Sunday, January 3, 2010

Idaho- the "gem state"

Morning post christmas: 

My alarm calls out into the darkness.

 "Your joking..... please be joking," I think.  

It continues to sing and sing and sing. I attempt to assuage the ringing in my ears by stuffing my head into the pillows. Its 7 am already. I have no option but to face the questionable choices I made the previous evening. The first being my choice of whiskey over water. The second being my prudent decision to leave packing to this morn. I let out a sigh. Typical. Eventually the allure of the mountains seduces me out of bed.

Everyone is there waiting when we arrive- family and friends. I roll out of the vehicle dressed like the michelin man. It is -8 outside and we have a long ride ahead of us in the cold. I feel absolutely foul. As I exhale toxins into the air, I imagine my breath curling toenails. Yikes. I decide to keep my distance from the others while we load the snow cat.  

With the rig loaded, we all saddle up and head out. Our destination is a yurt on the Lick Creek summit, just about 25 miles east of McCall, ID. The yurt resides in the western Salmon River Mnts. at the edge of the Frank Church Wilderness Area. If you have never ventured into the Frank Church, it is well worth the visit. Not only is it the largest but also one of the more stunning wilderness areas in the lower 48. Idaho is known as the "gem state". I believe it is because of this region. 

The ride is nothing less than magical, with the trees, rocks, and snow all glimmering in the frigid morning light. A layer of crystal varnish coats everything.  As a child, this was how I envisioned Narnia, only thank god the bizarre woodland creatures are absent.  We continue to slowly climb into the backcountry. The landscape starts to unfold. The valley begins to broaden as peaks ascend to the heavens.  My heart flutters. All this in my backyard.

When we reach the summit, after about a 2 hr. cat ride, I am stiff from the cold. Yet, the promise of adventure gets me moving.  Although I have done some skiing in the Idaho backcountry, I have never had an opportunity like this: 4 days, 3 nights, unlimited skiing. 

After lugging our gear up to the yurt and situating our digs for the next few nights, we head out. My brother sets the skin. I trail somewhere in the back of the group, still burping last night's festivities. We skin toward the ridge through groves of burnt trees. In the past decade or so, this area has been riddled with fires. Now, charred skeletons remain- their  dark, dramatic figures emphasized by the brilliantly white snow. As I skin, I listen to the snow tumble through their rigid branches. I am reminded of a rain stick I had as a kid. The snow is light and fast, ideal for this rolling terrain. I reach the top of the ridge, feeling better than when I began. The view is striking.  Layers upon layers of ridges, peaks and valleys stack behind one another. Out here the possibilities are unlimited. 

The descent is well worth the haul. The graveyard of trees makes for ideal tree skiing, with perfect spacing and visibility. The snow also skis supreme, as the boot top fluff allows for fast dynamic turns amongst the stark skeletons. 

With this heavenly blanket of snow, logs, boulders and rollers  become wonderful terrain features to incorporate into my descending dance. I reach the bottom all too quickly. My heart thumps with exhilaration. With a long exhale I throw my pack to the ground and start riffling through it for my skins. It's like desperately searching for the tourniquet, eager for another fix.

For the next several days we made laps upon laps in the backcountry surrounding the yurt. The skiing and the scenery were absolutely idyllic. For the most part we skied low angle lines, choosing a higher quantity of runs over large single objectives. Luckily the snowpack remained stable and most areas were ours for the taking. 

The last evening proved to be the most eventful. Following a hot brew of chili and a few swigs of Gentleman's Jack, my brother proposed a stellar idea: a moonlight ski. No one contested. Instead we quickly began to compile our gear. We decided to climb to the neighboring ridge and ski the glades back to the yurt. The skin up was a little sloppy, with everyone fatigued from a long day of skiing. Yet, the chili and drink warmed our bellies and juiced our systems. We plugged away up the hill, stopping occasionally to appreciate the light show above.  Upon reaching the ridge I fell back in elation. The night was crisp and clear. I lay there for a few moments, listening to my heart thumping in my ears. It was all so refreshing.

The ski down was just as loose as the skin up.  Yet, I went with the flow, steering from the rear. As I raced through long, spindly shadows I could hear only the hoots and hollers from the others. The snow was fast and forgiving, the moonlight ample. It was a ride like no other. 

We returned to the yurt hopped up on endorphins. My cheeks ached from the persistent smile that stretched across my face. 

"That was ridiculous!," I spouted. The others concurred. 

The following day we packed out our gear and endured the chilly ride back to McCall, all the way coveting the lines we might ski next time.

A special thanks to family and friends for an absolutely fabulous trip. And also a big thanks to Mammut for all their support.

Happy New Year!

Erica Laidlaw