the trail for a skin track that took us around the western side of the peak. It looked like an easier route than the laborious bootpack up the wall where J and I fell last season, and we weren’t aware that the marked path would have taken us around to the east on a much less exposed route.

By this time the sun was climbing in the sky and the skin track took us to open slopes that were already experiencing numerous point releases and small wet slides. We looked for safe zones and traversed up one at a time; the slides weren’t large enough for burial to be a concern, but there was a big drop into a gully to our left if one of us did get carried off the track.

After cresting a small ridge the track took us to a steep switchback with a potentially nasty fall right behind it. This was where my ski slipped out on the kick turn. I couldn’t prevent the instinctive urge to dive forward, which left me with no easy way to get back on my feet while being sure that I wouldn’t slide back and over the edge. I released my bindings and bootpacked a little higher to a spot where I thought I could get the skis back on, but there was too much snow built up on my boots and with a layer of ice under the surface snow, I couldn’t get a solid platform to work from. I ended up bootpacking the rest of the way to a small plateau where B was waiting, surrounded by trees buried deep in rime. Beyond that, it was an easy skin the rest of the distance to the summit.

We took a break on the peak, then got some great turns down the north face on gorgeous fresh snow before climbing back up to ski out from the top. On the south side the snow was wet and heavy, and solar warming was triggering numerous large wet slides lower down. Some poor route-finding left us on a very steep slope with a lot of loose snow, which neither of us felt completely comfortable skiing. We slid hastily down with a disturbing amount of wet snow coming along with us; by the time we reached the foot of the slope my legs were buried to the knee. After that, we bootpacked the path the rest of the way to Brockton Point where we ducked a rope and skied back along the ski area boundary.

It wasn’t our most successful outing in terms of the downhill reward – we had just the one good run of around 200m on the north face of the peak – but it was certainly an excellent learning experience. The scary exposure on the skin track and the sun affected snow gave us some great practice at making safe travel choices. We were probably a little more conservative in our decisions on the ski out than we really needed to be, but we’re both conscious that we’re still very new at this and in the backcountry the consequences for poor choices are serious. I need to practice my kick turns more – a lot more – to be able to manage those steep switchbacks safely, and I need to remember the lessons I learned last Friday about how much better I handle variable snow conditions when I stay out of the back seat. We made some pretty elementary mistakes today, but it didn’t diminish how much fun it was to be out there in the sunshine and snow.

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