I really want these first four turns. I played them in my head all through the night before: little left slash to right slash to set myself up and check the snow quality, big right, big left, duck into the safe zone. I can feel them in my thighs, the line is untracked, it’s that perfect slope angle that just pushes you into more and more powerful turns, there’s a little bit of sluff that will come down with me, but nothing to worry about. Just pivot those tips across the fall line, sink into that turn, revel in the first real, steep ski line of the season. I’m so ready for it.
My legs are shaking a little in anticipation, my pole straps are off, the toes of my bindings unlocked, I’ve unconsciously slipped my hand across my chest to the handle of my airbag backpack a few times already. But last night when I played this line back and forth through my head I didn’t need that airbag, I wasn’t worried about my poles pulling me under an avalanche. I was focused on the turns I’d make, not what could go wrong. I was a little worried that the line I was planning for had been skied out already, that it would be full of tracks and crusty bumps. Now though, standing at its entrance, I can’t summon those perfect visualizations anymore. I can’t play that four turn sequence through anymore. Instead, every time I imagine sweeping into that first big right turn the subtle convexity that I’m staring at breaks loose. I never duck into the safe zone to wave my friends down. Instead of the near-silent soundtrack I imagined all last night, all I can hear is the huge “whoomph” of snow breaking loose, the pop and hiss as I pull my airbag, my friends yelling for me.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s having a hard time imagining a fully positive outcome from this line. We discussed our options on the skin up. We traversed over to the entrance, I made a ski cut, ducking from safe zone to safe zone, trying to assess the stability. Nothing moved when I cut it, but I also didn’t have the guts to make a very powerful cut. A bunch of slopes on similar aspects have already slid naturally this storm cycle, their debris paths litter the valley. This one hasn’t, and it looks like it hasn’t been skied yet this year either. It’s so perfect, inviting. And we all have reservations.
My judgment is clouded by memory though. Last time we skied this line for the first time and it was near perfect. The snow was soft and untracked, it was just steep enough to make every turn exhilarating, and we blasted out onto the apron ready to go looking for more. On the surface, this year looks the same. I can’t help flashing back to standing in this entrance for the first time, trying to make sure the line went all the way through with no chokes. It does of course. But this year we’re standing on crusty old snow from October that’s rotted into facets. This year all sorts of things on this aspect have been sliding. Yesterday we dug a pit and made a huge block of snow slide out of the slope as our ECT propagated.
So I explain what I think is the safest way to ski this line and then we take turns delivering our opinions. The first two of my companions are clear. They’ll ski this line if the group wants to, but they personally don’t want to. And that’s it. It’s so simple, we’ll ski hippy pow back out to the bottom. But we’re still standing in the entrance as we discuss our new plan, and I feel this urge deep in my gut to just slip into the line, make those four turns. Sure, maybe it will pop, but I’m wearing my beacon, and just look at how perfect those four turns will be.
I have to slide back from the entrance. I’m too distracted, I can’t have this conversation here, not staring into it, it feels like it's pulling me in. I’ve thought about it too much, I’ve run it so many times in my head that there’s a huge urge to manifest my imagination, make it real, live those turns. We regroup at a clump of trees a few hundred yards past the entrance to the line that we’re not going to ski. We make our plans and I drop into the gentle slope we skinned up first. Little slash to the left, little slash to the right, big right turn, huge sweeping left turn. It takes four turns to kill my urge to ski the line we’ve passed up. Another four and I’m back in the moment, focused only on making the most of this surprisingly good snow.
Four turns. Another four turns, no four turns worth ending my chances at ever making another turn, every four an investment in a life full of countless more.
Note: A version of this first appeared in my local newspaper last year. But as bigger terrain starts to open up and a fresh new crop of skiers enters the backcountry, this is where my head is at every night before I fall asleep, weighing those magical forbidden turns against the probability of a slide. What have you backed off of recently?