Editorial: Curiouser and curiouser—How ski touring changed my life

by Andru McCracken, Editor


The first night I drove to Valemount I remember the snow covered mountains in the parks glowing in the moonlight. It was gorgeous. Taunting, like a forbidden lover pulling back her dress to show just her legs.

At the time I was just coming for a year. My partner had a job. It wasn’t a forever thing, I mean the town only had 1000 people; we’d only just found it on the map.

As we whistled west on Highway 16 it occurred to me: There’s only one ski area for these thousands of snow covered mountains? What about these mountains here? Can they be skied?

In Valemount I was gobsmacked at our apartment. It wasn’t the shaggy green carpet or the oddly shallow kitchen counter that appealed to me: every room in our little apartment above the Home Hardware had a stunning view. Even the bathroom had a knockout vista.

I went to elementary school in Rocky Mountain House, and I remember gazing upon that little white line of peaks from the school field. Even from that distance they were formidable.

Now I lived here, nestled among them. Like few others.

An adept student of human nature would know that my feeling of awe is unsustainable.

Eventually your surroundings become normalized, you might say.

I followed the white rabbit down the hole, and have no desire to come out.

Not when you’ve seen what I’ve seen and done what I’ve done.

It was probably my fifth day on the job as a 26-year-old rookie reporter, when old Bill Mahoney, the editor of the Valley Sentinel at that time, called me to his desk in the back office in his gruff voice.

“McCracken,” he called, “This new Caribou Cat Ski wants some pictures, can you handle that?”

The phrase ‘cat ski’ was new to me, but I had heard about helicopter skiing before and I was more than willing to board a piece of construction equipment to check it out.

It was a wonder that Terry Cinnamon let me on the cat at all when I showed up with my skinny skis.

Terry found me two planks that looked like a pair of surfboards with CMH scrawled on them and off we went.

If I had to choose a moment, I think it would be the first time my skis dove under the snow and then inexplicably shot back up launching me out of the snow… and back into it again.

Snow dolphin. Flying. Changed.

It’s tough to explain.

I talked all about it to everyone that would listen. That led me to a teenager who told me all about ‘ski touring.’

Ski touring is a sport where unhinged mountain people clad themselves in expensive and odd looking gear and slowly ascend a mountain on skis, as explained by Noland Germain, if I remember. At the top, they transform their skis and drop back to earth like Icarus plunging. One run a day, said Germain. Forget about resting your legs on the chair lift! Climb a mountain… ski down once. The risks include getting lost overnight, death by exposure, frostbite, death by avalanche, death by suffocation in a tree well, death by tree or rock.

I wanted in.

Like Neo I wanted out of the Matrix and into Zion, I sought out the red pill.

Noland explained to me what a ski touring binding looked like and how it was different from a regular ski. The price was out of reach for a cub reporter.

With about $10 in materials from the hardware store below my home I created some bindings that would pop into my existing skis and pop out when the business of descending was at hand. Door hinges created an articulated toe, strapping from an old back pack secured the boot. I borrowed the skins.

I remember cresting the right hump of what we called Ski Hill Mountain at the time. My face and fingers were freezing from fixing the bindings and my calves and toes were screaming for the lack of heel lifts.

It was minus 22 down at the valley floor and perhaps minus 32 celsius when we broke for lunch. I was sweating madly.

We had just travelled 14 kilometres beyond roads into the mountains by snowmobile and then climbed, spider like, 700 metres to the top of a mountain ridge on foot.

Fresh from the city, I thought we’d walked off the face off the earth. A typical winter day out for Noland and his father was a life changing adventure for a kid fresh from downtown Edmonton.

All that was left was to eat a frozen peanut butter sandwich, ponder a frozen water bottle and descend 800 metres to the snowmobile stationed on the other side of the mountain.

As we switched to downhill mode, Germain called me over to what looked to be a cliff face. ‘You worked the hardest,” he said. “You go first.”

I protested twice, Germain grinned winningly, and then I pointed those skinny skis into the abyss.

And. Dropped. In.

I was engulfed by infinitely deep dry powder.

Something happened in that moment, maybe my brain was confused by the sudden activity, the onset of frostbite and lack of oxygen at elevation, but in the first moments of that descent it was if my fingers, ears, toes, nose and cheeks were on fire. I was on top of the world, descending like Mercury on winged shoes, a fiery angel on a mission with purpose. I wasn’t skiing; I was flying in snow.

Years later I shocked myself at a Toastmasters class when I told the room that ski touring was like making love to the mountains. I blushed, they tittered, Freud nodded.

Ski touring has taken me to places that are sometimes impossible to get otherwise; it provides a vantage point unlike any other. It is difficult, dangerous, but the rewards are bliss and ecstasy. Suffice it to say it engenders a unique love of the landscape.

I see how my fellow ski tourers move in the world and it’s different. It’s a love of beauty and action. They have a preoccupation with safety that is in constant tension with fun. These people don’t just admire nature, they climb into it. Become it.

To the local ski tourers who have been creating a ski touring culture here, Rudi, Patricia, Ian, Barb, Darryl, Noland, my hat is off to you. You have opened the rabbit hole to myself and to so many others.

If you have made turns at a ski hill, I invite you to come with me some time.

We’ll clad ourselves in expensive, odd-looking gear and slowly ascend a mountain on skis, then at the top, we’ll descend with purpose.

As if the beauty surrounding us and the good natured folks who live here wasn’t enough, the promise of ski touring keeps me rooted.