Chasing the Snow: A Meditation on How ‘Compressed Adventure’ Can Be Your Salvation
By Michael Lanza
Zooming down the interstate, with my family in the car and our Nordic skis in the roofbox, I’m reminded of a truism that explains not only our motivation today, but many of life’s turns and frustrations: Sometimes the place where we are and the place where we want to be lie far, far apart.
My wife and kids have hunkered down for the long haul with their books and electronics, settled in for a day trip that will involve about seven hours of driving in exchange for less than half that much time skiing. To our left rise the visual evidence for why we must make this pilgrimage: the Boise Foothills above our home, still brown and virtually devoid of snow, with winter just around the corner. It’s a disheartening sight.
My companions had uttered a few murmurs of skepticism that the payoff will justify the drudgery of so many hours car bound. But we’ve run out of patience waiting for the snow to come to us. So we’re en route to the nearest place with white stuff on the ground and groomed ski trails—Galena Lodge, which sits at the upper end of Idaho’s Wood River Valley, at well over 7,000 feet in the Boulder Mountains.
The phrase for what we’re doing speaks to the desperation implicit in this act: We are chasing the snow. It sounds like both a fool’s mission and divine inspiration—and actually, it has the potential to go either way.
The idea of chasing snow also provides a useful metaphor for a larger, almost constant challenge: fitting the activities that bring us pleasure into lives that can often seem far too overstuffed with responsibilities to accommodate anything more.
The mere thought of making the effort to go after fun when it lies at a distance from you—especially when it involves motivating and moving an entire family—can be the thing that stops us. It’s often not the weather or a lack of enthusiasm about being there once you get there. It’s the organizing and getting-there part that causes inertia. I know: I, too, have on rare occasions suffered from that spirit-killing mental funk. But I prefer to view that attitude in the same way that ancient mariners viewed the unexplored margins of their maps: those areas were labeled with warnings to venture no farther in that direction, for “only dragons dwell here.”
At Galena in early afternoon, the sun shines brilliantly, there’s no wind, the temperature sits in the high 20s, and a thick blanket of clean snow covers the ground. The four of us glide through meadows and pine forest, playing tag on skis, instantly pleased with our decision to be here instead of at home longing to be elsewhere.
Even years before my kids were born, the list of adventures I wanted to do began growing faster than I could tick them off. At some point, I experienced a shocking revelation: I may never get to them all. One of the cruelties of maturing is learning that one life is really a grossly inadequate amount of time.
Having children delivers many rewards, but additional leisure time is not among them—a fact that only compounded my dilemma. I became perhaps a bit obsessive about cramming as much fun as possible into almost every nook and cranny in my life. Fatherhood was actually part of the inspiration behind my discovery of the unobvious but powerful satisfaction in taking really long dayhikes and ultralight backpacking trips on which I’d hike just about as far as I could every day.
I also became a devotee of an approach that, years ago, I gave the name “compressed adventure.” At first blush, it can sound like the philosophy of a madman, but bear with me. I took a secret, slightly weird pride in backpacking trips (many of them solo, go figure) on which the number of miles I hiked exceeded the number of hours I spent in the backcountry, including sleeping time. I cannot estimate the number of times I’ve taken a day trip from home that involved several hours of driving in order to hike or climb or ski for several hours. I had one free day and needed a fix.
To share one of many examples: One July, I decided it was inexcusable that we’d lived in Idaho for five or six years and I had yet to bag its highest mountain, Borah Peak. Problem was, our family’s summer was already too booked up with work, play, and other obligations to fit in another weekend getaway. So I left home at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, drove four hours, camped at the trailhead, got up early, hiked seven miles and more than 5,000 feet up and down before lunch, then drove home. I was gone for less than 24 hours—most of which time my family was either asleep or at work and daycare, so hardly missed me. And I returned entirely reinvigorated.
Recently, a friend asked how we manage to take so many trips with our young kids. The answer’s easy; the solution requires effort: Plan months in advance. For instance, with the new year approaching, I have two trips on the calendar and at least a half-dozen ideas I’m juggling, trying to figure out where to fit them into a year that’s woefully short on days. Wherever there’s a month without at least one escape planned, it feels like a hole in my heart.
The trails through the woods and meadows surrounding Galena Lodge are part of the fabulous North Valley Trail System, more than 31 miles (50 kilometers) of groomed trails for both skate and classic skiing between Ketchum and Galena Lodge. You could live here and ski more than a hundred days a year and it’s hard to imagine getting tired of the views of the jagged and snowy Boulder Mountains towering above the valley, almost close enough to touch.
After a couple of hours of playing tag, laughing, and enjoying some surprisingly good early-season skiing, we deposit the kids with their books and games in the lodge dining room and head back out for an hour of skiing at an adult pace. We glide gently uphill through a long meadow dissected by a creek, then make a sustained, steep climb—Galena sits at the base of 10,000-foot-high peaks, and there are some serious hill climbs here. But the lung-busting ascent is followed by a fast descent, skidding on edges through tight turns in the forest, and then cruising over rolling terrain along another creek back to the lodge.
It’s far too easy to get sucked into the vortex of work and the home routine and neglect the pleasures that are one reason we work. Once in a while, we have to listen to the voice inside telling us to embrace the idea that sounds crazy. It just may take us to a good place.
As we’re heading for the car to start the three-hour drive home, my wife turns to me and says, “This was so much fun, I’d do it again. Thanks for dragging me out.” And later, as I’m separately giving two exhausted kids goodnight hugs in their bedrooms, I ask each of them whether they had a good day; and both respond, “Yea! Great day!”
Chalk one up for the madman.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR cross-country skiers and snowshoers of all ability levels.
Make It Happen
Season Grooming of the Nordic trails generally begins in November or early December, once there’s adequate snow coverage, and continues through March or into April.
Getting There Galena Lodge is located on ID 75, 24 miles north of Ketchum and the Sun Valley Resort. Ketchum is a 2.5-hour drive from Boise, the nearest major airport.
Trails The North Valley Trail System maintains more than 31 miles (50 kilometers) of groomed trails for both skate and classic skiing between Ketchum and Galena Lodge, with frequent views of the Boulder Mountains and terrain for everyone from beginners and young children to experts. Most of the Harriman Trail, which extends 19 miles (30k) from Galena Lodge to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) headquarters north of Ketchum, is flat or gently rolling with great views. Galena Lodge also has an extensive system of snowshoe trails.
Pass A trail pass can be purchased at Galena Lodge or at self-service stations at trailhead parking areas along ID 75.