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January 1991

There I was on my first “backcountry” skiing experience, crunching along a dark trail at 4 a.m., when I stumbled over a mogul and slammed nose-first to the snow.

It was one of those crystalline Vermont nights in January, the type of night so clear and brittle the world might shatter at the touch, so cold that normal actions seemed stupid, foolish ones beyond comprehension. Imagine, then, how dumb I felt sitting there bruised in the dark, having a miserable backcountry experience—and it wasn’t even in the backcountry. I’d tripped on a mogul on a ski trail within the boundaries of Mad River Glen.

For years I’d wanted to go into the backcountry, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t have any of the specialized equipment, nor would I have known what to do with it if I did. No one I knew skied the backcountry, and, besides, the eastern suburban sprawl and huge blankets of private property made the backcountry seem intangible, unlike in the West, where it lived and breathed on every mountain switchback.

Still, I desperately wanted the other ski experience, where turns are paid for in sweat and people are few and far between, where the rarity of the experience makes it more valuable. Then this idea to hike Mad River came to me like a revelation. The realization that that kind of maniacal revelation comes solely to extremists and medieval saints occurred to me only when I tried to get my friends to come along.

Well, with the exception of one, they blew it, because the stars were never brighter and the air was never cleaner. When the sun found us eating breakfast on a high cat-track, the alpenglow was richer and more intense than any I’d seen from a ski lift. We skied down, the two of us, past trees painted pink and over snow that throbbed in the early light. As we skated toward the parking lot at the bottom and passed the patrollers on their way up for the milk run, we felt a few hours short of sleep but a lifetime richer.

Not long after that, I started poking around in the trees at Mad River. I followed tracks, got lost, tore my parka on the puckerbrush, and made new friends who eventually gave me the key that unlocked such hidden tree runs as Paradise, the 19th Hole, and Octupus’s Garden.

That spring I moved to the West, and within a month Casey Sheahan, my roommate and co-worker, threw a tent, a bag of Oreos, and a pair of climbing skins into my pack and shepherded me from sea level to 13,000 feet in the eastern Sierra Nevada. It was a trial by fire, a pilgrim’s progress: I stumbled from the lightheadedness, puked because of the altitude, was awed by the granite spires and intimidated by unfamiliar skis that didn’t give me much control on snow that refused to turn to corn. I got blisters and spent a sleepless night in my summer-weight bag when the temperature plummeted to minus-35. That whole weekend in Rock Creek Canyon I had three good turns on soft snow…and yet to this day I can’t think of any other turns that remain so vivid.

Skiing in Rock Creek was different from Mad River not just because of the vast contrast in scale, but also because of the way it was backcountry. At Rock Creek, we drove up a road to the snowline, parked, and started walking. Unlike in the East, where you have to hop a fence, duck a rope, or cross an invisible boundary, there was no division between the backcountry and the rest of the country. It was just country, and any boundaries were simply self-imposed limitations. At the time I learned that, those little lines on maps and in my mind melted away, and anything that had snow on it became fair game. Since the time Casey tried to kill me in the Sierra, I’ve done a lot more touring. I spent a week skinning through British Columbia powder at Rogers Pass, traversed Italy’s Dolomite Mountains with nothing but one really stinky set of Gore-Tex, and skied at 18,000 feet on a Mexican volcano. I’ve been lucky. But if I’d never skied any of those places, if I’d never left Burlington, there’s no question that I’d still be whacking at the Mad River Glen underbrush, fighting for a lousy couple hundred feet of vertical, just as happy and content as I’d be anywhere else.

That, I suppose, is the backcountry allure.

First published in Powder Magazine, issue 19.5, January 1991. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.

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