24 Sep Winter is Coming
I’m getting so excited. Little puppy tail wagging slipping across wood floor excited. Like little puppy piddling on your shoe excited. That kind of excited.
See, I grew up in a place that had no snow. As a child, a handful of times a year I’d wake up before first light and load up in my Grandpa’s Subaru to make the 3 hour trip from Sonoma to Lake Tahoe. The snow, the cold, the speed of flying down a mountain as a child created mesmerizing moments and memories that I now replay in my mind constantly. Those trips were few and far between and dwindled as I got into other things.
Now I find myself living in a place with a real winter, on the western edge of the Rockies in Central Idaho. This winter I may even end up in Colorado where I’ll have winter redefined again. Either way, winter is about to descend, one full of snow, ice covered lakes, and steep slopes, steaming hot springs. This environment has opened a world of new adventure to me. And, with it comes all sorts of new skills and challenges. In appreciation of the upcoming winter and to inspire you to push your limits, I share the following tale.
Erin and I hadn’t been dating long when she had suggested a bad idea. A bad idea I immediately and excitedly agreed to. And now, the morning had arrived when we were to ski out to Burgdorf, a local hot springs. The road to the springs was closed to cars and unplowed in the winter. It would be a 23 mile cross-country ski.
We arrived at the Snow Park at 4:45am, Erin’s Subaru sliding to stop in the ice rink of a parking lot. It was empty except for the parked snow groomers, sleeping metal beasts. Everything slept. I admired my adventure partner as she prepared in the quiet morning.
Blonde hair and hazel eyes. Veins and muscle showed on her arms. She was wiry, clearly strong. And yet her toughness was balanced by a grace and feminine beauty. At first, I wondered if my new girlfriend was perhaps more badass than me. The wondering hadn’t lasted long: she clearly was.
She had grown up in this world of mountains, of cold, of hardness. When she wasn’t raft guiding or working construction, she was a ski patroller throwing dynamite into the wind, literally. I was still shedding the extra weight and poor posture of an eight year software career. I hoped I could keep up.
In the dim light from the car lamps, we whispered through preparations although there was no one to hear us. We did a final check of the essentials. Food. Water. Skis. First Aid Kit. Fortitude. We were bundled up well enough to keep us warm in the 15F cool crisp morning. We carried our skis to the road that we’d follow for as long as it took us that day. It had been groomed once a week for snow mobiles and seemed decently packed. Strapping on our cross country skis, we tentatively tested the movement. I checked my watch and looked at Erin. Let’s go I whispered.
We left at 5:15am. Our head lamps were switched on in the darkness of an absent new moon. We had been confident. Amidst the excitement of adventure and new love, our confidence had soared. The same confidence plummeted and threatened to die altogether as reality sunk in.
Neither of us had cross-country skied in over 10 years. The morning ice on the road left us struggling to stay upright, let alone create any forward momentum. Ten minutes passed like this. Then thirty. Then an hour. Erin wondered aloud Would it be more efficient just to walk to Burgdorf? Probably.
Yet, stubborn as we both are, we persisted. We grasped for the grace we had observed from other cross-country skiers: the smooth action, the balance and glide. We both worked up the sweat of inefficiency as we adjusted and readjusted our movements.
And, somewhere in the darkness of morning, we found our strides. The motion came back and we settled into the mindless grind that’s required when you know you have hours of work ahead.
We reached Upper Payette Lake as the sky began to light and the sun kissed only the tops of the western mountains. We shucked a layer and stowed our headlamps, loaded up on water and had a snack. I admired her toughness for the thousandth time since I met her and resisted the constant urge to kiss her. There was work to do: It was uphill from here. Time to dig deep. We put away our flirty eyes and generous laughter. We put in our headphones and on our game faces. We pushed on up the long hill.
In the midst of the steady climb, the first Sleds of the day roared past, spitting snow and shredding the somewhat flat pack we had been enjoying. One sled passed, slowed and turned to come back to us. A man in his 70’s pulled to a stop, removed his helmet revealing a jolly smile and bright green eyes.
He explained he was the former head of some National Cross Country Association. He commended our form and expressed his appreciation for how far we’d come that morning. It had been years he’d said, since he’d seen anyone ski this far out from the snow park. The encouragement was wind in our sails. It made me giddy and I forgot the fatigue. In seconds the man roared out of view and we turned back to our task, the job far from done.
We reached the Secesh summit just after 11:30am. Most of our climbing was behind us to we took the chance to celebrate. Cracking a Coors Light, we passed the silver bullet back and forth enjoying the tingle of the suds on our tongues. We leaned back on our packs under the a warming sun and nearly cloudless sky.
The road was beginning to come alive with the sounds and sights and smells of sleds. With most of the uphill behind us, we were motivated to reach our destination, to wade together into the to warm waters. So, when the beer had been emptied, we repacked.
We started down from the summit, hopes high that we would glide right downhill. But, we were immediately disappointed. Reality again proved more challenging. We were supposed to be pointing our skis and enjoying the ride. But, the snow was warm and sticky. The cross country skis had almost no glide. We were forced to work for each step as we moved downhill through the slop. We both had spent enough time outdoors, had climbed enough mountains to know you have to ready for anything. First and foremost, you have to have the right attitude. So, unfazed, we pushed on, enjoying each other’s company and our pristine Idaho wilderness.
It was 1:35pm when we rolled into the quaint collection of cabins that made up Burgdorf. The wooden structures tucked away in the hillside dusted with snow, a plume of steam rising from within somewhere. It called to us and we answered. Off came the skis, off came the boots, off came most of our clothes. We shed our tough exteriors and allowed the tenderness of relaxation to come over us.
We floated in a dream-like mix of exhaustion and romance, our fingers gently finding those of the other just beneath the surface. Our friends on snow-mobiles found us and joined with beers, whiskey, and good times. Giddy with it all, I giggled as they talked and the sun began to set.
As the light finally left the sky, we bid our friends goodnight. Erin and I stumbled to our single room cabin in the woods and found warmth in each others arms. What was this? This swinging pendulum between romance and adventure, this perfect blend of toughness and tenderness? Tomorrow, would come more work, doing the same trek back to society. For now though, I’d savor the sweetness of rest and the embrace of my woman.
Before first light, we woke with the requisite soreness. Our shoulders and hip flexors ached so we made for the hot pools. We soaked as the sun slowly began to light the mountains then the edge of the valley, savoring rest for as long as we dared. But, with our toes and fingers well-pruned it was time to start thinking about the day ahead and our trip back to McCall.
Erin had an open blister, I had a black toenail that hurt to walk on. We tended to our injuries. I clipped my toenail as short as reasonable and taped the toe to provide some padding. I hoped it would hang on for another 23 miles. We broke the fast on some turkey soup and chocolate chip cookies. We ate as much food as we could knowing the more we ate, the less we’d carry.
We packed our gear and there was nothing left to do but ski home. At 11:30am with the sun high, we skied away from the collection of cabins and the steaming pools. With all the requisite confidence and determination we began the grind.
My only concern of the day would be the fully lubricated Slednecks returning from their afternoon soak. A handful came close enough spraying us with snow and cackling as they sped by. Undeterred, we hiked back up towards the summit. After another lunch break there, it was largely downhill.
Warmer than the day before, the snow was buttery and less sticky. Pointing our skis, this time we began to cruise downhill, crouching to pick up as much speed as possible on the rentals. We sailed, hooting and hollering to each other, gifting big smiles to one another over our shoulders as we raced down to Upper Payette Lake.
Just past the lake we bottomed out and prepared for the flat and mild uphill from there. The greatest mental challenge of the trip greeted us there. The end of every journey seems to be this way. The end is tauntingly close, inevitable yet elusive. Knowing that, the mind begins playing games. The aches and pains rise to a prominence in your psyche and you begin guessing. The Snow Park had to be close. We were sure it was just around the next bend. Then the next. Slednecks were storming back from the hot springs racing each other. As they did, they came closer and closer to us forcing us to ski on the torn up and uneven sides of the road. For over an hour we played the game of thinking we were just about there, feeling our blisters tear open, my painful black toes pressed into the front of my boots with each step. I’m sure it’s just over this rise, I thought a hundred times in that last hour.
And finally it was.
We skied down to the car, five hours after leaving the hot springs. There we cracked celebration beers, and tilted them back. We let our feet breath and expand after being cramped for so long. I still had a black toe and now a blister. Erin’s blister had popped and another had risen. Neither of us cared, we just drank our beers. When they were empty we settled in to go. We shared a team high-five and finally picked up the phone to order a large pizza, with green chilies and extra pineapple.
And, before pulling out of the snow park, we said goodbye to the hardness of day and welcomed back the tenderness of rest. Mission Successful…until tomorrow.
Snow Park to Summit: 5:15-11:30 6h15m
Summit to Burg: 12:20-1:35 1hr 15m
Burg to Snow Park: 11:30-5:30 6h total (5h ski time)
Skis: Shoddy Rentals
Packs: BCA and Black Diamond
Booze: Pendleton and Coors Light
Food: Pro Bars, Chicken Soup, Chocolate Cookies
Mustache: Made it myself
Key to Success: Attitude and Teamwork