Wriggling up through waist-deep powder, I remind myself that we are making progress. We have made progress. And the summit, isn’t it around the next bend? We’ve been fighting with Utah powder for an hour now. And we have made progress, but we aren’t there yet. The car is 1,500 feet below us. We left it at 5:30 a.m., which was an hour ago. And we probably have another hour and a half of wriggling to go. So we have good reason to keep pushing and straining, flopping and crawling up the inspiring, rock-walled steepness of the Y Couloir: The descent will be glorious.
The Y is often accessed by a hideously long, yet relatively consistent boot pack from near the base to the summit. Today, that boot pack is buried under two feet of fresh. Each step forward feels like a quarter step up a 35-degree wall of cotton candy. I am plunging and extracting my legs, truly postholing, deliberately wallowing my way up and through to the certain joy of powder skiing. That keeps me going – the knowledge that Ari, Andreas and I will most certainly get the goods. And be the first to get those goods. To feel that almost unbearable lightness of skiing. All. The. Way. Down.
Stepping off the most efficient line up, lungs heaving, I finish my pull out front and wait to take my place at the back of our freight train of slog. It is clear I am the weakest. But we are making progress.
And then, we are skinning again. The snow has gotten too deep at 2,500 feet up and, in a haze of anaerobic palsy, I’ve somehow unrigged my A-framed skis, jumped into my bindings and am following my buddies, striding up a wicked-steep skin track for the final push. We cross the narrowest choke of the upper pitch quickly, and I am now feeling stronger. I appear to be rejoining their pace; somehow my legs have tapped into new reserves and my head is clearing, focusing on the thrill of the upcoming descent, and how lucky I am to be here right now. It may have been a struggle up, but our determination has overcome the brutality, and we will soon be winning. First Y tracks in deep pow this 23rd of March. Owning this boot pack in two feet of new. Leaders of the freeheeled world for one ridiculously good moment.
Then, just about at the top, we hear them behind us. A pair of skiers making great time up the new boot pack and skin track just below us. There is honor in being the first up – because you get the first down. But seeing their rapid progress also makes me feel like a sucker. For sure what goes around comes around, and I’ve profited from unknown others’ early mornings and hard work setting skin track through deep powder. It’s all part of our community service in the brotherhood/sisterhood of Wasatch backcountry skiers. But knowing that it did not have to be this hard this morning makes me feel a little stupid.
Joining us at the top of our snowy perch, these followers then make it worse. “Thanks for the effort. It is a beautiful day, right? Skiing the Y with all this powder will be a blast. Especially after we continue another 3,000 feet up the ridgeline to the Coalpit Headwall, ski the Hypodermic Needle, hike back up that, and then either ski the Headwall or the Y back down. Cheers, mates!” And they’re off. What they are only just beginning – my heartbeat barely sinking below 180 – is truly impressive. Not quite a holy grail of Wasatch link-ups, but a stout day of regal ski pitches and mega vertical with powder. These guys will get the crown today. And comparatively, what we are doing is child’s play. But before I’ve finished thinking about all this, they’re jumping up and away into the ether.
Left behind by the real crushers, we shrug at each other and then convulse into laughter at our floundering egos. There is always someone going bigger; always skiers stronger and smarter and better. Yet our consolation prize today as the runners-up: nearly 3,000 feet of what would possibly be our best turns of the year. And they are. From top to bottom, unbelievably great snow. Effortlessly blasting turn after turn after turn, I completely burn away all thoughts of firsts, seconds, winners and losers.
Passing by the wide-eyed stares and grins of skiers in the middle of their hike up, we exchange hoots of encouragement.