Being in the mountains alone has always had a calming quality for me; someone who’s mind, and mouth, races any time I’m awake. In general the effort it takes slogging, or the focus in technical climbing seems to draw me into a singular thought; or if I’m lucky no thought at all, hypnotized by the rhythmic sound of my steps, heavy breathing and the consistent clanking and shifting of the gear on my back. For me personally, time spent alone in the mountains has always been something I have used to reset my perspectives, or deal with tough times in my life.
This month has been one of those times, with about as much strife and conflict in my soul as I have had in a long time; but this day I had started excited to have a distraction, with a sunny morning up high in the Jackson Hole side-country. The excited blue morning in Jackson that began with the frothing masses choking the tram line, looking to get into the alpine after days of clouds and winds have kept them away from the coveted terrain of our infamous playground, turned as it so often does here, where the clouds and weather come in just as 9am rolls around. By the time we get off the tram, the beautiful morning sunlight on Cody Peak and Pucker Face, our first run, is obscured by a thick fog, and in the 10 minutes we sit inside Corbet's Cabin deciding what to do, the fog becomes a squall of grapple that dashes our hopes for the day. In an instant my happy distraction is no longer available and life comes crashing back into my reality.
Leaving the resort knowing the skiing that is left will not distract form what troubles me, the rest of my morning is spent trying to get things in my life on the mend, but after my best efforts it seemed as if there was nothing left to do. With a heavy heart and a curse aloud at my reality thrown towards the heavens, the distraction I had hoped for that morning would appear. Just below the clouds and celestial home of the gods I was cursing, the mountains were clearing and at 2:30pm on a sad February day, the smallest smile would cross my lips, as I thanked the powers that be for such small mercies.
By 3:30 I've made the last tram, struggling to free my mind of my troubles, as the rest of the box around me enjoys the rid to the last run of their day. Excited to ski something big as a diversion like I had planed in the morning I am unable to get anyone to come with me, so late in the day standing at the top of the mountain looking south, it seemed that I should just start out that way and see where I wind up.
For me, as I’m sure with anybody there are just places that are you, walks you’ve done more than you can remember, turns and runs that satiate those most base desires every single time without fail; and standing on the shoulder of Cody Peak looking at Pucker Face (my happy place) all tracked up, one open area made that my next stop. The far right side that we call the fin, because of the shape of the apron on the exit, the line that I know and love the most, was untracked, almost as if everyone had known I could use a win and left it just for me.
The climb up the start of the shoulder is one of my favorite parts of the adventure, and after getting my heart rate up, resetting the blown-in bootpack that is visible but hard to follow, I get to the rocks and head straight up the shoulder. Once there is enough snow most people head around the corner to walk up the snow, but we like to take the climb straight up the rocks that stay bare all year. It’s totally unnecessary, but fun to take some big easy steps and get up above your friends as you climb.
Today there is no one to look down on, but between the bootpacking up to the rocks and the climb the rocks my mind begins to shift from being bummed about stuff I can’t control, to a focus on the task at hand and thoughts of the line ahead of me; that at 4pm with the ski patrol most likely on their way down and no one else in the alpine, I will need to be supremely confident in.
The walk to the top of Pucker is quick, not much more than fifteen or twenty minutes, but at 10,000 feet with the wind whipping up the frozen screed ridge of the west side of Cody, its still a bit of a hike. Plodding along holding my hood over my face, my mind drifts back to my sadness, but now in the mountains, the awesome power they command in my life begins to create a clarity and peace that at moments like these is so desperately needed, each breath and step keeping the focus on all that is around me that I have to be thankful for.
On the top the view down is a familiar one, but with fresh snow on the exposed flank of a face with no safe zones, no one around for miles and my phone, my only hope of calling for help dying just as I’m ready to drop, any sad thoughts vanish into the background as my focus shifts to riding the face as fast and aggressively as I can.
Rolling over the edge there is no sadness, no anxiety, no fear, or thoughts of the past or future, there are no thoughts of feeling sorry for myself, no concerns of any kind; and for about 10 seconds and 5 incredible turns I am completely happy, free from all that ales me, in a world where life is fleeting and a moment like this can hold its effects long after the immediate endorphins wear off.
Once again there is defining silence in the mountains, and my mind, as I begin to strip layers and get my gear on my back ready for the hike over Powder 8 face and the long traverse around to No Name. The momentary lack of peril and exertion gives me time again to think about what’s bothering me, and while the sadness floods back in, alone in the bowl looking back at my run in the evening light, things start to seem more manageable and for the first time in weeks, I begin to really process.
The snow and wind has all but wiped clean the tracks left by the days skiers, so step by step I punch a new track across the bowl and with each stride my thoughts wander from the raw despair I feel, to simple hope; hope that there is peace of mind here to be found and little by little it will come back to me. Arriving at Powder 8 Face the boot pack, while barely visible, is all blown-in. Trying to follow it, stepping sometimes right into the old steps, but mostly sliding off the edges, struggling to stay on it quickly becomes frustrating, causing me to slip backwards emotionally with every missed step. After taking a breath looking back at Pucker once more and thinking of what lies ahead, a few steps to the side and there’s nothing but fresh snow for me to begin a new, setting a fresh trail for myself up the face, with each shin deep step acting as a metaphor for my life and the new path that was forced upon me.
As I crest the top and No Name comes into view, the final steps up the ridge in the failing light of the evening, bring it all into clear and vivid thought, as my sadness is felt as much as it has been since my world seemed to fall apart. With my heart as heavy as I can imagine, those last steps to where I drop my pack are as hard emotionally as any physically that I have ever taken in the mountains, and sitting down I wonder this time, if the mountains will save me as they have done in the past when all seemed bleak.
Looking out to the setting sun doing its best to break through the still clearing clouds, the light catches the blowing snow and my soul, warming them, calming my thought’s once more, allowing me to focus on the reality that there is only so much we can control in this life and that when things seem their darkest there is always light at the end of the tunnel that only appears when we allow ourselves to believe it will exist. While the light at the end of my tunnel still seemed too far off in the distance to glimpse, each moment of back and forth from sadness to hope provides the time to really process and grieve, something that I clearly had not done in years.
The wind swirls around the ridge sticking the cold wet snow to my face and while minute by minute the sun sets leaving me closer and closer to being in a bad spot in the dark, nothing seems more important that taking the time to think about what I am really sad about and how I’m going to move forward. I sit on the Powder 8 ridge for 30 minutes or more, my face going numb to the sticking snow and finally with the sun almost obscured completely by Cody and No Name Peak I decide that at this point I need to get going before my troubles become the least of my worries.
Once again the traverse is there but blown-in and it takes me quite some time to make it around the corner to my next reprieve. In the saddle the light coming from the west gives off its last pink rays to warm my heart once more, lighting up the rhymed up summit of No Name, once again causing me to sit in the cold blowing snow and thank god for my blessings while at the same time trying to come to grips with my reality.
Once again my concerns about riding a alpine line with fresh snow and no one coming to my rescue takes over my moment of peace and clarity and I scurry up the last bit of scree and up the face to the top of No Name Face. No Name is a big wide open run with some small chutes on the skiers right side that you can exit through to make it into something more than a pow run. At the top I get one last look at Cody, the alpenglow in full effect behind me, and towards the valley the Sleeping Indian catches the very last light of the day.
Skiing no name is just fun and even with the consequences of my late solo alpine adventure, I feel right at home dropping into the right side, still untracked, and ripping turns out the furthest right chute. By the time I do one last traverse and reset one more boot-pack to the top of Pinedale it’s basically dark and with one last look up to the alpine, I thank the gods I had been cursing earlier that day for allowing me to find the clarity I had been looking for in such an incredible place.
The dark run out Pinedale continues to be a little reckless as is needed in these times, as I hit all the cliffs and terrain we usually do in the daylight and by the time I make it into thick trees of the exit track towards the resort, even riding with no goggles becomes challenging, but in the end I make it down safely and in a better place that I was when I started.
The mountains while not an actual cure for sorrow, are certainly the place for me to understand, find clarity, peace, inspiration, excitement and so much more that I can’t quantify. Since I have come to live in Jackson, the Tetons and the many mountain ranges of the area have always been my refuge in times of need. And in this most needed time, a 3:30 tram and a long journey alone into the alpine and my troubled mind has provided refuge from my sorrow in the form of a view of a path forward. And while even days later, as I finish getting it out onto paper, my sadness still plagues me, I know with each day in the mountains it will become a little more manageable.