What AT Means to Me

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I peel apart the skins, sticky on one side and carpet on the other. They’re cut to the shape of my alpine skis, and I clip them on, making sure they’re facing the right way. It was a long hike the day I put them on backwards…

It’s 6:30 in the morning, and dark. Dawn patrol. Today, I’m not looking for untouched stashes of powder. The snow is marginal, at best. I’m looking to avoid crowds, like I’ve been doing every day for nearly a year. Though the early morning solo-time suits me, the fear is getting tiresome. I’m an introvert, yes, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy fearing for my life if another person breathes on me.

I’ve got my skins on the right way so the carpet-like material allows my skis to slide forward but not back. The skis flop down into the snow at my feet and I kick the packed powder off my boots before clipping into the bindings. I’m dressed for exertion; walking up a mountain on alpine skis is hard work.

It’s a simple enough system. Clever, really, the way the removable skins stick the skis to the snow, the way the binding releases my heel like a nordic binding, but can clip it back in like an alpine binding when I’m ready to descend. This is alpine touring, AT skiing, and every time I do it I feel I’m connected to every other AT ski I’ve ever enjoyed.

That may be because I don’t go alpine touring very often. It’s easier to remember all significant (and some insignificant) excursions. I also have the sense that AT skiing is representative of major turning points in my past several years. Let me show you what I mean.

It starts in 2014, when, somehow, it was brought to my attention that people hike up mountains on their alpine skis to enjoy terrain not accessed by chairlifts.

Despite my deep immersion in the world or cross country skiing, (or perhaps because of it,) I knew very little about other types of skiing. So little that I didn’t even know how to begin a Google search for what I was looking for. It didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t hike on my alpine skis because my heels couldn’t move. Maybe this was just a thing for telemark skiers…free the heel, free the mind, and all that jazz.

But in 2015, I got to join a group of friends for an AT excursion, even though I didn’t have the gear. They assured me I could hike and carry my alpine skis (I did, and it was a lot of work) and that we were not going to need avalanche gear. I got to see up close what I’d seen only in pictures, and learn the name for what I was looking for: Alpine Touring.

With my college graduation approaching and the presumed continuance of my cross country ski career, I itched to expand my outdoor repertoire, to have more freedom to explore and test myself, and AT skiing wasn’t the only thing that caught my eye. I wanted a mountain bike. Being of limited funds, it was a choice between the two, and it came to represent to me a decision about my life path:

if I chose AT skis, I was prioritizing fun and freedom over my xc ski career. If I chose a mountain bike, I could probably persuade a coach to let me use it as cross training.

I chose AT skis.

Mountain skiing snow

I bought them at a second-hand shop in Salt Lake City. I had to take two buses and walk a couple miles to get them, and I was entirely and uncomfortably at the mercy of what the salesperson told me, because I still had almost no idea what I was looking for. I was working and living at Alta Ski Area, but hadn’t managed to make a single friend who could help me pick out skis. I was embarking on what would be some of the loneliest months of my life. But I knew I wanted this gear.

Following the instruction I’d received at the shop, I figured out how to use my new toys. I did so alone at night on the resort trails, something my roommate’s boyfriend assured me was merely “frowned upon.” Struggling with my crushing loneliness, my athletic identity crisis, and an eating disorder that left me constantly craving more exercise, I craved the feeling of agency and control I got from my potentially elicit night skis. Ironically, I used my new gear exclusively on groomed trails, having no freedom to traverse the backcountry, as I lacked ski partners, avalanche gear, and knowledge.

After that, an avalanche safety course was the only reasonable next step. The next winter I acquired the appropriate gear and took a course. This was the fateful day I put my skins on backwards. I struggled to keep up as my skis slipped, fighting the extraordinary effort it took to slide them forward. (When the instructor finally caught on, I reversed this.)

I left the course feeling like I’d taken a good first step, but mostly just more aware of how little I understood the backcountry. I learned that it is important not just to assess the snowpack day-of, but to keep track of the snow as it falls over the season, to understand where the weak layers are. This struck me as symbolic.

The following two winters found me in Bend, Oregon, a mecca for accessible and non-avalanche AT terrain that I could enjoy solo, (and a mecca for mountain biking…so I got myself a thoroughly hand-me-down bike.) Though I was there primarily to train for nordic skiing, I was anxious to enjoy the backcountry too, in part because I hoped it would help me connect with the landscape, and in part because I hoped it would help me make friends.

The full moon was setting as we climbed the cone, directly opposite the glowing ball of the sun as it emerged over the horizon. It seemed there was a precarious balance in the air, a distorted reflection. Alpine touring has become part of my identity, I reflected as I climbed. It’s been about freedom from the start, about experiencing landscapes, about who I am as an athlete. It’s even served as an enabler as I battled my eating disorder. I looked to my ski partner. It’s about what, or who, I love.

We stood at the top, observing moon and sun. Everything was about to change.

That ski was the start of a transformation. The following two years brought upheaval, heartbreak, illness, and loss. The aftermath required a long break.

I left Oregon. For 18 months, I didn’t ski. Not on my cross country skis, nor on my AT skis. Inside my cocoon, many things shifted. The skins hung in the closet. Until one morning, they emerged again.

In bitter cold and dark, I peel apart the skins, sticky on one side, carpet on the other. I’m alone in the predawn, looking for patches of snow deep enough to ski on… nothing special.

But I’m out here, re-emerged into a pandemic to traverse a new landscape alone, with my gear and my knowledge and my body. The lightening woods don’t make me jumpy; I’m comfortable here. I’m dressed for exertion, but in no particular hurry. Patient. Curious to see what’s out here. Glad to be healthy enough to be out here. Grateful for simple things like the energy bar in my pocket, there in case my body needs more food on the ski. Grateful for what all of this represents.

Each new time I take my AT gear out, the memories of every other time are layered, present, and poignant. Like the layers of snowpack, they would be difficult to decipher if I hadn’t been keeping track, paying attention as I moved through each life-shaping event.

But I have been paying attention.

And now, I have a question for you. Is there something you have an inkling you’d like to try, but, like how I first regarded Alpine Touring, you don’t know what the very first step might be? Let me know in the comments or by contacting me, because I want to talk about it. Together, let’s dive into these mysterious pulls: where they come from, how we respond, and where they might take us.

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