Backstory: Dead Dog’s Tidings

The morning sun is a welcome presence, its first few rays shooting at me over the ridge to the east. I huddle against the mountain, trying to maximize my surface area for sunlight while somehow minimizing my exposure to the wind. The howling wind dies down for a moment and I revel in the sweet, sustaining crepuscular light. A spasmodic shiver runs up my spine and I wonder what force of nature had lured my zombie-like body from my warm, comfortable bed this morning. What am I doing out here? Am I here to experience the simple joy of sunlight on skin? My numb face and fingertips convince me that there must be some other reason.

Welcoming the morning sun. [Photo] Tyler Cohen

It’s cold. The wind is back and I’m moving on—slowly, methodically. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro. I count each deliberate step in Spanish thinking that somehow I’m killing two birds with one stone, as if I need to be polishing my language skills out here. Why the hell am I multitasking? What am I doing here? I think to myself again, my mind slowly drifting, losing focus.

From the moment I first saw Dead Dog Couloir while hiking in the fall of 2008, I had been obsessed by the idea of climbing and skiing its aesthetic line. Fifteen hundred vertical feet from top to bottom, Dead Dog tops out dramatically just below the summit of Torreys Peak in Colorado’s Front Range. I had watched every online video and read every trip report regarding Dead Dog climbs and ski descents. Each winter came with the expectation that by season’s end, I would visit the couloir, learn its secrets, and, in the words of John Muir, enjoy its “good tidings.” Yet poor snow conditions, unpredictable weather, and unexpected life events thwarted my plans, forcing me to postpone them for another year.

At the time, I was a disillusioned medical student doubting whether I had chosen the right path in life. During those difficult times, I sought refuge in the mountains. Whether it was backpacking with my wife, backcountry skiing with our dog, or climbing a remote peak, those experiences in nature left me rejuvenated. Our journeys through the wilderness represent something almost sacrosanct. For some, it is about immersing oneself in the solitude and tranquility of nature. To others, it is a chance to leave those pesky “lowland” cares behind. And for others still, it is about being a few thousand vertical feet closer to God, if He does inhabit that deep blue Colorado sky.

My motivation to visit Dead Dog that morning was probably influenced by all of those reasons, but it was also much smaller in scope. I wanted an ample helping of fresh spring corn. Still, I felt that Dead Dog would somehow be my way of declaring to the universe that I was not of inconsequential significance. Perhaps it would somehow be a redemptive experience after my many disappointments of medical school.

 

The slope steepens. I look down, thousands of feet below to the apron that fans out at the base of the couloir. The giant rocks and debris that have tumbled down the escarpment look like specks of dirt on the snow; the wide runnel in the middle is a thin, squiggly line. My heart beats faster, perhaps out of fear, or maybe just exhaustion. I go on.

Two hours after beginning my ascent, I take my last steps on the steepest section of snow where the incline increases to an uncomfortable 45 degrees. I don’t look down now, for fear of losing my tenuous grip on the thawing snow. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro. A couple of hair-raising seconds, deliberate steps, a silent prayer and then I’m up onto the mountain’s shoulder, just shy of the summit.

I’m all smiles as I lay on the snow looking up into the endless blue abyss of the earth’s troposphere. In every direction I am surrounded by snow-capped peaks and deep mountain valleys carpeted with lodgepole pine. For a few moments I experience an inner peace. I can’t tell whether this is some form of Zen liberation, communication with the Divine, or simply a transient dopaminergic surge in the nucleus accumbens. At this moment, I am convinced it is all of these.

The wind has died down, and the mountain is quiet and serene. After several hours of direct sunlight, the top layer of snow has softened. It is time to feast on some spring corn. A few jump turns and I’m home free, looking down onto the apron and painting my line with broad, slushy strokes. Catching my breath at the bottom, I look up at my tracks. They will be gone in a few days, but on this fine morning, I have staked my claim on Dead Dog Couloir.

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