PASS BEYOND THIS POINT AT YOUR OWN RISK. BACKCOUNTRY RISKS INCLUDE DEATH.
This is the decision that began today’s adventure.
I woke up this morning, slept through my 7 a.m. alarm and ignored texts from my friends insisting I “must be on the first chair”. Last night, Aspen received almost 10 inches of new snow, and it seemed sacrilegious that I was choosing a couple hours of extra sleep over first tracks. Looking back, thank god for the rest—and the Poppycocks breakfast.
I got to the Aspen Mountain gondola at 11 a.m., ready to meet up and ride with some friends who work for Red Bull. But the gondola was closed due to high winds, so I took the long route. Four chairlifts and an hour later, I found my friends at the bottom of the Gent’s Ridge lift. As I was saying my hellos, Ryan received a phone call. Apparently, Red Bull had recently purchased a company cat, and today was its inaugural trip to the backcountry. “We’ve got an extra seat,” he said. “You want it?”
Did he really need to ask?
Now, this is the part of the story where the girl from Florida becomes simultaneously excited as hell and nervous as Britney at a photography convention. I’ve been snowboarding for about five years, and have gotten pretty good in that time. But I have little experience in powder, and have never been a) in the backcountry b) on a cat trip or c) in powder as deep as we were about to experience. Talk about a first time for everything.
We took the chair back to the top of Ajax, hiked around to the backside of the mountain and met up with rest of the folks we’d be riding with. Not surprisingly, I was the only backcountry virgin. The rest of the crew included Tim, who works for the X Games, Deric, who works for the Aspen Skiing Co., a few Red Bull employees (who have the unfair advantage of those damn wings) and our guide, Chris Davenport—a Red Bull-sponsored big-mountain skier who is most well known for skiing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in one year. Clearly, I was among peers.
As we loaded into the cat, everyone started talking about how epic the day had been so far, and how amazing the runs were that I was about to take. As we drove along for about 15 minutes, I stared out the window at snow-covered Christmas trees and endless piles of powder, thinking about what I’d been taught to do in the deep stuff: Focus. Weight in your back foot. Hold your line. I started wishing my Mountain Creek riding somehow translated here. The last thing I wanted to do was ruin everyone’s epic day. Focus. Weight in your back foot. Hold your line. Focus.
I was starting to relax. And then …
“Hey, Chris, you’ve probably seen some gnarly avalanches, huh?” someone asked.
“Oh yeah. Been in some bad ones, too.”
“What about that time you were the first one to reach that snowboarder kid? Remember, his head was twisted around backwards? That was crazy. And sad.”
“Yeah, there’s avalanche danger here today. They’ve been doing control all morning.”
Really? Are you kidding me? This is what we talk about on the way to our drop-off point. We can’t save this topic for apres beers, when we’re all safely at the bottom of this mountain? How about bears? Can we talk about bears next?
Remind me never to go surfing with these people.
When we got to our drop-in spot, we unloaded and strapped into our boards. In front of me was the widest, deepest expanse of snow I’d ever seen. Who cares how I did. This was incredible. “Everyone pick a buddy,” Chris said. “We’re going to split up, give each other some space. We’ll meet back down at the road. And don’t lose your buddy.” Road? What road? Lose me? I’m the only person wearing a white jacket, and not wearing a transponder. I’m very loseable. I want four buddies. Three buddies?
As I waited for everyone but my buddies, Ryan and Tim, to drop in, my legs started to shake. And it wasn’t because they were tired. I guess I was less relaxed than I thought. Which, considering where I was, was probably a good thing.
At this point, I would love to tell you about how I planned to write a self-deprecating account of my first backcountry experience, but couldn’t, because I rode so damn well. “Wow!” … “This was your first time?” … “I can’t believe it. I couldn’t tell!” … “You’re a natural.”
But that was hardly the case.
In the deepest sections, I made it about 50 yards at a time before burying the nose of my board and either getting terribly stuck (followed by a process I can only compare to trying to free your board from the press of a squatting elephant, while strapped to the board and gasping for air at 14,000 feet) or cartwheeling into a face-first landing (which was then followed by the inhalation of snow, a coughing fit and a string of expletives that would make Lil’ Jon blush). But, thanks to the patience of my buddies, I made it out of the steep stuff and into the trees, where I am much more comfortable.
That part was fun. It was a lot like a great in-bounds tree run, but with a lot more snow, steep and, obviously, trees. I didn’t want that section to end. Except, when it did, I was surprisingly happy it was over. I’d made it to “the road.”
Just in time to be picked up by the cat and do it all over again.
(Ryan from very, very, very far away.)