By Michael Lanza
The sun burns atomically from a sky polished to a flawless blue. Heat reflects up at us from the snow covering this mountainside in southwest Idaho, making March feel like June. New snow cloaks the boughs of the ponderosa pines and blankets the ground, powder light enough to scoop into your hand and blow away like feathers.
It’s a perfect day for any beginning, especially for a first time doing anything outdoors. My 12-year-old son, Nate, 85 pounds of expectation, clicks his boots into bindings and grins at me, displaying equal parts eagerness and curiosity for his first-ever day of backcountry skiing.
We shuffle up the bottom of a creek valley, following a track set down by my friends and regular backcountry-skiing partners, David Gordon and Chip Roser, who have set off ahead of us. They will dig a snow pit to assess the avalanche hazard (we’ve deliberately chosen an uphill route that will be free of any such danger) and get in one downhill run before Nate and I reach the top of this 1,100-foot climb. I’m following Nate, letting him set the pace as he figures out how someone makes any uphill progress at all with nine pounds of boot and ski anchoring each foot.
It’s a ludicrous proposition, really, that we should climb this huge hill under our own power in order to ski back down. Probably 99.9 percent of skiers respect gravity, riding lifts up and then gliding down. In fact, Nate made a quick mental calculation of the effort-to-payoff deficit inherent to backcountry skiing right before we left the house this morning.
I told him to expect that we would spend the first two hours climbing more than a thousand feet uphill before skiing back down. He contemplated that quietly for a pregnant moment, and then asked the logical follow-up question: “And how much time do we ski downhill?”
“Maybe five or six minutes of downhill skiing for each time we climb uphill,” I answered. Not sure how much stamina he would have, I told him we might do this once or twice. He nodded wordlessly, comprehending, at that moment, that backcountry skiing seems grossly imbalanced in favor of effort over fun. As you would figure, there are no lifts to the slopes where you find untracked snow and virtually no other people.
But he didn’t complain or decide against going. I’m delighted that my son sees value in this silliness, in spite of that imbalance.
He’s actually been asking me to take him backcountry skiing for a while. I’ve been waiting for good snow conditions, because I want him to enjoy this first experience. Bad conditions when skiing ungroomed snow can crush even an ambitious adult’s spirit, never mind the will of a child.
Fortunately, while Nate and his little sister, Alex (who’s nine and, I hope, a future backcountry skier) know the instant gratification of electronic games—like most kids—they also know the slower and more-subtle rewards and occasional hardships of backpacking and other forms of self-powered wilderness travel. So I’m confident that he’s ready for a day that will be physically tough and briefly magical.
I remember taking Nate down his first black-diamond run at our local ski area on a day much like today. To me, it seems just a few short years have scooted past us since that sunny, early-spring morning. But for him, it was half a lifetime ago. Still, he remembers it about as well as I do.
He was the one who suggested we try a black diamond. But then he got going too fast—launching higher off of each successive bump he hit, accelerating more out of control. I tried to speed up to catch him, as if I could swoop in like Superman, saving him from the train wreck at the last second. That didn’t work. I watched him rocket down that wide-open bowl (fortunately, not a tree anywhere within his trajectory) and take a magnificent, tumbling, sliding face plant, one ski flying off. I hurried to him, expecting tears from my little boy. Nate lifted his face from the ground, his cheeks, helmet, and goggles packed with snow… and burst into uproarious laughter. “Dad! What an awesome yard sale I just did!” he said. I think he told that story to friends of ours for the next two years.
After skiing up a narrow valley for maybe 30 minutes, we cross the creek on a snow bridge and commence the serious part of the ascent: 800 vertical feet of steeper mountainside. We follow the zigzagging track David and Chip have laid down, passing between the shade of pine forest and the sunbaked, blindingly white meadows we will ski down. At one point, we hear David and Chip hoot as they ski turns down the slope on the other side of a stand of trees.
Backcountry skiing resembles resort skiing about as much as driving the “race cars” at my kids’ favorite local amusement park resembles the Indy 500. Out here, there are dangers: the chance of falling and getting hurt miles from help, of crashing into a tree, of getting caught in an avalanche. Details of the avalanche courses I’ve taken and the books I’ve read about it run through my head; I want to make sure I don’t overlook something important. But when David and Chip catch up to us at the top of this ridge on Freeman Peak in the Boise National Forest, Chip will tell me their evaluation of the snowpack indicated that it’s very safe. Plus, we’ll ski an open slope pitched at a low angle that’s extremely unlikely to slide even in hazardous conditions.
Still, I can’t help but feel a little anxious. I think back to the first time I belayed Nate up a cliff. As he rock climbed it, I sat on a ledge 150 feet off the ground, my view of him at times obscured by bulges in the cliff face. My wife, Penny, watched him nervously from the ground. I scrolled repeatedly through my mental checklist to make sure I’d covered all precautions to maximize safety. Penny and I shouted to each other about any slack in the rope, about whether the rope line was straight enough to avoid Nate taking a pendulum swing if he fell. I triple-checked the anchor securing me—and by extension, Nate—to the cliff.
I also recall vividly the look of fierce concentration on his face at he crawled up the last 30 feet of that rock face, then his proud smile as he plopped down next to me on the ledge, just another rock climber—but one who happened to be six years old.
Some parents feel their heart forget a beat when dropping a child off for his or her first day of kindergarten. Other parents experience that stomach-churning angst taking a kid rock climbing or backcountry skiing for the first time.
Is this the right thing to do, to take my son out here? If only we could protect them. But I know that’s an illusion. They have to figure the world out mostly on their own, both its hazards and its pleasures.
Reaching the crest of the east ridge of Freeman Peak, overlooking scores of snowy mountains, Nate says, “Wow, great views.” His genuine enthusiasm reminds me of his first glimpse of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim at age nine, as we were about to start a four-day backpacking trip, when he exclaimed with awe, “Oh my god! That’s absolutely unbelievable!”
There are valuable lessons to communicate to my children out here, like the minutia of learning how to evaluate the snowpack and make decisions that can mean life or death. But there are larger lessons about personal responsibility, about not assuming a situation is safe, about looking out for one another and choosing friends who will make good decisions. Your life may be in their hands, whether you’re on a mountain or in a car.
I think about the day almost a year ago, when Penny and I decided—with some trepidation and much consideration—to take Nate and his sister, Alex, then 11 and nine, on a one-day descent of a technical slot canyon in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. Involving four rappels, and one shoulder-width narrows section where everyone would have to employ chimney-climbing technique to traverse more than 100 feet, the slot canyon was a full commitment once we made the rappel into it—no turning back.
Afterward, I told my kids I was impressed with how skillfully and calmly they both handled that challenging day. Nate responded, “Well, I thought about the risks involved, and whether I could manage them, and the consequences if I made any mistake, and decided that it was safe for me to do it.”
Of course, he was repeating something I’ve drummed into him many times. But the lesson apparently stuck. That attitude toward risk and consequences will serve him well in life. And a slot canyon in southern Utah helped shape his perspective—as will these days we go backcountry skiing together.
That’s part of the reason we’re out here today.
But I also I want my kids to know the joy of this activity. I could only guess how many times I’ve come out to this very mountain, an hour’s drive from our home, backcountry skiing with friends, gazing out over scores of snowy peaks stretching to distant horizons on a sunny day, or climbing uphill and skiing down through thickly falling snow, and uttered the exact same words: “We’re so lucky to live in this place.”
I want my kids to feel that indescribable freedom of floating downhill in deep, untracked powder, of being briefly liberated for minutes from the chains of gravity. To know the weightless harmony of your body flowing in tune with the contours of a snow-covered hillside, the bliss of finding the mental and physical space where effort and breathing seem calibrated perfectly with the powerful hush of a pine forest cloaked in shawls of white. The pieces of my life that bring me absolute clearness of thought and purpose are too few and infrequent. But skiing a lonely mountain and climbing a steep cliff are two of them.
How could I deprive my kids of those critical pleasures merely to satisfy my own anxiety over their safety?
This really isn’t any different than a parent wrestling over questions such as when to let a young child wander the neighborhood freely on his or her bicycle, or letting a teenage son or daughter travel to an unfamiliar foreign country. Unfortunately, dangers lurk in the shadows of self-discovery. But that doesn’t diminish the value of those experiences.
Now, as I watch my son ski down, trying to find his balance in this challenging, ungroomed, wild snow, falling and picking himself up again, I see that he has already figured out the most elemental question at stake here: that as difficult as this is, the fun is nonetheless larger than the effort. He likes it. This may be our first day backcountry skiing together, but I sense there will be many more.
I also think about him doing this and other outdoor activities without me, when he’s a little older. For the sake of his parents who will worry about him, I hope he learns, from the days we spend out here together, to be safe.
After we climb the hill a second time, Nate looks a little knackered and admits to me, “I think this will be my last run.” I tell him, “You did awesome today.”
He grins ear to ear, and that is all I need to see to know I made the right decision bringing him out here.
I asked Nate to write his thoughts on his first day of backcountry skiing. Here’s what he had to say:
“My dad is right. It was a fun day. My mom was telling me all about how horrible backcountry skiing is and how you spend so much time going up and so little going down. The problem is, she is expecting the wrong thing. I think of it as an awesome opportunity to get exercise and be outdoors. The downhill is just an epic bonus. However, there are two things I have to disagree with my dad about: #1. An Adult’s enthusiasm is often easier to crush than a kid’s. #2. Being wedged by my knees & my back between two walls of a slot canyon with 20 feet of fall to sharp rocks below doesn’t really compare to skiing in the middle of snow in a (mostly) avalanche-proof forest during good conditions.”
NOTE: See my other stories about outdoor adventures with my family by clicking on the Family Adventures category in the left sidebar, including my two posts about our annual family ski trip to a backcountry yurt, “Key Ingredient to Family Yurt Trip: What’s Missing,” and “Snowstorms, Skinny Skis, Yurts, and a Family Tradition,” and my popular post, “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”