I crested the ridge. As I looked out onto the Grenadier Range, I remembered that this is where I fell in love with the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. If you had told me five years ago when I was backpacking from Wolf Creek to Silverton along the Continental Divide Trail that one day I would be here on skis, I wouldn’t have believed you. I didn’t even own skis five years ago. I was just a runner and had only recently bought a backpacking pack that I was taking for its first trip. Now, as my skis slipped silently down the soft snow and the now-familiar mountains enveloped me, I felt at home.
However, the week before I was sitting at home in a pile of gear. I’d get home from work and procrastinate by going for a run, hoping that my backpack would pack itself. But finally the night before leaving, I had to put it all together. Thankfully I also had a plethora of more experienced friends to tell me what to pack. As I finished adding the last pieces of gear my eyes widened… it was GIGANTIC. As a runner and ultralight backpacker, the mass that required two arms for hoisting seemed like it was certain to crumple me. My nerves were anything but quelled.
Fortunately it wasn’t the mileage or the days out that I worried about this time, but mostly unknowns like snow conditions, broken gear, and terrain that was not so easy to bail from in snow should something go wrong. I had to keep reminding myself that fortunately this wasn’t a race and 10 days of food should be more than plenty even if the weight of my pack seemed insurmountable.
I also now know that questioning oneself seems inherent before any big adventure. I think the mental toughness of physical activities starts then. And as I continue to learn, you just have to trust yourself enough to try dumb things every once in a while.
My partner for this past April’s ski traverse of the Weminuche Wilderness, Jake Becker, was a great example of this. He is an aspiring ultrarunner and avid backcountry skier, but being in his early twenties this—what would end up being a 100-mile, nine-day ski traverse along the Continental Divide between Wolf Creek and Silverton—was to be his longest undertaking. Unfortunately his ski broke on day two and held on for a couple more days until it literally came unglued which seemed timely as he himself came down with a bout of sickness. Despite being broken and having to bail, his gracious stoke and attitude kept me going. For whatever reason, my nerves turned to confidence in my abilities—a very rare and tenuous happening.
It’s always true that once you start moving, the inherent inspiration from the landscape reveals itself. The curiosity of what’s around the next bend pulls us forward. I wanted to experience the wilderness covered in snow, something that used to seem daunting and foreboding. As each day passed, I felt increasingly comfortable even while hunkering down during a snowstorm for half a day and getting lost in a white out. One thing also seemed to hold true since I first hiked here: I was still in awe of the mountains.
In Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez wrote, “Whatever evaluation we finally make of a stretch of land, however, no matter how profound or accurate, we will find it inadequate. The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression—its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.”
During nine days and 100 miles of skiing across the Weminuche Wilderness, I had ample time to think about people and places. This same route was my first, solo multi-day backpacking trip. I can recall that July day when I walked into Silverton after three days on the trail and sat down at the local hangout, Avalanche Brewing, to scarf down some food. When I realized no one was around to give me a ride back to Durango, where I was living at the time, I got a room at the hostel and saw that there was trail work for the Hardrock 100 happening the next day. I signed up knowing I could probably find a ride. Everything worked out and after digging in the dirt I found a ride and earned an extra ticket into the Hardrock race lottery—which turned out to be very fruitful. That December, my name was drawn from the pot during the lottery and the following spring I moved to Silverton. After a long summer of training, I finally felt like I was getting to know where I was.
Now, gliding through the snow-covered mountains on skis offered a whole new perspective of familiar terrain. With no one around for many miles, it felt like an intimate interaction. Learning a landscape in different seasons is like getting to know the many moods and eccentricities of a person. And like any relationship, I think the strength is gained when you can weather the storms, not just frolic along on a bluebird day. And so here I was, in a place that not only opened my horizons to the mountains, but also introduced me to the most inspiring people that I now call friends. Traversing the Weminuche on skis allowed me time to reflect on a place that has given me so much. This isn’t anything new but just a constant reminder that if we trust ourselves enough to dream big, then we can trust ourselves enough to get out there and see just how far we can go.
Call for Comments
When in life and the outdoors have you realized that you can trust in yourself and your abilities to weather whatever challenges you face?