The car wound its way south towards Oregon through the ever-thickening snow. My partner, Miller, and myself sat crammed uncomfortably in the front seat of his Mini Cooper, our skis poking between the front seats. The trunk filled to bursting with bulky winter gear. But between the gear and skis the car was filled with something else, winding its way between bags and through air vents to suffuse everything.
Thrill, mixed with dread mixed with excitement mixed with anticipation. Not, of course, for the snow outside, but for everything that was to come this weekend. A feeling so familiar that it now lives in my chest, wrapped in deep nostalgia and memory.
When I first met Miller we were both living in Los Angeles, two young professionals who spent all our time, money, and energy getting outside. We would leave LA late Friday night and drive well into the dark, sleep in the car and get up early Saturday morning for two days of exploration and adventure. Sunday night we would return to LA sun-scoured and tired, fueled by an ever-expanding base of adventures and new skills. These trips are how we got to know each other. These trips were how we learned to speak the same language, to trust one another. These trips were filled with joy and crying on mountain passes, with the best sunsets of my life and hard-won knowledge. Six years later, those trips have ingrained themselves as the centre of our lives together.
As I sat in the front seat of Miller’s over-packed Mini Cooper that familiar sensation of thrill and anticipation percolated up from the bottom of my stomach and I started to smile. The beauty of exploring in the mountains is that there is always a new adventure. A new way to challenge yourself.
It was mid-morning the next day by the time we arrived at the snow park outside Sisters, OR. Already the parking lot was filled with snowmobilers and nordic skiers. The gentle gliding sound of skis drowned out by the roaring machines racing through the trees. Despite a lifetime of downhill skiing my single season of backcountry ski touring felt like the most concerning detail. I wondered how many seasons it would take before I felt capable and strong on my skis, not like an imposter with a load of nice gear.
Still, the plan for the first day was simple, ski up through the nordic park to camp beside a lake. It was the remaining two days of this long Martin Luther King weekend that had my stomach bubbling with nervous anticipation.
The first day was uneventful. Waking up the second morning near the lake we were treated to a stunning display of light as it splashed over a prow of rock jutting out above the lake. We watched the rock face slide between shades of white and pink above the pine forest below. Watching the sunrise burned off precious morning hours we were uncensored. For once, we prided ourselves, we had picked out a reasonable three day trip that we won’t need to rush through.
Isn’t it fun to see how wrong you were in the light of hindsight?
Departing from the lake we climbed through the trees along a sloping nose. Sparking morning light shone through the trees in rays and streams, and the world was transformed around us. To the west sat the proud line of the Three Sisters, while to our north Washington, Jefferson, and Hood marched away towards the horizon.
By mid day we had crested the nose and left the dense trees behind. And here, is where our lazy morning started to get the better of us. The warm sunny day had us stripping layers and applying sunscreen. While that same happy sun was melting the top layer of snow, turning it into a clinging, mushy mess. We were no longer gliding, we were marching uphill with skis covered in irremovable snow, with 50lb packs on. Ah, I thought to myself, this is what I get for thinking I’d planned an easy trip. This, I thought, is going to be a bit of a sufferfest and a lot of learning.
From the top of the ridge we were afforded a spectacular view of Broken Top Mountain, and exhausted as we were decided to pitch our tent right there. Suddenly the struggle of the afternoon turned into the glee of digging a giant snow hole to camp in. A powerful reminder of how the outdoors can be simultaneously a harsh teacher and a giver of unspeakably beautiful gifts.
And on our last day, Mama Nature had one last harsh lesson to teach us. As the sun rose, the morning light revealed a vast, glittering scene. The warm sun from the previous day had melted the top layer of snow, only to have it freeze overnight. Instead of a day of downhill skiing we were now faced with an ice rink. Let me tell you, the descent was truly ridiculous.
We packed our gear and began our way down the slope in a fitful, gangly, awkward manner. Miller would start down the hill and I would watch until he sank beneath the top ice layer and grind to a halt. Then I would go and skitter perilously along the top of the ice, unable to turn until I too punched through the ice and ground to a halt. Without any real ability to turn and the chance you might suddenly break through the ice, the descent took on a quality like a pinata full of spiders. Sure, you’re going to get a surprise but you’re not going to like it.
Finally came the last pitch. The nose that looked so promising in the sunshine of yesterday now shone like a freshly-polished bowling ball. This was stupid, we both concurred. And unsafe. And we weren’t here to prove anything to anyone.
So in a shedding of hubris we strapped our skis onto our backs and began to descend. Cracking through the hard, icy exterior with our boots through to thigh-deep snow. And suddenly, everything was hilarious. To come all this way barely to ski at all. To carry all this gear to the top of a ridge just to carry it back down. Hysterical. We tried not to asphyxiate as we descended, joking that if anybody saw us we’d tell them it’s a new crossfit exercise. We’d tell them we don’t even like skiing and that we just bring our skis to add weight to our packs.
And maybe it’s this, more than anything, that draws me into the outdoors. Yes, I am called to explore our wild spaces for their sheer beauty and the magic they hold. But there is also the human element, of laughing through something so incredibly stupid, of looking at your partner and knowing you’d rather be here, with them, than anywhere else on earth.
On the drive home, crammed uncomfortably in a too small car filled with too much ski gear, we looked out the window in awe at the mountains rushing past us. Trailheads and peaks and routes, all laid hidden under a blanket of snow. But there all the same, waiting for the rays of summer sun to reveal them. But now, it occurred to me, open to us now in this cold, wet winter. Through laughter and exploration and failure we were learning how to play in these great mountains during the darkest and coldest time of the year. More than six years into our relationship and we were still chasing that thrill of newness in the mountains. We were still chasing that feeling of freedom that comes from wild spaces.