The tracks are bold. That’s the only word that truly describes them. They’re confident, fluid, arcing without pause. Bold.
Small turns through the pepper at the top, effortless, bigger ones in the open bowl, before they shut back down, no skidding or side slipping, just a smaller radius before they disappear onto the rocky lip, invisible through the mandatory air, reappearing again in the narrow, shark-strewn apron. More big turns, shifting into a straight line into the meadow.
They’re the only marks in a decidedly proper line. It’s only accessible with a hike, even during resort season, and it offers plenty of exposure, a mandatory air, and some awkward route finding, even on alpine gear, even with a fat late season snowpack. But somebody dropped these perfect tracks on them in the second week of November. Sure, it’s been a great November. Sure, there’s more than a meter of snow on north faces. But still, those are the kind of tracks most of us work up to leaving through a season. They’re so confident, so fluid, so bold. They’re not November tracks.
We marvel as we keep skinning. Our group ranges in age and experience from a 17 year old who grew up in these hills, to a forty-something who’s stood on top of most of the peaks in the Tetons, and skied many things worth skiing, and plenty that aren’t. None of us could have left those tracks. Or maybe some of us could have, but none of us would. None of us have the inherent confidence it takes to just center punch a line like that on what’s really the first proper day of skiing this year.
At our summit we pause and discuss our own line choice. It’s snowed a lot, but things are stable. And those bold tracks look really, really good. So I advocate to step things up a little. A short, but aesthetic couloir, that probably hasn’t been skied yet this year is calling my name. The group sizes it up from the top. We discuss a lot of options, run a lot of scenarios. This group nearly over-communicates. That’s why I ski with these people. The cacophony of perspectives, harmonizing into one unanimous decision makes me feel safer, more confident. It helps cover my blind spots.
We decide that I’ll ski cut the big convexity at the top of the line, dart into a safe zone, and we’ll re-group, make a decision, maybe ski it, maybe not. As I adjust my gloves, a lone skier skins up to us. He’s on older gear, no sponsor logos, no flashy outerwear. He transitions quickly, mentions that those are his tracks we saw on the way up, that he’s already skied another local test piece, and that he’s going to ski this. We let him drop ahead of us. He’s obviously on his own mission, and he might as well get another set of first tracks before we hack up this line.
He drops, fluid, fast turns, barely slowing in each apex. No helmet, just a golf visor. He’s gone, into and out of the danger zone before any of us has time to worry. I laugh as I get back into my ski cut mindset. By my standards I’ve skied this line a lot, maybe 15 or 20 times over the last five years. But those are rookie numbers in comparison to this guy. He could have skied it blind, could have skied it naked, could have skied it with his brain turned off, could have skied it on one foot.
I make the ski cut anyway. Nobody in our group skis as lightly as that guy did, and the fact that nothing moved on him means nothing to us. So I drop in, traverse across the convexity, jumping hard, trying to push any unstable snow down, away from me. Nothing moves. I giggle a little, adjust my boot, tell my group I’m dropping.
The first time I skied this line, it was with a local legend. One of those guys who creates ski culture simply by existing. He asked me if I had any experience with sluff management. I told him a little, and his advice was simply to “either be faster than the snow, or get out of its way, but don’t waffle inbetween.” I waffled, got bodied by a wall of snow, and he laughed and high-fived me on the apron.
Today though, nothing moves. I ski as fluidly as I can, inspired by the tracks already in the line. Pull over in the little cave in the safe zone, wave my friends through. We hoot and holler, this line, as pedestrian as it is, is a big deal to all of us, especially in November.
From the bottom we can see the loner’s tracks on the huge, aesthetic ridge down the backside of the resort. He makes one turn where I’d probably milk three. Smooth arcs, huge radii, little airs that leave huge gaps in the strokes he’s painted on the mountain.
I didn’t recognize him, but old timers nod at my description, are unsurprised by his feats. Obviously nailing three of the most visible and impressive lines on the hill, solo, in early November is on-brand for him.
That’s not how I ski. That’s not really how I want to ski. I need a group, or at least a partner. I don’t like to ski most things solo, let alone big lines. My work on our SAR team has made me hyper-aware of the consequences, probably to a fault. If my wife skied like that routinely, she wouldn’t be my wife. If my partners did the same, they probably wouldn’t be my ski partners for long. That’s not what I want from skiing. But I’m so thankful, and proud, that there are folks there that express themselves in this way.
I’ve skied with plenty of folks who wanted to be local legends. Folks who thought that this next GoPro clip would make them the talk of every ski town bar. There are plenty of people out there who want to be thought of as badass skiers. But sometimes too much energy goes into wanting to be seen a certain way, and not enough goes into the skiing part. Often, wanting to make an impact on the scene turns into a self-defeating prophecy.
I don’t think footage from any of those lines we saw will make it to social media. That’s not the point for some folks. Some people just want to ski, hard. Some people don’t need the external validation and all the heuristics that come with it. Maybe the guy who left those tracks is an asshole. Maybe I’d enjoy his company and we’d have a great conversation. Maybe he consistently makes scary decisions that would leave me shaken and anxious. Maybe, maybe, maybe. What I do know is that he’s a great skier. Some people are good at taking photos. Some people put their lives into understanding snow science. Some people are gifted storytellers who exude skiing wherever they go. And some people leave bold tracks.