The late winter of 2009 saw a most remarkable, although not uncommon phenomena occur in the Wasatch Mountains. That is, a complete and utter downpour of fantastically light, fluffy, creamy, and otherwise incredible powder. Snow totals jumped 15% in a matter of days. And what followed was a veritable feeding frenzy of backcountry exploration and discovery.
I had never skied an out of bounds slope before. Never managed any wild snow. It was all new to me. That first morning started early, as dawn patrols are known to do. I nervously pulled into the park and ride at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, surprised at how many people were there at 5 in the morning. I tried to act as if I knew what I was doing, that I belonged, that it was not my first day in the wilds of the backcountry. I joined Doug, Mark, and Rob, savvy veterans of deep powder and avalanche management, and followed them into Silver Fork.
That morning the snow was still quietly falling. The only noise in the canyon was our own meaningless chatter, separated by the thud of our skis clanking in the predawn light as we broke trail through the fresh snow. The mountains in winter are ethereally and wonderfully quiet. It would seem that the lone voice singing in that frozen cathedral is that of the wind – sad, mournful, angry, and blustering, it tells its tale nearly constantly. It moves over ridge lines sculpting perfect and deadly cornices, weaving through pine forests and echoing off the massive granite walls in a haunting, howling, bitter song.
We worked our way through the aspen trees and the powder. As the sun rose, so did we. Up through the forest and eventually onto the hogs back ridge that divides the Silver and Days Forks, both long canyons that terminate into massive headwalls and make up two of the most prominent and popular touring areas in the entirety of the Wasatch.
At the top of one of the aptly named Meadow Chutes we ripped our climbing skins and prepared to drop into the kind of chest deep snow that made Utah famous. It was then that I realized with a minor streak of terror that I had never skied powder so deep, so light, and so wild. I watched as Doug and Rob disappeared over the apex of the meadow and vanished out of site. The only evidence of their existence, the soft tracks, left for others to envy.
Skiing the backcountry has a unique and magnificent quality that is altogether impossible to imitate inside controlled resort boundaries. And that quality is most manifest in those swoopy, squiggly doodles that fill an otherwise blank canvas after each and every snow storm. First tracks. Second tracks. Third, fourth, and so on and on. Like an artist leaving his unique style and signature on a painting, these tracks state unequivocally and uniquely and in dramatic boldface that “I was here”. “I made these.” Those who follow can only look on in an envious and imitating wonder, perhaps regretting sleeping in a little later, or not hiking a little faster.
It was my turn to ski. I pointed the tips of my new Black Diamond Verdicts downward, held my breath and quietly hoped I would not embarrass myself in a heap of tumbled and tangled equipment, clothing, and unmanageably deep snow. I followed in the general vicinity of those tracks already laid in front of me, however I was not so petrified that I did not have the sense to seek fresh, untrodden ground. The snow billowed over the tips of my skis and into my face, filling my mouth and beard with a fine, wet, thirst quenching blast of pure, immaculate, wonderful and amazing Utah snow.
I felt a rush of joy course through my body, originating deep within my soul and exploding in an unmitigated, entirely shocking and unexpected ecstasy. Now I knew. And that knowledge, the veracity and the pointed brilliance of it, have stayed with me from that day forward. Even after repeated imitations, and countless other powder days, I still feel and remember in vivid detail that moment of fear and jubilation and exultation.
There will never be first tracks, quite like those first tracks.